Frank Borzage (1894 - 1962)

Frank Borzage (1894-1962)

Of all the major Hollywood directors whose careers straddled the silent and sound eras - including John Ford, Howard Hawks, and King Vidor - none is more problematic than Frank Borzage. He won Academy Awards as Best Director in both the silent and sound periods, and his career encompassed immensely popular movies of the 1930s and fascinating, if not financially successful or critically accepted, movies well into the 1940s and the end of the 1950s. Yet, by the end of his career, Borzage's work was relegated to historical status, and is today widely regarded as hopelessly dated and sentimental.

What is the problem? Commentators on Frank Borzage have argued that the director's sensibility is out of step with an emotionally distanced, post-modern culture, one more devoted to the supposed ironies of a Douglas Sirk or the wit and playfulness (amidst violence and melodrama) of an Alfred Hitchcock. By contrast Frank Borzage seems old fashioned, devoted to pious and sentimental love stories. Borzage's cinema never partakes of the crisis of belief at the core of modern experience. During the 1920s and 1930s, Borzage had been one of the most important directors in Hollywood, twice winning an Academy Award for Best Director: in 1929 for Seventh Heaven (1927) and in 1932 for Bad Girl (1931). But a period of uncertainty began during the 1940s when his output also began to dwindle. After leaving theatrical filmmaking for nine years, he returned for two final films, China Doll (1958) and the biblical epic, The Big Fisherman (1959). By this point Frank Borzage and his films were largely considered relics of an earlier era. He died before he was able to enjoy the kind of rediscovery and canonization of other directors of his generation who managed to outlive him, such as John Ford, Howard Hawks or Raoul Walsh.

Young Frank Borzage

The issues at stake in Frank Borzage's cinema, far from being old fashioned, could hardly be more urgent. In particular, they repeatedly address the implications of extreme sexual and romantic desires in relation to cultural or political environments that cannot fully account for these desires. In their fusion of the erotic and transcendent, and in their very instability, these desires repeatedly threaten to destabilize the social order. That Borzage's films are also beautiful pieces of cinema, acts of seduction performed on the viewer, only intensifies the audacity of what Borzage has achieved. Borzage the Old-Fashioned Romantic? How about, for argument's sake, Borzage the Romantic Modernist?

Frank Borzage (pronounced Bor-ZAY-gee) was born in 1894, the son of Italian-Austrian and Swiss parents. His mother Maria gave birth to 14 children, six of whom died from influenza during Frank's childhood. The family was poor but extremely tightly knit and many of Borzage's films would reflect the importance of a strong, loving family amidst the uncertainty of poverty. Also, Borzage's origins inform a number of his films set in lower and working class milieux. The Catholic Borzage family lived in Salt Lake City, with its large Mormon population. Later on, Borzage became a lifelong Freemason - perhaps one reason staircases, a Masonic symbol for spiritual ascension, figure so prominently in his work. He was a true child of the West, even working in a gold mine at the age of 13, in addition to working in construction with his father. Times were tough, and he hit the road early as a traveling actor, experiencing homelessness and extreme poverty before joining the motion picture industry in the teens, where he found work as a matinee idol (in early photos, he looks like a cross between two of his favorite leading men, Charles Farrell and Spencer Tracy). Borzage loved his family and supported all of them when he reached success - he also cast them in many of his movies.

Borzage on The Wrath of the Gods (1914)

