Classic Hollywood: Director Frank Borzage’s ‘transcendent view of love’ fuels UCLA film series


Director Frank Borzage was in love with love. And by love here we mean the unabashed, heart-on-your-sleeve, grand passion variety.

In a career that spanned more than four decades, Borzage directed some of the most romantically idealized films ever made, including 1927’s “7th Heaven” with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, 1932’s “A Farewell to Arms” starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, and 1932’s “After Tomorrow” with Farrell and Marian Nixon.

So get out your hankies.

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The UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Hugh M. Hefner Classic American Film Program are presenting a retrospective of the director’s work — “7th Heaven: The Films of Frank Borzage,” which opens July 10 at the Billy Wilder Theater and continues through Sept. 20.

“Borzage was one of the great romantics,” Janet Bergstrom, a professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, said via email.

The director, she noted, “conveyed a transcendent view of love; it is ethereal, unearthly, yet unites flesh-and-blood-people. The rest of the world disappears when the lovers find or re-find each other. In his best political films, like the great World War II anti-Nazi drama ‘Three Comrades,’ the lovers’ transcendence is inseparable from the larger fight against adversity.”

Archive programmer Paul Malcolm said Borzage’s visual style was in sync with his romantic vision, noting that “the lightness of his camera, the soft focus and the lighting that he used to frame the compositions creates an ethereal vision that really jibes with what his films are about.”

Borzage, who was born in 1894 and died in 1962, was an actor before he made his directorial debut a century ago with “The Pitch O’Chance,” which the archive is screening Sept. 13.

“Even in the beginning, he knew how to make cinematic an inner dreamy life of his characters, regardless of the type of film,” noted Bergstrom.


He won the first director Oscar, for “7th Heaven,” a haunting silent drama, which opens the retrospective, about the romance between a Parisian street cleaner and a waif, and earned a second directing Academy Award for 1931’s “Bad Girl” (July 25), starring James Dunn and Sally Eilers in a Depression-era tale about a young couple who fall in love, marry and then must deal with the daily struggles of tenement life in New York City.

Perhaps because of his background, Borzage had a special touch with actors. Besides directing Gaynor in two of the three films for which she earned her lead actress Oscar, “7th Heaven” and 1928’s “Street Angel” (July 17), Borzage was a champion of a young Spencer Tracy, casting him in 1932’s “Young America” and the exquisite 1933 Depression-era romance “Man’s Castle,” with Loretta Young. Both screen Aug. 7.

Borzage found his perfect delicate muse in Margaret Sullavan, who starred in Borzage’s “Weimar Trilogy” dramas set in post-World War I Germany, 1934’s “Little Man, What Now? (Aug. 29), 1938’s “Three Comrades” (for which she earned a lead actress Oscar nomination) and 1940’s “The Mortal Storm” (Sept. 12)

Of the 105 films he made during his career, only half exist. UCLA’s festival showcases 10 of his pictures that the archive has preserved, including “A Farewell to Arms” (July 10), 1930’s “Liliom” (July 17), 1933’s “Secrets” (July 26), which was Mary Pickford’s final feature, and 1937’s “History Is Made at Night” (Sept. 9), starring Jean Arthur and Charles Boyer.

Film preservationist Bob Gitt first fell under Borzage’s spell while at the American Film Institute in Washington, D.C., and brought that with him to UCLA’s archive.

“I loved ‘7th Heaven,’ ‘Man’s Castle’ and ‘History Is Made at Night,’” he said. “When I started my career in film restoration at UCLA in 1977, I was very excited and pleased to find the archive’s collection already contained 35mm nitrate prints and even some original nitrate camera negatives for quite a large number of Borzage films. As funding gradually become available, I made it a priority for the archive to preserve Borzage. “


Malcolm said Borzage was a “very special voice in American cinema” and added that had not UCLA and other film archives worked to preserve his movies, “a very distinctive voice would have been muted.”


‘7th Heaven: The Films of Frank Borzage’

Who: UCLA Film & Television Archive

Where: Billy Wilder Theater, Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: July 10 through Sept. 20

Admission: $8 to $10