Monday, January 10, 2011

"River's too low to get my boat through the narrows."

Among the late silent period of Frank Borzage's films at the Fox Film Corporation, The River (1929) stands out as bearing an anomalously erotic charge to the point of a hot and heavy fever--of the sort which Alan John Spender (Charles Farrell) happens to fall victim to in the final act.Plot summary: A tall young riverboat driver docks his barge at a dam that has closed for repairs when he meets and becomes enamoured with a dark sultry seductress (Mary Duncan), alone waiting for her possessive boyfriend to serve his prison term--for murdering a man she was getting too personal with.

This film marks the final collaboration that Borzage worked with cinematographer Ernest Palmer and production designer Harry Oliver (or as I like to refer to them, PalmOlive, excuse the quip). The locale is bucolic this time and there aren't as many crane and dolly acrobatics performed by the camera. But the exotic settings again are magnificent: a river with a fatal whirlpool, a dam, rows of cabins to house dam workers (that look too real to tell how small they actually are, if in fact they were constructed for perspective), and an integral perspective train that runs along a bridge above the camp. Perspective sets are one of the treats I enjoy from the PalmOlive collaborations, and as a staple of German Expressionism and likewise influenced Hollywood studio productions, I feel I should add a brief definition: in this context it means building something small so that it appears to represent something much larger in the background (or executing the contrary effect). Perspective set design from this era is just really neat to me.

Maybe it's just me, but I'm also getting a huge kick out of the animals Borzage uses. In The River, Rosalee, the woman left alone for the winter, has a pet crow given to her by her murderous boyfriend to keep an eye on her while he's locked up. The trained crow is quite a performer.

The first of the two main points I'll call attention to is the psychoanalytic subtext. I realize I am watching this more than eighty years after it was made, but I can't help but point to a few items that seem appropriately viewed through a Freudian context. As I was saying this thing is smoldering with sex. Allen John has apparently never seen a woman, until swimming nude he encounters Rosalee. He then explains how he is on his way to the city, only to keep finding reasons to linger. During his unbearable pull to the attractive woman she first asks him "Get me some wood." Throughout the film wood is a symbol of his virility, as evinced by: his initial ignorance as to where to put the wood (she is frustrated she has to point to the "wood box"), and Rosalee's subsequent frustrated accusation "I don't believe you could chop enough wood to keep anybody warm." From a modern standpoint obviously the "wood" could be analyzed with an even more overtly sexual connotation. Another occurrence of symbolism happens after Rosalee first seduces Allen John physically (after suggesting they compare heights, she stands with her back pressed against the front of his body). He then leaves frustrated. But she gives him a lantern and says "You may need it to find your way back." There is a gorgeous shot of Allen John waiting for the train to the city completely surrounded by darkness, hovering over his lantern.

All I can say about the second main point I have is that Rosalee possesses a typically ambiguous set of motivations for a Borzage character. Whereas Allen John just wants one thing: her body, she vacillates between being repelled by all men, to having a fancy for Allen John, then back to deflecting his advances. She seems to object to being possessed by men, but wants a man who will treat her right; maybe that's the key to understanding her?

To close with I'll briefly describe what has to be the most flagrantly erotic scene in the film (without spoiling more than the advert above gives away, there's also an instance where Rosalee has to come up with a way to save Allen John from freezing using her own...). The lengthty scene where Allen John gets into Rosalee's cabin for the night results first in an attempt on his behalf to play checkers. Rosalee flings the board away violently, then cups her breast, sprawled out on her bed in a negligee. After she pleads for him to feel her heart, he can't resist, and it takes off from there!

There is also a "deaf mute" named Sam who rounds out the cast. This campy Love Story has marvelous production values, but I find its narrative a bit flat and hokey. But it also proves Borzage has talents that eliminate any criticisms about his Love Stories being chaste.


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