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A marvelous touch for romance

Times Staff Writer

Who knows Frank Borzage?

He made so many films that they resist an accurate count, somewhere around 100 in a career that lasted from 1915 to 1959. Once, his pictures were among the most popular ever produced, with his name in gigantic letters above the title. He won two best director Oscars, one of the few who did so for both silent and sound films.

Now, Borzage and his films have become as forgotten as Nineveh and Tyre. Although shelves groan with multiple titles from Ford, Hitchcock and Welles, the best English-language treatment of his work remains a small bilingual film journal published in Italy more than a decade ago. Comprehensive screenings are so rare that “Love Affair: Frank Borzage and His Influence,” the UCLA Film and Television Archive series beginning Saturday, has to be considered something of a miracle.

This descent into oblivion is even more remarkable because Borzage was not a specialist in some obscure genre. He was, audiences, fellow filmmakers, even critics agreed, the Rajah of Romance, Hollywood’s deftest hand with a love story. “He had the most marvelous touch,” is how Ernest Palmer, one of his cinematographers, put it. “Especially when you’d get a boy and girl together.”

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The results, wrote critic Andrew Sarris, were “privileged moments of extraordinary intimacy and vulnerability.” “No director,” thundered the distinguished French critic Georges Sadoul, “has shown better than he the intimate warmth of human love in a profoundly united couple.” His was a style that foreign directors emulated, as witness the French “Jules and Jim,” the Indian “Pyaasa,” the Chinese “Street Angel” and the marvelous Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger “I Know Where I’m Going!” -- all part of the UCLA series.

So why is Borzage the man nobody knows? The answer begins with the fact that the intensity of feeling that Borzage was known for is so out of favor that it might best be described today as Xtreme Emotion, romance with all the stops pulled out.

Borzage believed in love as a transcendent, transformative experience, a wrings-you-out sensation so strong it laughs at reality, an emotion so powerful it can -- if necessary -- overcome death. His strength was in showing us moments that go too far and making us cherish him for it. If you like to cry at movies, Borzage will make it happen. If you don’t believe in Really Big Love, you probably shouldn’t even be in the room.

Yet what is singular about Borzage, what no modern director has been able to duplicate, is the way he combined that characteristic with an almost contradictory quality: the unadorned and overpowering directness he brought to his melodramatic vision. Borzage’s scenarios might have been excessive, but the episodes within them were conveyed with unusual naturalness and restraint.

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Using an innate, almost steely delicacy, Borzage enabled actors who’d never done it before to open themselves up, to speak from the heart, to be emotional in ways they never knew they had in them. “One can only stare with admiration,” summed up Herve Dumont, the reigning Borzage scholar, about the director’s classic “7th Heaven,” “at the skill with which the director turns this kitsch and improbable tear-jerker into an inspired diadem of purity.”

Feats of the silent era

Unfortunately for Borzage’s modern reputation, his best, most completely realized work was done in the silent era, a time that truly appreciated emotion and, with its absence of spoken dialogue and reliance on music, knew how to put viewers into the kind of dream state that made them especially receptive to it.

UCLA is showing four of Borzage’s silents with either a musical soundtrack or live accompaniment, starting chronologically with 1920’s “Humoresque,” the director’s first hit. The story of a Jewish violinist striving for love and success (remade with John Garfield and Joan Crawford in 1946) was notable for the intensity of its Lower East Side milieu and for being named the best picture of the year by the then-powerful Photoplay Magazine.

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The aforementioned “7th Heaven” was Borzage’s great success, earning him the first best director Oscar ever awarded as well as statuettes for the screenplay and for 5-foot-tall actress Janet Gaynor, who was catapulted to stardom along with her 6-foot-2 costar, Charles Farrell.

Starting with the unlikely idea of a Parisian sewer worker as a romantic hero, “7th Heaven” capitalized on Gaynor’s warmth and presence and Farrell’s rough and ready masculinity to create a fantasy romance that managed to include realistic World War I trench warfare sequences and a beyond-words ending that might be the most transcendent of Borzage’s career.

Taking advantage of the success of the Gaynor-Farrell pairing, Borzage re-teamed them in 1928’s “Street Angel” as a poor Neapolitan girl and the itinerant artist who paints her as the Madonna of his dreams. Although the film’s stereotypical notions of gender can be a bit much, “Street Angel” lives up to the famous intertitle that starts the film and sums up Borzage’s lifetime interest in “human souls made great through love and adversity.”

The rarest film in the series is 1928’s “The River,” a long-lost piece of lyrical romanticism rediscovered in the 20th Century Fox vaults and painstakingly pieced together by the Cinematheque Suisse with the help of stills and intertitles. It matches Farrell as a nature boy untouched by women with a dark, mysterious femme du monde (Mary Duncan filling in for Gaynor, who asked for more money than Fox wanted to pay). “I want to be lonesome,” she insists. “I’m sick of men, I never want to see one again.”

