Friday, 17 September 2010

Liliom (1930)

Have you ever heard Martin Scorsese rave about the director Frank Borzage? For his money the latter is one of the great unsung poets of American cinema, a reputation largely based on his late silents like "7th Heaven" (for which he won the first-ever best director Oscar), "Street Angel", and "Lucky Star". He did go on to make a number of interesting 'talkies' including "The Mortal Storm" and "Strange Cargo", both 1940, and the later "Moonrise" (1948), mixed in with some fairly minor and forgettable productions. The story of the above film, based on the Czech play by Molnar, was also brought to the screen in 1934 by Fritz Lang in a French production with Charles Boyer in the lead, but is best known to most of us as the basis for the classic musical "Carousel". Borzage's version is a fascinating mixture of imaginative screen images marred by a major case of miscasting.

Liliom is the charismatic carousel barker at a funfair and the role is taken by Charles Farrell. Farrell starred with Janet Gaynor in the three aforementioned silents, co-starring with her a total of twelve times between 1927 and 1934, making them one of the great screen couples. However, when he opens his mouth to speak in this film, his weedy and whiny voice undermines his would-be embodiment of a handsome masher, and he nearly ruins what should have been a truly wonderful movie. Contrasting his tones with those of the cultivated H. B. Warner on the celestial train that takes him away from earth after his suicide is like listening to one of the Dead End Kids playing against John Gielgud. This is a great shame since the film itself does indeed show a poetic sensibility with its expressionistic staging of the fairground lights and other earthbound settings, mixed with the highly stylised death-train that transports Liliom's spirit between limbo and hell.

Another strength of this film is Borzage's choice for the female lead, a debut appearance for Rose Hobart. In contrast with the slightly saccharine Gaynor, (always a little wishy-washy even in the great 1937 version of "A Star is Born") the handsome and well-spoken Hobart is an excellent choice for Liliom's lost love Julie, who keeps his fond memory alive for both her and the daughter he has never known, despite his ill-treatment of them in life and on his brief return to earth some ten years later. Hobart went on to a relatively unimpressive screen career, but has been immortalized in Joseph Cornell's avant garde short film from 1936 called simply "Rose Hobart". He cobbled headshots of her from the minor movie "East of Borneo", mixed them with tinting and music, and used all this to project a sweeping range of emotions and feelings. I must confess that I have never actually seen the end result, but it does sound a fascinating memorial for the actress.
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