He became interested in the theater and acting while still a boy and when he was just 14 he left school and worked in a silver mine to earn money to take an acting course. As a young teenager he began as a prop man and then started acting with traveling theater groups. He soon became a member of Gilmour Brown's stock company, playing character parts in mining camps throughout the West. Frank Borzage had three years experience on the stage when he arrived in Los Angeles at the age of eighteen. His entry into the movie business came during the early years of the 1910s, as an extra in Allan Dwan Western films starring Wallace Reid. Handsome, personable, ambitious, and hard-working, it was not long before he began working for pioneering producer/director Thomas H. Ince, at first as gofer and prop boy, but by the end of the year he was appearing on film. He was supposed to be a general-purpose actor, moving between light leading roles and supporting parts as villains, but in 1914, he achieved stardom in The Wrath of the Gods, a melodrama about an interracial romance between Borzage's character and a woman portrayed by Tsuru Aoki. The Wrath of the Gods was part of Hollywood’s then-current cycle of Oriental tales, usually variations on David Belasco’s play Madame Butterfly. He starred in several more notable films for Ince and in the middle of 1915, he was signed by the American Film Co. to play leading roles. As an actor, he was extremely charming and had a very modern, natural style that tended, especially in the films he directed, to avoid the large gestures still common at the time.

By 1916, he had become an actor/director, beginning with The Pitch O' Chance. For the first two years of his directorial career he co-starred in his movies while also directing himself. Those were heady days for several key filmmakers who would dominate American cinema in the decades to come - John Ford was just starting to direct, though his brother Francis Ford (later an actor) was much better known in that capacity, and Henry King had moved into the director's chair, while King Vidor had yet to establish himself as a filmmaker.

The most valuable Fox directors of the 1930s: Frank Lloyd, Henry King, John Ford and Frank Borzage

Frank Borzage made the transition to director fairly quickly, and was put to work on westerns and society dramas, making two films with Norma Talmadge that highlighted her self-regarding emotionalism (Secrets and The Lady). Many of his early movies were Westerns or thrillers like Nugget Jim's Pardner in 1916 or The Ghost Flower (1918) with such stars as Bessie Love, William Desmond, Pauline Starke and Gloria Swanson, but it was only in the early 1920's that he began to establish his characteristic style and romantic themes that were to make him one of Hollywood's most successful directors.

Humoresque (1920)

His first critical and popular success as a director was the sentimental and vivid drama Humoresque in 1920, which describes the rise to fame of a young violinist from the teeming Jewish ghetto on New York's lower east side and his efforts, as wounded war veteran, to recover his ability to play again. (The movie was remade with a completely different screenplay, in 1946, starring Joan Crawford and John Garfield). Humoresque had all the elements which were later to stamp a picture as a Borzage film - hope, love, and faith in oneself and others in a world that was poverty-stricken and could be cruel. It won Photoplay Magazine's award as Best Picture of the year.

He made other important silent films including the 1923 drama The Higher Law (originally titled The 'Nth Commandment) and Seventh Heaven in 1927, for which he earned the first ever Academy Award for Best Director and which helped make top stars out of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. In 1928 he used the same actors to make the superb Street Angel, one of the finest ever silent movies, a movie long considered lost until its rediscovery by the Netherlands Filmmuseum. Janet Gaynor won the Academy Award for Best Actress in succeeding years for Seventh Heaven and Street Angel. Frank Borzage's silent-era films stood head-and-shoulders above other Hollywood dramas of the period, in that he drew a rare naturalism from his actors that eluded most of his rivals and contemporaries in the director's chair - they avoided almost all of the excessive nuances and emoting that today make most silents difficult to take seriously, if not to watch.

Frank Borzage and Janet Gaynor celebrating their first Oscar

In late 1920s, was one of the first successful importers of European movements like expressionism and the Kammerspiel into his films (surely it was no coincidence that for a brief while he shared a studio, Fox, and a leading lady, Janet Gaynor, with F.W. Murnau). A silent-era Borzage film, especially a collaboration with cinematographer Ernest Palmer and art director Harry Oliver, contains a far more sophisticated interplay between shadow and light than most other Hollywood releases of the era. The result: these films look years ahead of their time. Critic John Belton noted in an influential essay on Borzage in the 1970s that "his sets and characters often seem to glow in otherworldly luminescence. ... The way Borzage lights them - the tones of his backgrounds, often as light or lighter than his characters' faces, give his frames a weightless quality." That's because "his characters achieve spiritual gain only through physical loss." This may help explain Borzage's popularity among the Surrealists (Andre Breton was a huge fan). In Seventh Heaven, A Farewell to Arms, Three Comrades and The Mortal Storm, the death of one of the protagonist lovers, bathed in bright Borzagean light, does not end the affair but only enhances it.