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“Man’s Castle” -- an early (1933) starring role for Spencer Tracy, a Borzage pal and look-alike, as a smug, uncomfortably chauvinistic hobo smitten by Loretta Young -- is sometimes thought of as Borzage’s best early sound film, but the surprise of the series is 1931’s similarly themed and rarely seen “Bad Girl,” a pre-Code talkie that won the director his second Oscar and was nominated for best picture.

Starring a little-known James Dunn and Sally Eilers, “Bad Girl” has the true-to-life feeling that Borzage, who grew up poor in Salt Lake City as one of 14 children of Italian immigrants, always valued in his work. An unlikely romance between a man too grouchy too flirt and a woman who’s down on men, “Bad Girl” has a surprisingly modern sensibility, a tang of reality that refreshes its seriocomic examination of the problems of being in love.

Interpreting Hemingway

The crown jewel of the UCLA series is its opening-night film, a newly preserved and restored print of Borzage’s 1932 version of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” Originally released in two versions to cater to those addicted to happy endings -- a decision that infuriated the author -- “Farewell” now has a finale that mirrors the book as well as about 12 minutes that were removed by censors and for other reasons.

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The film, nominated for best picture, and a winner for its cinematography and sound, has the advantage, courtesy of Hemingway, of a coherent plot. It stars an impeccable Helen Hayes as an English battlefield nurse and Gary Cooper, looking as genuinely bereft and heartsick as he ever would on screen, as an American ambulance driver in World War I. Hankies are recommended.

One of the unexpected things about Borzage is that he was extremely prescient about the threat of Nazism, directing a trio of films set in the Weimar Republic, two of which, “Three Comrades” and “The Mortal Storm,” are part of the series. Both star Margaret Sullavan, the woman who was the director’s muse in the sound era, as Gaynor was in the silent, a performer whose freshness, warmth and intelligent emotional directness were perfectly suited to his sensibility.

“Three Comrades,” a sensitive ode to the friendship between a trio of World War I veterans and the consumptive, impoverished aristocrat played by Sullavan, is most remembered today for giving F. Scott Fitzgerald his only (albeit shared) screen credit. It was in reference to this film that he wrote his famous letter to Joseph L. Mankiewicz, asking: “Oh Joe, can’t producers ever be wrong? I’m a good writer, honest. I thought you were going to play fair.”

“The Mortal Storm,” released in 1940, a year before the U.S. entry into World War II, was so forthrightly anti-Nazi in its story of a family destroyed by the party that it’s said to be one of the features that caused Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels to ban all American films in Germany. It co-stars Sullavan and James Stewart and features Robert Young, of all people, as a fire-breathing Nazi stalwart.

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The UCLA series is also a great opportunity to see 1945’s “I Know Where I’m Going!,” co-directed by the great British team of Powell and Pressburger, so filled with Borzagean full-bore romanticism that novelist Nora Sayre has written that she was almost deprived of her allowance when she was 12 because she went to the film week after week.

Borzage himself spent much of the sound era as a journeyman, directing such unrelated projects as the witty Ernst Lubitsch-produced “Desire,” the neo-noir “Moonrise,” even the glossily romantic “History Is Made at Night,” in which he paired the down-to-earth Jean Arthur with Charles Boyer and made her look as mysterious and romantic as Garbo.

No matter the theme, fans of Borzage’s work have learned to wait for the inevitable Borzage moments that all his films, however various, inevitably have, those deeply emotional sequences when love at flood tide sweeps us and everything else out of the way. Those moments may not make a lot of sense, but if you appreciate Borzage, you’re aware that, in the movies as well as in life, sense doesn’t always take you where you want to go.

Kenneth Turan is a Times movie critic.

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‘Love Affair’

Where: UCLA’s Melnitz Hall, near Sunset Boulevard and Hilgard Avenue, Westwood.

Tickets: $5-$7. (310) 206-FILM

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The schedule:

Saturday: “A Farewell to Arms,” 7:30 p.m.

Sunday: “Man’s Castle,” “Bad Girl,” 7 p.m.

Nov. 7: “7th Heaven,” “Jules and Jim,” 7:30 p.m.

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Nov. 8: “History Is Made at Night,” “Desire,” 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 9: “Mortal Storm,” “Three Comrades,” 2 p.m.

Nov. 16: “I’ve Always Loved You,” “I Know Where I’m Going,” 2 p.m.

Nov. 21: “The River,” “Moonrise,” 7:30 p.m.

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Nov. 23: “Street Angel,” U.S. and Chinese, 7 p.m.

Nov. 29: “Humoresque,” “Pyaasa,” 7:30 p.m.


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