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With: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, George O'Brien, Margaret Livingston, Mary Duncan, Buck Jones, Sally Eilers, James Dunn, Will Rogers
Written by: Carl Mayer, Marion Orth, Berthold Viertel
Directed by: F.W. Murnau, Frank Borzage
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: -99
Date: 19/03/2013

Murnau, Borzage and Fox (2008)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Fox and His Friends

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Murnau, Borzage and Fox on DVD

Last year Fox released the ultimate Christmas gift, the giant-sized, drool-inducing Ford at Fox DVD box set, and now they've followed it up with another: Murnau, Borzage and Fox. The new set includes twelve discs (some double-sided) and two coffee table books and retails for about $240.

In the 1920s studio baron William Fox hired both the German-born F.W. Murnau and the American-born Frank Borzage and put them to work making artistically superior films with Hollywood money. His unique view was that great directors would make great films. Murnau had been working in Germany and was a master of German Expressionism, while Borzage was already in Hollywood and renowned for his specific brand of cinematic romanticism. Both men won many Oscars for their new studio.

The new box set includes two from Murnau: Sunrise (1927) and City Girl (1930), ten from Borzage: Lazybones (1925), Seventh Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928), Lucky Star (1929), They Had to See Paris (1929), Liliom (1930), Song O' My Heart (1930), Bad Girl (1931), After Tomorrow (1932) and Young America (1932), plus a brand-new feature-length documentary about the whole story: Murnau, Borzage and Fox (2008). The Seventh Heaven disc comes with a partial restoration of Borzage's lost film The River, and the Sunrise disc comes with a partial restoration of Murnau's lost film 4 Devils.

Fox Home Video was kind enough to send me a sampling of the discs:

Seventh Heaven (1927)
Frank Borzage's lovely gem is set on the eve of World War I and stars Oscar winner Janet Gaynor with her big-eyed, small doll's face. She plays a Paris gamine, terrorized by her absinthe-addled older sister. Charles Farrell plays a sewer worker-turned-street washer who rescues her by taking her in. Borzage -- who also won an Oscar -- directs with an intuitive sense of emotional temperature; he keeps things boiling under the surface while the screen only registers a simmer. Gaynor won a Best Actress Oscar for this and two other movies from the same year. Writer Benjamin Glazer also won an Oscar.

Sunrise (1927)
Murnau's Sunrise is one of the greatest films ever made, on anyone's list. It currently ranks #10 at the great list site They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?. Murnau was given complete artistic freedom, took a fairly mundane love-triangle story and turned it into something transcendent. Fox previously released Sunrise on DVD only available to those who first purchased three other Fox titles, so this is the first time fans can officially buy it. (See my full-length review.)

Street Angel (1928)
Frank Borzage's Street Angel was another of three films that earned Janet Gaynor a Best Actress Oscar. I was lucky enough to see it at a film festival screening with a gorgeous, glorious live score by American Music Club. It was one of the great nights of my life. Gaynor stars as Angela, a poor waif who steals medicine for her sick mother and hides out from the law by joining a traveling carnival. A painter (Charles Farrell) becomes smitten by her and does her portrait as the Madonna. But the lovers are separated when Angela is arrested. Borzage directs this soapy stuff with a heavy layer of gauze, but his heart is definitely in the material and it's ultimately potent and moving.

City Girl (1930)
After the financial failure of Sunrise, Fox was forced to reign in his star director, and so City Girl is fairly compromised. Like Murnau's earlier Phantom, it's a routine picture, with only a few signature, cinematic touches to distinguish it. Farm boy Lem (Charles Farrell) goes to the big city to sell his domineering father's wheat crop and is forced to sell for less than he hoped. But he also meets and falls for a waitress, Kate (Mary Duncan), who has grown weary of her cat-calling male customers and dreams of the country. So they marry and return to the farm, only to find that life there is even harder. The moment at which they first return, running through the wheat with the camera tracking alongside them, is truly wonderful. But Murnau uses light to wonderful effect as well, most notably Lem's moment of revelation in the big city, with a single beam lighting the sidewalk from the sky above. And in the final, pre-storm sequence the midnight wheat fields are lit with roving lanterns.

Bad Girl (1931)
By 1931, Borzage was thinking of leaving Fox. He had had talkies thrust upon him as well as this wretched, controversial story -- which was then smoothed out into censor-approved mush (there is no longer a "bad girl" in the story) -- but he somehow made it into gold. The film won two Oscars, including a second Best Director trophy for Borzage. Sally Eilers stars as Dorothy, a model who is sick of men flirting with her. She becomes fascinated with Eddie (James Dunn) a tough-talking nut who refuses to flirt. Eventually they marry, and Eddie winds up giving up his dream of opening a radio shop in order to support his wife in style. When she turns up pregnant, neither partner knows what to make of it, nor what to say to one another. As with his other films, Borzage delves to the emotional center and finds lovely nuggets of hope and love (the film has no villains). Minna Gombell plays Dorothy's wisecracking best friend.

Murnau, Borzage and Fox (2008)
The box set's documentary interviews many experts, including David Thomson, Jeanine Basinger and Paul Schrader, and it has lots of information about all three men, with lots of great clips. It's beautifully edited and uses mainly vintage material and very few talking heads. But what it fails to do is to capture the relationship -- if any -- between the filmmakers and the studio head; it's basically three short documentaries edited together. Though it does demonstrate, convincingly, how Borzage attempted to one-up Murnau with his Street Angel.

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