Directing Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes in A Farewell to Arms (1932)

By the mid-'30s, Frank Borzage was regarded as one of Hollywood's finest screen craftsmen, looked to for his sensitive, delicate touch in handling difficult stories - perhaps the most representative of his films was Three Comrades, made for MGM and produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, about the friendship between three childhood friends and a girl (Margaret Sullavan) who dies young. He made important movies for several studios during the early to middle part of the decade, doing A Farewell to Arms at Paramount, Secrets (a remake of his own 1924 film) at United Artists (which marked Mary Pickford's screen farewell), and Living on Velvet at Warner Bros., but by the second half of the '30s Frank Borzage had settled at MGM, then the most prestigious studio in Hollywood. Although his work was best known for its sentimentality and emotional nature, Borzage could and did make movies on serious topical subjects of social significance, most notably Little Man, What Now? (1934), starring Margaret Sullavan and Douglass Montgomery, which told of the plight of the ordinary man in post-World War I Germany. Even this film, as with Borzage's most well-known dramas, had a strong tearjerker component that was accepted by filmgoers at the time but, in later years, made them seem (inaccurately) like 'women's pictures.' He also directed Joan Crawford in three of her most intriguing movies of the period, Mannequin (1937), The Shining Hour (1938), and Strange Cargo (1940), the latter an odd symbolic adventure-drama that is one of the strangest and most fascinating films to come out of MGM during this period. In 1940, Frank Borzage also directed The Mortal Storm, an unusual pre-World War II Hollywood attack on the social order of Nazi Germany, depicting the destruction of an innocent family; it is probably the Borzage movie that plays best to modern audiences.

Frank Borzage, director

During the first half of the 1940s, Borzage's output became decidedly less interesting. Flight Command (1940) was a routine, albeit very well-cast story of military pilots and their private lives, while The Vanishing Virginian was a gentle, sentimental story of life in a rural, early 20th-century white southern household, and Smilin' Through was a handsome but empty remake of a romantic ghost story that had been filmed twice before, in the 1920s and the 1930s. Stage Door Canteen (1943) was his major contribution to the war effort, and in addition to its careful balance of patriotism and sentimentality — a feat that only Borzage could have pulled off this nimbly, especially in the full-length version — it is essential viewing for 1940s popular culture fanatics, with its enviable mix of entertainment talent. In 1945, Frank Borzage moved to RKO where he showed himself an able satirist with The Spanish Main, a gentle jape at the conventions of the pirate movie. He moved to Republic Pictures in 1946, where studio chief Herbert J. Yates was trying to make a small body of 'art'-oriented movies and higher-quality films than his usual outputs of Westerns, serials, B-comedies, and musicals - the result was I've Always Loved You (1946), a sweet and sentimental melodrama about a pair of musicians (Catherine McLeod, Philip Dorn) torn apart by professional rivalry, and the man's stubbornness; shot in color and featuring pianist Arthur Rubinstein on the soundtrack, it was the single most expensive movie ever released by Republic up to that time. Moonrise (1948) was Borzage's venture into the dark psychological eddies of film noir, and was one of his finest efforts, beautifully directed and filled with visually stunning scenes, though the script's weaknesses kept it from being regarded as a classic. This was to be his final film for a decade - his lack of theatrical film work during this period has led some critics and scholars to suggest that Frank Borzage was blacklisted, but this is patently untrue. The kind of movies in which he specialized were simply no longer being made - even the output of his contemporaries King Vidor and John Ford slackened during this period (though Ford always had John Wayne, with his immense box office appeal, available to help get a film up and running).

