A Farewell to Arms (Borzage, 1932)

With a steady onslaught of romantic ramblings and fateful stares, it quickly becomes clear one must buy into Frank Borzage’s illogical but well-meaning vision of love if you’re going to enjoy his films. After watching two of Borzage’s whimsical and sometimes downright cheesy romance’s, it’s safe to say I’m not buying. The same story problems I had with Three Comrades rear their ugly heads once again in his version of A Farewell to Arms. As with Comrades, Borzage’s hero couple (WWI soldier Gary Cooper and Nurse Helen Hayes) move along a muddled but perfectly planned out quest toward true love, ending with a death that puts anything in Douglas Sirk’s world to shame. Borzage doesn’t seem to be interested in anything left to chance (unlike Sirk or Lubitsch who both allow the mysteries of love to simmer under the surface). Borzage creates no tension, or real surprising romance (the visuals cue up exactly how the viewer must feel), or for that matter much character. Seemingly transplanted from the Robert Taylor school of acting, Cooper almost never changes facial expressions with any convincing result. From the opening exploding credits, Borzage makes sure to insert every artificial touch within a story about human emotion, without ever really saying anything about this particular dichotomy. Apart from a few excellent POV tracking shots, his direction and visuals are spot on, uninteresting, and most of all tiresome. I find the whimsical romances of Lubitsch far more fascinating and layered than these two Borzage’s, who seems to rely so heavily on visual fancy that coherence and arc get lost in the fairy dust. Even so, too many of the film critics I respect find Borzage’s film’s enticing for me to give up after only two films. Still, all this praise which makes me wonder “why” more so than with any other Classical Hollywood director.

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