Murnau, Borzage, & Fox Boxset
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12 DVD set contains important early works by these cinematic pioneers, most of which have never been on DVD before: Lazybones, Street Angel, 7th Heaven, Sunrise, Lucky Star, They Had To See Paris, City Girl, Liliom, After Tomorrow, Young America, Song O' My Heart, Bad Girl, plus a documentary about Murnau and Borzage at Fox.
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The set can be divided a couple of ways - the films directed by F W Murneau versus those by Frank Borzage or the silents versus those with added sound or full talkies. Murneau was a very famous German director with a superb visual style and Borzage was an American who specialised in idyllic love stories. It also provides an excellent insight into the careers of a number of forgotten actors, particularly Charles Farrell, an actor who made the transition to talkies but soon faded from stardom.
Let's start with Murneau's films.
"Sunrise" is probably the most famous film in the set. A visual masterpiece and a peak of lyrical silent screen movie making, every frame is an image to cherish. It is worth noting just how few inter-titles are used. The story is a simple one of good (Janet Gaynor) and evil (Margaret Livingston) and the man (George O'Brien), married to one but tempted by the other. The print has been restored and the movietone version is accompanied by the superb original score. The DVD comes with many extras, including rare alternate takes, on set stills, an excellent commentary and a complete silent version sourced from Chekoslavakia.
The second Murneau film is the lost "4 Devils", recreated here via stills, sketches and the original script. Superbly constructed, it is as close to seeing the film as you could possible want.
"City Girl" was the third of Murneau's American films and there is a lot to enjoy here. Mary Duncan stars as the waitress in steamy Chicago who marries bucolic Charles Farrell, in town to sell the wheat crop. They return to the farm and Farrell's hostile father who rejects sincere Duncan. The predictable resolution to the drama unfolds while the crop is harvested to avoid destruction due to a pending hail storm. Whilst the film underwent changes not directed by Murneau when talkie sequences were added, we have here a pristine silent version without the tampering. The leads are excellent and there are some wonderful images to savour but the accompanying score is very dull.
The first of the Borzage films is a 1926 silent "Lazybones", the earliest film in the set. A melodrama about a backwoods man who adopts his neigbour's daughter, it stars western star Buck Jones in a change of pace and he is very good. The story is Victorian melodrama, but touching and very well photographed. Unfortunately, the film is accompanied by an awful score which I eventually turned off, finding it completely uncomplimentary to the visuals and the drama in the very good print.
Both "Seventh Heaven" and "Street Angel" are famous silent films which contributed to Janet Gaynor winning the first Best Actress Oscar. These are the films which cemented Borzage's reputation as the director of magical and eternal love stories. The former tells of the love of street urchin Gaynor to sewer rat Farrell who saves her from strangulation by her vicious sister. The film has many lyrical moments and Gaynor acts with her eyes which is perfect. The print is variable and the DVD comes with a reasonable commentary. "Street Angel" is a marginally more realistic tale with Gaynor cast as another urchin who escapes the police by joining a circus. Farrell plays the street artist who falls for her. The print is superior to "Seventh Heaven". The original soundtracks accompany both films and the music is vastly superior to the modern scores which have been attached to other silent films in the set. Farrell is a very handsome gentle hero in both and the films cemented the pair as America's sweethearts.
"The River", released in 1928, was a film thought to be lost but more than half of it has surfaced and the total film is reconstructed here using stills and the original script. What survives gives a great feeling for what is missing and this is a moody melodrama with a very good performance by Mary Duncan as the tough mistress of a convicted criminal who falls for youthful and innocent Charles Farrell. Once again, the lighting and sets overcome any weaknesses in the melodrama and there is plenty of symbolism in the nature of the river itself. The surviving reels vary in print quality.
"Lucky Star" is the third and last film of the Borzage/Farrell/Gaynor combination and may be the unexpected treasure of the whole set. Long lost, an almost pristine silent version is presented here which surfaced from Holland. A touching story of a woodlands girl and her relationship with a crippled war veteran, both the leads are perfect. Borzage's direction is exemplary and the backwoods sets are stunning. The only drawback is that this is another with a lousy musical accompaniment which interferes with the visual images and sensitive acting of the principals.
Now we move into talkies.
The earliest film is "They Had to see Paris", released in 1929 and the talkie debut of American folk hero Will Rogers. He plays a bucolic family man who strikes it rich and takes his family to Paris. The film follows their adventures in the big city. The print is good enough mostly but the sound is difficult. As a very early talkie, the position of the microphone is critical and the voices come and go. Rogers mumbles too and can not always be understood. The humour is basic and this is one film for which the fast forward button became useful. There is no doubt it has historic interest for those keen on Rogers but otherwise, it is a dud and an example of the comedown from the lyrical silent films which preceded it.
"Song of My Heart", filmed in 1929, stars famous Irish tenor John McCormack. This man was a giant in the entertainment industry in his day such that he was able to command an enormous salary for his appearance here. The film preserves his art and when he sings, his enormous talent is obvious. Unfortunately, the rest is turgid and awful. The story is sentimental Irish schmaltz and McCormack, who is no actor, smiles his role. The film was made partly in Ireland but you would never know. Maureen O'Sullivan appears as the ingénue. There is some dreadfully timed Irish humour from some of the supporting cast. The film comes in 2 versions, full and part talkie. I would suggest going for the part talkie because the titles are more bearable than actually hearing the dreadful dialogue.