Rouben Mamoulian, Marlene Dietrich, Helen Hayes and Frank Borzage (December 1934)

Borzage did direct three installments of the anthology series Screen Director's Playhouse, but was otherwise unseen again until 1958 when he made China Doll. A World War II drama starring Victor Mature, Li Li Hua, and Ward Bond, it told the tale of a hard-drinking, disillusioned Army Air Force pilot who accidentally buys a wife and gradually falls in love with her; he finds himself with a new reason to enjoy and savor life, and they marry and have a child; both of them are killed by the Japanese, but their daughter survives, the living embodiment of the two of them and the love they shared. China Doll was greeted indifferently by the critics and was on television as early as 1965, but it has since come to be regarded as a superb coda to the main body of Borzage's work. He closed out his career the following year with one of his few misfires, a sincere but leaden attempt at making a religious epic. Adapted from Lloyd C. Douglas' bestseller, The Big Fisherman was shot in Super Panavision and ran more than three hours before being edited down to 164 minutes and then to 149 minutes; it was a financial disaster, though its religious subject matter and availability gave it a second lease on life on television during the late '70s, when it was syndicated nationally (in a heavily cropped and edited form). In 1961, he also participated in an uncredited capacity as one of three directors (one of the others was Edgar G. Ulmer) on L'Atlantide, a science fiction-adventure film produced in Europe that wasn't widely seen in America. The following year, Frank Borzage died of cancer — by that time, he was considered by many critics to have long outlived his best work, most of which was thought of as celebrated but dated relics of a bygone era. In the decades since, Borzage's reputation has slowly been revived as younger viewers have discovered his best work and accepted it on its own merits.

Frank Borzage and Hedy Lamarr in conference between shots (I Take This Woman, 1940)

"Borzage specialized in narratives dealing with couples beset by social, economic, and/or political forces which threaten to disrupt their romantic harmony. The hostile environments of war and social and economic turmoil function both as an obstacle to his lovers' happiness and the very condition of their love, against which they must affirm their feelings for one another. In many of his films, the context of war obstructs the efforts of young lovers to establish a space for themselves apart from that of the more cynical and Worldly characters around them." [1]

Love does not conquer all in the films of Frank Borzage, but it is the sole value capable of transcending the indignities of an ugly world. Amid the ravages and enforced separations of war and the hardships of poverty, Borzage's lovers find safety and redemption in each other's arms, a rapturous solace that even death can't kill. Framed in loving close-ups, swathed by soft, flat lighting, they glow with a sensuous, mysterious purity that's not quite of this earth. His melodramas posit love as a secular religion, and many of his films imply a spiritual continuity between this world and the next, allowing the dead to speak in voiceover (in the closing scene of The Mortal Storm, 1940) or appear in double exposure (in Three Comrades, 1938).

No Greater Glory (1934)

"Throughout his career, Borzage denounced war and violence; Liliom (1930) condemns domestic abuse; a profound pacifism underlies A Farewell to Arms (1932); he emerged as one of Hollywood's first and most confirmed anti-fascists, dramatizing the evils of totalitarian movements in post-war Germany in Little Man, What Now? (1934), and openly attacking fascism well before American entry into World War II in The Mortal Storm(1940)." [1] (Incidentally, the Third Reich banned the import of Hollywood movies not long after its release). No Greater Glory (1934) is a stunning portrayal of man's instinctive war instinct as expressed through the gang warfare of children. This barely known film has extremely uncomfortable insights into the most misguided concepts of honor and the chilly corruption of twisted childlike innocence. It's a film that sees no end to war, but, in its closing sequence of a grieving mother and her senselessly dead child, it is a potent plea for peace.

