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Monday, March 13, 2023

Two More Silents Salvaged

 


A Frank Borzage Double, and Both are Good


Characters in Frank Borzage pictures have a way of turning into real people, a gift with this director. Two of his silent features, obscure or absent till now, newly out on DVD, are the expected revelations. Back Pay and The Valley of Silent Men, both 1922, were programmers of their day, modest enough for Borzage to let better instinct that was his guide outcome. I’m beginning to think the best silents will turn out to be ones we haven’t found yet. If stuff this good still sits amidst archive shelving, there clearly is much to look forward to. Thing lately changed, and much for the better, is access to so far buried bounty. Fans so motivated can acquire and release newborn classics without begging studios dumb to what they own, yet still unwilling to share. Crowd-funding, which means those willing to step to the fore, make it possible to own titles largely lost till now, recent examples noted at Greenbriar the Billy Bevan collection, When Knighthood Was In Flower, Valley of the Giants, many more presently or to come. The whole of a silent era is soon to enter public domain, most of it already has. Donor restrictions make best elements unavailable on some titles --- is there is a modern Solomon who could resolve this? Meantime there is much at accommodating Library of Congress to serve desire of collectors --- they are where these Borzages came from, project initiated by Andrew Simpson, composer, performer, and conductor with a specialty in silent film music. Simpson adds benefactor of long unseen gems to his resume, the Borzages prepared in partnership with Undercrank Productions, a label well known for prior quality releases on DVD and Blu-Ray.




Back Pay
has familiar melodrama device of a small town woman suffocating midst quaint customs and folk she feels no common bond with. A sympathetic swain is small comfort, his ambition mere (to her) $100 a month he hopes to earn as clerk for dry goods. Borzage maybe sees her point, though a picnic he stages that the couple attends is so lovely as to bespeak paradise rural life could be and often was before city-country lines got blurred. Seena Owen is restless “Hester Bevins.” I knew Owen if at all from stills in the Griffith-Mayer book where she chased Gloria Swanson with a bullwhip in Queen Kelly, so clearly there is much to learn yet of silent players and what they're up to in features too long missing. Hester moves to New York and becomes kept asset of Wall Street magnate Wheeler (J. Barney Sherry), a character refreshing for at all times being reasonable and to my mind a better bargain than any rube back home whatever respectable intentions he’d bring to bare tables. Hester sacrifices comfort to do a series of right things that Borzage makes palatable for sensitive handling of what could be cliche in lesser hands. Fannie Hurst wrote Back Pay story, Frances Marion the scenario. Both had careers finding interest in lives of women put to moral questions, and things aren't changed so radically since their day that we cannot still be moved by drama sincerely dealt. I’m hearing that Back Pay has capacity still to move modern viewership; it did me thanks to sincerity applied by Hurst-Marion-Borzage, no rote villainy on anyone’s part just to clinch sympathies and wrap things up. Such lazy devices go happily missing here. Back Pay is mature filmmaking and I’m guessing there was lots more of it among programmers we don’t know for simple fact they are not out there to be seen.




Co-feature of the Borzage box is The Valley of Silent Men, based on a thick novel by James Oliver Curwood, whose work often found way to screens. Valley I’d watch again just for snowscapes done among Canadian drifts, clear hardship for Lew Cody and Alma Rubens who star, let alone Borzage and crew dragging gear up-down peaks (there’s a location still of that, too poor quality to snatch for here, but finished film gives plenty evidence of what this bunch went through). Harsh background was desired by 1922 for stories set in wilds. Again I’m exposed to leads frankly unfamiliar for too few silents seen. So Cody and Rubens both died young … 1934 and 1931, her from heroin addiction of long standing. These people seem ghostly for being less on screens than on pages of Hollywood Babylon or like trash. Here in quality from 35mm source and vivid-as-being-there backdrop, we get how capable these troupers did the drama thing plus staying alive for work I would have turned down for simple cowardice (Thanks Mr. Borzage, but call me when you do a drawing room comedy). The Valley of Silent Men is assembled from reels, parts, portions extant, plus titles, some stills, to fill narrative gaps, coherence maintained, these mattering less because it’s outdoor stuff we want, and all of that is breathtaking. I never saw thirties or forties talkers do so much with harshest setting. Bet Borzage looked longingly on days when men-women were men-women as he sat comfortable on Metro soundstages later. He had proved mettle well, as The Valley of Silent Men clearly shows. Both these Borzage features belonged once to Marion Davies, being Cosmopolitan productions backed by Hearst. Why did she preserve them? But let’s thank her sainted memory for doing so, for if not for Marion, neither Back Pay or The Valley of Silent Men would survive today.

2 Comments:

Blogger Ken said...

Have never seen Borzage's "Back Pay" but I fondly remember Seena Owen as Griffith's luxuriantly intense Princess Beloved in the Babylon sequence of "Intolerance". I do recall seeing William A. Seiter's 1930 sound remake of "Back Pay" at a repertory cinema years ago (Warner Archive eventually put it out on DVD). Corinne Griffith stars. The film kicks off (unfortunately and unnecessarily) with the star warbling a quavery, not quite on key rendition of the song "They'll Never Believe Me". I guess - now that sound was here to stay - she wanted to prove she could sing.
But immediately after that the picture turns into an excellent well-acted melodrama - with both Corinne Griffith and Montagu Love acquitting themselves nicely.

2:13 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

There's a bit of irony in that restorations of old movies are happening just as the final generation interested in them is exiting stage right. I really don't see Gen X and beyond caring one way or another.

12:12 PM  

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