By Jeremy Carr.

Two 1922 Borzage features are now available on Blu-ray/DVD, thanks to the laudable efforts of Undercrank Productions and the Library of Congress.”

The arrival of any Frank Borzage film on DVD or Blu-ray is a noteworthy occasion. But when there are two packaged together and they are among the rarer entries in his filmography, the release is surely cause for celebration. Such is the case with Back Pay and The Valley of Silent Men, two 1922 features now available thanks to the laudable efforts of Undercrank Productions and the Library of Congress. 

As stated in “A Turning Point: Borzage at Cosmopolitan,” an 11-minute video essay also included on the disc, these films came at a time that was indeed pivotal for Borzage, with two of his supreme masterworks – the Oscar-winning 7th Heaven (1927) and Street Angel (1928) – just around the corner. Anyone familiar with these films and some of Borzage’s later classics will undoubtably find many narrative and stylistic parallels in Back Pay, which tells the story of romantic deliverance involving a small-town girl, Hester Bevins (Seena Owen), who dreams of big-city luxury and shuns her ostensive boyfriend, Jerry (Matt Moore), by setting off to realize her urbane ambitions. The unhappy Hester has been restlessly biding her time in a local boarding house (a “house of ill fame” in the Fannie Hurst source story, according to a subtitle track on the disc that offers up sporadic facts about each film), while Jerry, a clerk, loves his hometown if for no other reason than he loves Hester, and that’s where she is.

Particularly in Back Pay’s latter portion, the scenes of sedate intimacy showcase Borzage’s flair for poised and tremendously expressive compositions, tenderly, carefully illuminated and striking for their emotional resonance.”

But away Hester goes. There is no instant regret when she arrives in the city, no depicted intimidation or apprehension; instead, Back Pay abruptly skips forward five years when only then do we see Hester’s increasing melancholy. She had presumably found happiness, but, the film asks, at what cost and for how long? A spontaneous return to her home soon provides the path for Hester’s reckoning. The bucolic hamlet has moved on without her, but Jerry hasn’t, and he again proclaims his undying love for the girl he knows better than she knows herself. Aside from a few interiors, we see little of Hester’s metropolitan dwellings, but the country locations are tranquil and, not surprising from Borzage, they are shot with a manifest charm. Yet it is not enough to keep Hester in place. She returns to the city and to her materialistic ways. Scenes of her superficial gaiety and tragic posturing – tragic because she knows this lifestyle doesn’t make her truly happy – are juxtaposed with Jerry’s current state, which finds him now in Europe on the battlefields of World War I. Subsequently agonized by war, blinded by mustard gas, and given just weeks to live, Jerry reunites with Hester, who proposes and enacts a pitiful act of salvation, sympathy, and love.

File:Back pay (1922).webm - Wikimedia Commons

Particularly in Back Pay’s latter portion, the scenes of sedate intimacy showcase Borzage’s flair for poised and tremendously expressive compositions, tenderly, carefully illuminated and striking for their emotional resonance (credit as well to cinematographer Chester A. Lyons, who also shot The Valley of Silent Men). The moments where Jerry is passively confined to his hospital bed while Hester pleads with God are passionate and vulnerable, while Hester’s visions of Jerry’s disapproving eyes following his death (she feels guilty after a former paramour offered to pay the funeral expenses) are haunting and persuasive, fulfilling the film’s “redemption through love” scenario, which, as the video essay notes, is a recurring Borzage motif. Equally characteristic is Borzage’s canny ability to convey sensitive yearning and the precarious balance of discontent and desire, all usually hinging on the application of affectionate devotion.

Written by Frances Marion, Back Pay is a quintessential and generally rewarding Borzage effort with early traces of what would soon define the best of his work. The Valley of Silent Men is rather different. This adventure story written by John Lynch, based on James Oliver Curwood’s novel and shot on location in the Canadian wilderness, revolves around a series of murders and the entwined lives of those affected by the peculiar killings. There is, first, James Kent (Lew Cody), a corporal in the Mounted Police. On the trail of a fur thief, Kent is wounded and taken in by Jacques Radison (Jack W. Johnston), who is swiftly accused of murdering trader John Barkley, his body suspiciously found prone on the floor of Radison’s home. Indebted to his friend and caretaker, and assuming his days are numbered anyway, Kent takes the blame. As it happens, though, Kent recovers, and despite his later pleas he is arrested by Inspector Kedsty (George Nash). Into this situation enters Jacques’ sister Marette (Alma Rubens), who claims to know the true killer of Barkley as well as another, each crime a strangling executed with a stand of a woman’s hair.

The male performers in The Valley of Silent Men do a fine, serviceable job meeting their roles, but Rubens is exceptional as the wildcard Marette, who mysteriously emerges with a brash blend of audacity, confidence, and defiance. Having broken Kent out of jail by gun point, and after the condemned Mountie professes his love for Marette (astonishingly quick and inferred in a missing scene from the film; other lost scenes are also presented by existing stills), the two flee together and embark on a perilous getaway. The region’s mountainous immensity and engulfing snow have dwarfed the characters throughout the picture, but for its climactic escape, Borzage makes the most of the daunting environmental danger by complimenting the geographically hazardous with the naturally magnificent.

Missing 1-2 reels of footage, The Valley of Silent Men is, at just 56 minutes, necessarily swift, which works well enough to keep a steady pace. But it also feels as if something is missing. A drama involving a serial killer in the midst of this isolated territory would itself be a sufficiently suspenseful set-up, yet this aspect of the prevailing plot is largely ignored in favor of the final pursuit. One can only assume Borzage was more concerned with pictorial grandeur, and since, according to Undercrank’s promotional statement about the picture, audiences at New York’s Rialto Theater “burst into applause at the film’s stunning mountain vistas,” he must have known what he was doing. Still, with a contrived revelation at the end, which makes sense in hindsight but isn’t entirely satisfying, The Valley of Silent Men is more a completist curiosity than an exemplary Borzage production (reviews at the time also pointed out the film’s periodic lapses in believability).

Nevertheless, as stated before, the release of any Borzage film is welcome, and these 2K (Back Pay) and 4K (The Valley of Silent Men) scans make for prized additions to the available filmography of one of cinema’s greats. The excellent piano and theater organ scores, newly composed and performed by Andrew Earle Simpson, only add to the value. Besides, any quibbles with negligible narrative gratification are easily overridden by the historical significance of these films and the potential distribution of additional titles in the future, those directed by legendary artists like Borzage or simply other features, shorts, and documentaries previously unavailable, an Undercrank and Library of Congress specialty.

Jeremy Carr is a Contributing Editor at Film International and teaches film studies at Arizona State University. He writes for the publications Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. He is the author of Repulsion (1965) from Auteur Publishing and a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretationfrom Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

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