Frank Borzage on set of Mannequin (1937)

"Borzage's visionis genuinely Romantic in its emphasis upon the primacy and authenticity of feeling. His lovers emerge as nineteenth-century holdovers in a dehumanized and nihilistic modern world. The form which Borzage's romanticism most often takes is a secularized religious allegory. In Seventh Heaven, Street Angel, Man's Castle, and Little Man, What Now? his edenic lovers transform their immediate space into a virtual heaven on earth. Chico, the hero in Seventh Heaven, dies and is mysteriously reborn; Angela, the heroine in Street Angel, becomes an angel, a transformation mirrored in the hero's madonna-like portrait of her. Strange Cargo (1940), which was banned by the Catholic Church in several American cities, provides perhaps the most overt religious allegory. In it, a group of escaped convicts and other outcasts follow a map, written inside the cover of a Bible, through a tropical jungle. Tbeir 'exodus' condudes with a hazardous sea voyage in a small open boat and with the miraculous apotheosis of their Christ-like guide. Borzage's purest lovers appear in Till We Meet Again (1944) in which tbe director fashions an unstated, repressed romantic liaison between an American aviator shot down behind enemy lines and the novice from a French convent who poses as his wife in order to escort him to safety." [1]

Borzage was not one of Hollywood's tyranical directors. In fact he was extremely well liked by his actors and crew who enjoyed the unusually peaceful and intimate atmosphere he created on his sets. His magic touch transformed everyone from theater stars like Helen Hayes to movie monsters like Marlene Dietrich. The haughty Josef Von Sternberg claimed that of all film directors Borzage was "most worthy of my admiration." Borzage's films are closer to Von Sternberg's than you would think: Though the men's outrageousness is inflected in drastically different directions, their obsessive sense of love and fondness for artificial locations is endemic of their rejection of prosaic reality.

With wife Rena, Ernst Lubitsch (first from left), Richard Dix and William Wellman

Though he is widely celebrated as the screen's supreme poet of love, no one has ever really asked questions about Borzage's real-life loves and how they reflect on his work. He married three times, firstly in 1916 to silent film actress, Lorena 'Rena' Rogers. Borzage was desperately in love with wife and suffered greatly as a result. "Frank did everything to make Rena happy, paid for everything, all her fancies," remembered two of his sisters, Dolly and Sue. "He spoiled her, he put her on a pedestal." But Rena didn't feel the same way he did. "I respect him, but I don't love him," she told her sister-in-law. The first Mrs. Borzage "spent money like water," was often away traveling, had an abortion without telling Borzage (who loved children) and started to take on lovers of both sexes. Borzage overlooked her infidelities and extravagances as much as possible and took mistresses of his own and was said to have had discreet affairs with numerous actresses such as Lupe Velez, Mary Pickford, Marion Davies, Joan Crawford and Hedy Lamarr. Nevertheless he was deeply distressed by the breakdown of their marriage and developed a drink problem. In 1940, on the day of their 24th wedding anniversary, Borzage finally got up and left Rena after she toasted a man he didn't like, a gay male friend (an affront to Borzage, who made a religion of heterosexual contrast, with his tall men and tiny women). There followed a grim period where Borzage took to the bottle, and his career suffered. He then married, in 1945, Edna Skelton, ex-wife of comedian Red Skelton. They divorced in 1949 and finally he was married happily to Juanita Scott, an accountant, from 1953 until his death in 1962. Borzage was treated for alcoholism several times during his Hollywood career and he finally quit drinking early in his marriage to Juanita.

Cinematographer Byron Haskin, Frank Borzage, Spring Byington and Errol Flynn on set of Green Light (1937)

In his most fully realized films, the private world that Borzage’s lovers inhabit is invaded, and the lovers are tested, by War, Depression, Nazism, and even Death. Their greatness comes from their transcendence. Thus, the opening title of Street Angel, “Souls made great through love and adversity” characterizes his work succinctly. All our critical wordplay pales before that phrase and, of course, the films themselves. The silent film seems to have been the perfect medium for the fullest expression of Borzage’s sensibility. If few of his talking pictures reached that unbelievable level of intensity that makes those last four silents a unique quartet of masterpieces, few films by any director in the first decades of sound were able to do so. Borzage sees everything that is awful about human beings, and he acknowledges life's horrors by keeping them scrupulously off-stage. Here's peace, he says, and's film!


