A Spectacular But Vulnerable Love

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The New York Sun

There’s no shortage of symbolic imagery in the snow-globe intimacy of Frank Borzage’s romanticism, but his 1937 film “History Is Made at Night” takes the cake. A woman fleeing a vindictive husband vows to her French lover, “It’s our tomorrow, and we won’t let anyone take it from us!” They promptly board a cruise liner that crashes into an iceberg, but the power of love prevails: the bulkheads hold! And tomorrow is theirs.

Mr. Borzage’s work isn’t always so spectacular, but there’s good reason he is best known for making us believe as his characters do. Indeed, they must believe, because love in Borzage’s melodramas is not indestructible. It is salvation but vulnerable, to be nurtured with what can only be described as faith. (And given the contemporary upheaval of war and depression he let into his films, most prolific from the ’20s through ’40s, maybe it wasn’t so melodramatic after all.)

Getting to see a Borzage movie has also been something of an act of faith (especially his evanescent early work) until now. Starting today, the Museum of the Moving Image rolls out a 24-film retrospective, spanning fascinating early works like the Lower East Sideset “Humoresque” (July 22) and “Bad Girl” (August 12), his sublime romantic trilogy (“Street Angel,” “7th Heaven,” “Lucky Star”), through work with Gary Cooper (“A Farewell to Arms”), Marlene Dietrich (“Desire”), and, best of all, Margaret Sullivan (“Mortal Storm” and more).

The flagship of the series is a restored print of the 1929 silent “Lucky Star” (July 15) and rightfully so. The transformative love between Tim, a saintly war cripple (Charles Farrell), and Mary, a destitute girl (Janet Gaynor), outshines its weepie premise to be touching and, in its wholesome way, erotic. The teen’s new self-recognition and her wheelchair-bound suitor’s inadequacy tap strains of fear and desire belied by their cutesy courtship.

The title comes to life in the smudged idyllic of the opening, a down-home vision of Mary’s ramshackle house glowing by a single orb of light in the window. In her visits to Tim’s roadside cabin, the two forge a new domesticity, a soft-focus home of mutual kindnesses away from her shrewish mother (who won’t have her marrying a cripple). Roads winding to the horizon in long shots suggest the promise of their future, even if they emerge from indistinct foreground sludge.

Mr. Borzage, himself an actor in Westerns before directing, found a perfect canvas in Ms. Gaynor’s sincere fervor. She even had a heart-shaped face (and, pint-sized, fits her role’s age). When we first see her she’s a milkmaid sneakily short-changing a loutish foreman, but then watching her cautiously but playfully embrace the possibility of Tim is like watching the sun rise. It’s enough to make the lame walk, which he eventually does (it is a melodrama, after all, and there’s a dash of romance as religion to her name).

“Seventh Heaven” and “Street Angel” (both July 29) share the devotion of “Lucky Star” and even similar rags-to-riches-of-the-heart plots, as well as the Gaynor/Farrell duo (the former ever a waif). But together, the films are the best of their kind, and it’s their unblinking lyricism that marks the highlights among Borzage’s 100-plus films, not uniformly masterpieces at all, ranging as they do across multiple studios and even including a run of musicals.

Across that oeuvre you can get the sense of Mr. Borzage’s search amid the tinsel and noise for the one true moment, and one of his last works, 1948’s “Moonrise” (July 15 & 16) finds it. A kind of noir in the sticks, this tragedy sees Dane Clark commit the same murderous crime that condemned his father. At one point, the fallen rapture of an empty mansion provides refuge for him and a companion. It’s an enduring image, both of the heart as hearth and of a director whose work sits waiting to be rediscovered.

Until August 20 (35th Avenue at 36th Street, Astoria, 718-784-0077).

The New York Sun

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