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Liliom (1930)****

Among the major studios, Fox has always been the most remiss in putting out older titles from its library. It seems highly unlikely that a video or DVD of Frank Borzage's great Liliom (1930) will appear in the new future, unless Amazon.com launches a campaign for its release as it has for Friedrich Murnau's Sunrise. Nevertheless, I think it worth passing along the following remarks, since the film's exquisite synthesis of realism and romanticism contrasts so strikingly with the inept stylistic fumbling of Frequency. I am profoundly indebted to the UCLA Film and Television Archive for making it possible for me to view a beautiful 35mm tinted nitrate print of the film.

One of the most artistically satisfying examples of the romantic style of direction would be Frank Borzage's film version of the American adaptation of Ferenc Molnar's Liliom, a play that rather uneasily combines a naturalistic tale of a carnival barker who leads a young girl astray with a fantastic account of the barker's journey to the afterworld following his death in an attempted robbery. Clearly, Borzage was working with a prestigious subject: Molnar's play had first been a success in Europe and then subsequently in this country when it was staged by the Theatre Guild in the 1920's. Fox, aware of the play's reputation, brought the American adaptor, S.N. Behrman, to Hollywood for the first of a number of stints as screenwriter. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Fox gave Borzage the directing assignment owing to the success he had had with the romance genre ever since filming Seventh Heaven in 1927; in addition, the coherency of the picture with his later work makes it clear he approached the assignment as if he filming a love story more than a screen adaptation of a famous play--a procedure that nevertheless led to disastrous results when he filmed Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms in 1932.

Two things strike the attention of a viewer who watches Liliom today. The first is the extent to which the movie presents the action from the point of view of the young girl Julie (Rose Hobart) rather than that of the titular hero, played by Charles Farrell. The film begins with an astonishing close up of Julie gazing dreamily into space as she puts away glasses in the house where she works as a servant girl. The film's subsequent action all develops out of this opening shot; the adventure Julie will undergo is itself the fulfillment of her romantic longings, the fantasy come true of one great love whose memory will last throughout her life. By contrast, Liliom serves mainly as a foil for her passion--not a bad move, since Farrell, decked out with an unconvincing wispy mustache, makes a curiously effete Liliom, especially in comparison with the gutsy performance of Charles Boyer in the same role, in the French version directed by Fritz Lang in 1933. Nor does the movie attempt to depict him as a goodhearted rogue as did Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II in Carousel; although Liliom attempts to steal money so that he and Julie can emigrate to the United States, he not only physically abuses her but refuses to listen when she tries to tell him she is pregnant, and dies without ever knowing he is about to become a father. In this way, Liliom upsets the usual conventions of the genre, making the man the passive object and the woman the lover who invests the relationship with her most profound emotions.

Unlike Rodgers and Hammerstein's execrable musical play which blares out the "Love Conquers All" moral of its librettist that lumbers through all their collaborations, Liliom emphasizes the fragility and transitoriness of love, threatened on one side by the vagaries of human emotion and on the other by the forces of authoritarianism. Writing of Borzage's later anti-Nazi pictures, Andrew Sarris commented that for the director "What Hitler and all tyrants represented most reprehensibly was an invasion of the emotional privacy of individuals, particularly lovers...." But Liliom, made before Hitler's rise to power in 1933, presents the opposition between instinctual gratification and social repression unencumbered by political references, with a directness only possible in pre-code days. In one amazing episode early in the film Liliom and Julie go to a park above the amusement park where he works: the two lovers sit on top of a knoll with the lights of the carnival in the distance when suddenly two bodies rise up and block the frame, those of two policemen who have come upon them. There is nothing benign or humorous about this intrusion; the abruptness with which the two figures enter the frame gives the visual gesture the effect of an act of violence. A scene like this, not to mention Liliom's outsider status as well as the union unblessed by the bonds of matrimony, make the film as much an attack upon conventional morality and respectability as a glorification of the power of love. In the coming years, the combination of these two themes would play an increasingly important role in numerous films, but in no other genre would it figure quite so prominently as in the exotic.

The other thing about Liliom that would strike a viewer's attention today is the film's powerful visual stylization, both in cinematography--by Chester Lyons--and decor. Rather than striving to recreate Budapest on the Fox lot, the film's designers decided to create sets which suggest a vaguely Central European setting, a wise decision as comparison with the movie Budapest of Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop around the Corner reveals. The latter picture's sets neither look like Budapest nor do they, as do the sets in Liliom, allow free play to the viewer's imagination; more than anything else, they look like sets created for an MGM movie--a minor but distracting flaw in a great movie. The distance between the two movies, only a short one if measured in years, demonstrates how much the creative freedom of the silent era continued to exist into the early sound period. By the end of the decade, it would have been virtually eliminated by the standardization of production, relegated to such genres as fantasy and the musical.

Nowhere in the film does this freedom manifest itself so strikingly as in the scene of Liliom's death: after being shot by the watchman he intends to rob, he is brought back to the house of Julie's aunt. In a long shot, on the right side of the frame, illuminated only by a candle, he lies on his death bed attended by Julie and her aunt, while in the center through a large window appear the ever present lights of the fairground. At the moment of his death, into this superbly organized composition, the celestial railroad which has come to carry him off crashes through the window. In an instant, the space of the image undergoes a complete transformation: the quotidian setting, resembling a Dutch genre painting, becomes an enchanted one. Yet, however impressive the arrival of the train, the force of the transformation results from a restricted use of visual resources--patches of black and white, the light above Liliom's bed and the lights on the ferris wheel which can be seen revolving through the window, juxtaposed with the surrounding darkness. The film should have stopped at this point; unfortunately, faithful to the play, it follows Liliom on his journey to the underworld, but recovers at the end when Liliom briefly meets his daughter and concludes with a Brueghel-like composition which shows Julie's miserable cottage in the foreground while in the background an ultra-modern express carries off Liliom, presumably to the infernal regions.

In an article on Borzage's films, Burton J. Shapiro complains that the earlier film Street Angel "suffers from an almost unbearable Germanic heaviness...." Whether that is true or not, Liliom certainly shows how well American film makers had mastered the lessons of German studio production, lessons which Borzage employs to great effect in this picture in his use of lighting and his imaginative handling of space. Nevertheless, Liliom has nothing of the austerity or high drama of a film by Lang or Murnau; the German director with whose work it does have an affinity is that of Max Ophuls, who was then just embarking upon his career. Narratively, the affinity appears in the story of a woman whose otherwise empty life is elevated by a great love--the plot of Ophuls' great motion picture The Earings of Madame de.... At a formal level, the link is the amusement park with its ferris wheel and merry-go-round which casts an alternating pattern of light and shadow on the wall behind the lovers when they first speak to one another. In From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer, referring to a shot in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari which shows "the top of a merry-go-round which never ceases its circular movement," says that "The circle here becomes a symbol of chaos"--an idea that no doubt occurred to Alfred Hitchcock when he made Strangers on a Train. But there is nothing chaotic about the circular movement in Liliom; like comparable devices in Ophuls--the carousel in La Ronde, the waltzes in The Earrings of Madame de..., the elaborate circular dolly shots in Lola Montes--the spin of the merry-go-round embodies the whirl of life itself, carrying everything along with it. As Liliom dies, the lights of the ferris wheel continue to revolve in the distance, yet without the least connotation of fatality, unlike the the light which intrudes upon the abject porter in The Last Laugh. In Liliom, the recurrent association of movement with light symbolizes the spectacle of life itself, in all its beauty and pathos, that goes on after the death of the individual.

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E-mail Dave at daveclayton@worldnet.att.net