  • L'Atlantide (1961)
  • The Big Fisherman (1959)
  • China Doll (1958)
  • Screen Directors Playhouse (3 episodes, 1955-1956)
  • Moonrise (1948)
  • That's My Man (1947)
  • I've Always Loved You (1946)
  • Magnificent Doll (1946)
  • The Spanish Main (1945)
  • Till We Meet Again (1944)
  • His Butler's Sister (1943)
  • Stage Door Canteen (1943)
  • Seven Sweethearts (1942)
  • The Vanishing Virginian (1942)
  • Smilin' Through (1941)
  • Billy the Kid (1941)
  • Flight Command (1940)
  • The Mortal Storm (1940)
  • Strange Cargo (1940)
  • I Take This Woman (1940)
  • Disputed Passage (1939)
  • The Shining Hour (1938)
  • Three Comrades (1938)
  • Mannequin (1937
  • Big City (1937)
  • History Is Made at Night (1937)
  • Green Light (1937)
  • Hearts Divided (1936)
  • Desire (1936)
  • Shipmates Forever (1935)
  • Stranded (1935)
  • Living on Velvet (1935)
  • Flirtation Walk (1934)
  • Little Man, What Now? (1934)
  • No Greater Glory (1934)
  • Man's Castle (1933)
  • Secrets (1933)
  • A Farewell to Arms (1932)
  • Young America (1932)
  • After Tomorrow (1932)
  • Bad Girl (1931)
  • Young as You Feel (1931)
  • Doctors' Wives (1931)
  • Liliom (1930)
  • Song o' My Heart (1930)
  • The River (1929)
  • They Had to See Paris (1929)
  • Lucky Star (1929)
  • Street Angel (1928)
  • Seventh Heaven (1927)
  • Early to Wed (1926)
  • The Dixie Merchant (1925)
  • The First Year (1926)
  • Wages for Wives (1925)
  • Lazybones (1925)
  • The Circle (1925)
  • Daddy's Gone A-Hunting (1925)
  • The Lady (1924)
  • Secrets (1924)
  • The Song of Love (1923)
  • The Age of Desire (1923)
  • Children of Dust (1923)
  • The Nth Commandment (1923)
  • The Pride of Palomar (1922)
  • The Valley of Silent Men (1922)
  • The Good Provider (1922)
  • Billy Jim (1922)
  • Back Pay (1922)
  • Get-Rich-Quick Wallingord (1921)
  • The Duke of Chimney Butte (1919)
  • Humoresque (1920)
  • Prudence on Broadway (1919)
  • Whom the Gods Would Destroy (1919)
  • Toton (1919)
  • The Atom (1918)
  • The Ghost Flower (1918)
  • Who Is to Blame? (1918)
  • An Honest Man (1918)
  • Society for Sale (1918)
  • Innocent's Progress (1918)
  • The Shoes That Danced (1918)
  • The Curse of Iku (1918)
  • The Gun Woman (1918)
  • Until They Get Me (1917)
  • Flying Colors (1917)
  • Immediate Lee (1916)
  • Land O' Lizards (1916)
  • Matchin' Jim (1916)
  • The Forgotten Prayer (1916)
  • Nell Dale's Men Folks (1916)
  • The Courtin' of Calliope Clew (1916)
  • That Gal of Burke's (1916)
  • Nugget Jim's Pardner (1916)
  • Quicksands of Death (1916)
  • The Demon of Fear (1916)
  • The Pilgrim (1916)
  • Jack (1916)
  • Unlucky Luke (1916)
  • A Flickering Light (1916)
  • Two Bits (1916)
  • The Code of Honor (1916)
  • The Silken Spider (1916)
  • Life's Harmony (1916)
  • Dollars of Dross (1916)
  • The Pride and the Man (1916)
  • The Pitch O' Chance (1915)
  • The Mystery of Yellow Aster Mine (1913)