"Liliom" is a very early talkie (1930) version of the Molnar play on which the more famous musical "Carousel" was based. It is another dreadful film, static and with dialogue delivered as if entirely in slow motion. The film is directed exactly as it might have been for the stage. Charles Farrell is miscast as the barker of the title name. The film was an attempt to give him a more rugged image and although Farrell swaggers and blusters, his high voice and slim physique betray him. The pluses are some interesting set design, H B Warner's warm performance as the emissary on the train to the beyond and above all, a spectacular print in incredible condition given the age and obscurity of the film.
"Bad Girl", released in 1931, was an Academy Award winner for Borzage as Best Director. The film is a revelation. With a first rate script, James Dunn stars as an earnest young man who marries cynical Sally Eilers and the film tracks their adjustments to married life. Minna Gombell plays Eiler's best friend and the relationship between she and Dunn is surprising as it moves through contempt to cynicism to respect. The film focuses on the clunky communication between the newlyweds and the dialogue is literate and mature. The acting of the principals is also first rate. The film makes an interesting comparison to the products of the other studios at this time: not as fast moving as the equivalent Warner Brother's product, but much more carefully directed and produced and far ahead of the pretentious product of the artificial Shearer/Crawford films from MGM. The only drawback is that the print, whilst restored from the best sources available, has continuity jumps mainly from splicing but possibly sometimes due to censorship. Incidentally, the title is misleading because Eilers is not a bad girl at all.
Next comes "After Tomorrow", released in 1932. Charles Farrell plays a young man courting Marion Nixon. The film traces their trials and tribulations, financial and familial, to get to the altar. We hear a lot about pre-code Warners, MGM and Paramount, but very rarely pre-code Fox. In this one, we get adultery, a discussion about pre-marital sex and a suprisingly mature look at a woman, Minna Gombell, tied into an unhappy marriage to William Collier. She dumps him too and suffers no retribution, a refreshingly realistic outcome. The film is another revelation, superbly photographed by the famous James Wong Howe. All the actors are excellent, particularly Gombell and Collier. Josephine Hull, who you may recall from "Arsenic and Old Lace" many years later, plays Farrell's possessive and manipulative mother. There is some excellent dialogue and a great scene between Hull and Collier when he actually tells her to go to hell. The print is really good too. One spoiler moment though which must have occurred when the film was restored - Farrell and Nixon are courting in the park and a truck goes past blaring a song. Problem is the song is Alice Faye singing "Please pardon us, we're in love" from a 1937 musical "You Can't have Everything", released 5 years after this film. Whoops!
One of the less interesting films in the set is "Young America". A melodrama about a misunderstood orphan, the film focuses on the competent youngsters with largely one dimensional roles for the adults. Spencer Tracy plays an unsympathetic role and it is indicative of the mediocre plotting that Tracy makes a switch to nice guy in the flash of a plot twist. The ending is contrived and corny. The print is OK with the exception of some splicing jumps.
Most of the films contain extras such as on set stills, marketing material and some commentaries. Most importantly, there is a separate disk with a documentary about Murneau, Borzage and William Fox himself. If you wish to understand the context of the films then I would recommend viewing it first. There are also two substantial booklets. The first replicates the documentary as well as filling in the gaps on other Borzage films not included in the package. The other booklet follows the reconstruction of "4 Devils". While this might seem like overkill, in fact it is useful to be able to read about all the films instead of replaying the documentary. Concerning the controversial packaging, the disks are hard to remove from their sleeves and the box is a nuisance to store due to its size but I have been fortunate to obtain one without damaged disks and to preserve them, I have simply stored them in conventional DVD storage units.
There is no doubt that this package is a "special event". It is a pity that its production has been less than smooth and one can only hope that it has been a commercial proposition in order to encourage further "special events". I recommend it highly.
Of the 12 films included only two are by Murnau. They are the well known SUNRISE (already issued as a limited edition DVD) and the rarely seen CITY GIRL (originally called OUR DAILY BREAD) which proves to be a revelation despite studio interference that caused Murnau to leave after only his third film for the studio. There is also another softcover coffee table book on the filming and story of the missing Murnau film 4 DEVILS which was set in a circus and is very similar to E.A. Dupont's German film VARIETY which was made at the same time.
While the Murnau offerings are highly prized, the 10 Borzage offerings aren't exactly chopped liver. In addition to the Gaynor/Farrell films there's THEY HAD TO SEE PARIS (Will Rogers), SONG O' MY HEART (tenor John McCormack), YOUNG AMERICA (Spencer Tracy) and the Oscar winning BAD GIRL. There's even a reconstruction of what may be his best silent feature, THE RIVER. Borzage was old Hollywood's ultra-romantic and it's great to have some of his movies back in circulation. All of the sound features are in surprisingly good condition while among the silents only 7TH HEAVEN and STREET ANGEL look rather worn but I'm sure they're taken from the best available versions.
Last but not least is the packaging. Others have commented on it and I concur. While it's great to have all this additional material, the giant scrapbook packaging and the cardboard DVD holders are totally unnecessary and will keep all but the most ardent fans (if they have the money) from seeing these classic films. Hopefully Fox will offer them separately before long so that they can reach a wider audience. Twentieth Century Fox is to be commended for finally releasing some of their pre-1936 Fox Films titles (like the earlier John Ford set) but it would seem to defeat the purpose if no one can afford to buy them.
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probably not much sales due to the high list price of the giant DVD/book...Read more