The 2-disc DVD presents a new reconstruction of Frank Borzage's masterpiece from the last year of American silent cinema, The River. For the first time Cinémathèque Suisse was able to include a recently discovered erotic sequence which was cut by the censors. Janet Bergstrom discusses in a visual essay the relationship between F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage at the end of the 20s at Fox. The DVD also includes the first three 1915/16 Western movies by and with Frank Borzage, a collection of production stills and texts by Borzage biographer Hervé Dumont.
The River - USA 1929 - Directed by: Frank Borzage - Written by: Philip Klein, Dwight Cummins, based on the novel by Tristram Tupper - Cinematography by: Ernest Palmer - Cast: Charles Farrell, Mary Duncan, Ivan Linow, Margaret Mann, Alfred Sabato - Produced by: Fox Film Corp. - Premiere: October 6, 1929
Murnau and Borzage at Fox - The Expressionist Heritage - USA 2007 - Directed and written by: Janet Bergstrom - Edited by: Karen Smalley - Sound edited by: Devin McNulty - Produced by: Cinémathèque de la Ville de Luxembourg - First release on DVD
The Pitch o' Chance - USA 1915 - Directed and written by: Frank Borzage - Cinematography by: L. Guy Wilky - Cast: Helen Rosson, Frank Borzage, Jack Richardson, Lizette Thorne - Produced by: Mustang Features - Premiere: December 24, 1915
The Pilgrim - USA 1916 - Directed by: Frank Borzage - Written by: Edward A. Kaufman - Cinematography by: L. Guy Wilky - Cast: Frank Borzage, Anna Little, Jack Richardson, Dick La Reno, Mary Gladding - Produced by: Mustang Features - Premiere: June 9, 1916
Nugget Jim's Pardner - USA 1916 - Directed and written by: Frank Borzage - Cinematography by: L. Guy Wilky - Cast: Anna Little, Frank Borzage, Dick La Reno, Jack Farrell - Produced by: Mustang Features - Premiere: July 14, 1916
About the films
The River, of which the central theme is desire, is the most erotic film of the silent cinema. Wreathed with the laurels of worldwide success and with an Oscar for 7th Heaven, American filmmaker of Italo-Swiss origin, Frank Borzage (1894-1962) conceived this work with complete artistic freedom. The immense natural sets were built in the open-air on a lot at Fox Film inWestwood, Los Angeles.
The initial situation is of an Eden-like simplicity: the initiation into love of a male virgin, a man of the woods coming into contact with a mysterious female urbanite about whom we learn but little, other than that she "has lived life to the full" and that she is always monitored by the crow belonging to her lover who was imprisoned for murder. There follow the hazards of seduction and refusal, ruses and inhibitions, endless desires confessed, with many hitches, right up to metamorphosis into love. The whole narrative unfolds on the banks of a river which reveals the nudity of the bodies (sex), the mortal perils of the vortex (passion), the purification and promise of a harmonious fulfilment (the sea).
When it first came out the film was pursued by misfortune: not quite knowing how to promote it, Fox disguised the work with a musical prologue and a spoken word ending, filmed behind the back of the cineaste (the 'talkie' version was unseen outside of the United States). The strong sensuality of the images shocked puritan America: The River was forbidden a screening in many States and a tacit consensus limited its distribution. Many newspapers passed over the film in silence, boycotted the publicity, and even the « New York Times » only granted it a small, embarrassed paragraph.
In Europe the reception was warmer and the French movie-goers, amongst them the young Marcel Carné, praised the film to the skies (7 weeks exclusive in Paris). The surrealist milieus around André Breton saw in this Woman With Raven, as which the film was distributed in France, more true audaciousness and insight than in the entire French avant-garde. For the duration of the season, the disturbing Mary Duncan (1895-1993) provoked flights of fantasy under the same heading as Louise Brooks. Then the film disappeared, became a legend. It is rumoured to have been lost, just like the other mythic title from Fox, Murnau's 4 Devils filmed at the same time.
This DVD is an attempt at reconstruction taking as its departure the fragment of 43 minutes (of a total of 84) discovered by William K. Everson and Alex Gordon at 20th Century-Fox, augmented with a clip from the Swedish censors which did not feature in the rediscovered original. A viewing of these images confirms that what we have here is not just a major work of Borzage but one of the unknown summits of the silent cinema. In order to totally restore the plot, the missing parts (the first and the last reels as well as two segments in the middle of the film) are represented by photos from the private collection of the filmmaker deposited at the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles and others from a variety of film archives as well as with texts inspired by the original scenario which is to be found at the UCLA Film and Television Archive.
It is interesting to compare this wounded chef-d'uvre with the other films from Borzage's beginnings which have miraculously survived destruction. Also esteemed as an actor at the American Film Company in Santa Barbara Borzage works from the end of 1915 both in front of and behind the camera. His 2-reel westerns immediately distinguish themselves from the run-of-the-mill productions: instead of illustrating the struggle between Good and Evil by use of cavalcades and fusillades Borzage concentrates his stories on the blooming and the maturing of a sentiment, refusing to pass judgement, developing the characterisation by virtue of directing the actors in a manner at once natural, but sensitive and of an astonishing modernity.
A young immature man becomes aware of the drama of humiliation which overcomes a woman "won in a game of cards" (The Pitch o'Chance); a taciturn, misanthropic loner metamorphoses when coming into contact with a woman (The Pilgrim); chased from the paternal home and forced to earn his living, the son of rich parents rubs elbows with the riff-raff of society where he finds friendship and love (Nugget Jim's Pardner). Borzage speaks of the awakening of that love which travels through the mutual taming tactics between the sexes and respect for the other party. He describes a form of psychological regeneration of the lovers, each serving as a catalyst to reveal the profound nature of the other: the entire catalogue of Borzage themes is already contained here, albeit in an embryonic form.
- The River 1929, 55'
- Murnau and Borzage at Fox - The Expressionist Heritage 2007, 36'
- Stills and production stills from The River
- Rare original documents about the film and Frank Borzage's early films as ROM features
- The Pitch o'Chance 1915, 25'
- The Pilgrim 1916, 28'
- Nugget Jim's Pardner 1916, 25'
- Music accompaniment by Günter A. Buchwald (grand piano, violine and viola)
- Production stills showing Frank Borzage as actor and director in the beginning of his career
Edited by: Cinémathèque Suisse, Cinémathèque de la Ville de Luxembourg, Filmmuseum München
DVD authoring: Ralph Schermbach
Sound recording: Gunther Bittmann, Ernst Schillert
DVD supervision: Stefan Drössler
First edition January 2008, Second edition August 2008
- Doug Cummings at filmjourney.org, March 28, 2008
- Glenn Kenny at premiere.com, May 5, 2008
- Anthony Nield at DVD Times, May 24, 2008
- Dan Sallitt at The Auteurs Cinema, July 21, 2008
- Gary W. Tooze at DVDbeaver, September 16, 2008
- Steven Higgins in Journal of Film Preservation 77-78, October 2008
- Chris Neilson at DVDtalk, March 12, 2009