Bad Girl (1931, Frank Borzage)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
O-kay. There’s a better than decent chance that the years to come on this blog will feature a lot of what’s going to sound like the same skipping record, but it’s still a fresh enough sentiment now: I am stunned that this film, the second I discovered through the Best Director project that absolutely blew me away, has managed to become so obscure in the intervening decades. This delicate masterwork finds the magic in the mundane, and has so much to say about life that isn’t dulled or dispirited or muddied by its age. If you’ve ever wanted to do something incredible for someone without telling them but kind of wanted them to know you did, this movie is about you. If you’ve bought a home or some other luxury you probably couldn’t afford, if you’ve had a kid and worried about the impact it would have on your life, if you’ve confided in a skeptical friend who can’t imagine why you’re with your partner to begin with, if you’ve said the wrong thing and made yourself and him/her angry and elevated a quarrel without meaning to, if you’ve ever struggled with not knowing how to really say the things you’re feeling, if you’ve ever struggled with a partner whose approach to emotion you know wells up inside is standoffish at best — this is your film. It is us, all of us, now as then.
Both of those Oscar winners that have throttled me in this venture have been the work of Frank Borzage, a Salt Lake City kid working for Fox in this period, set eventually to create a number of classics that have never quite achieved the pedestal they likely deserved. Bad Girl is less visually dazzling than 7th Heaven but even more stirring in its rich characterization and aching humanism. I’d stop short of declaring 7th Heaven as being in a class with Sunrise and The Crowd, but not by a lot; this film, I wouldn’t even hesitate. It’s the best movie I’ve seen in several years — and the best discovery I’ve made since starting this movie blog.
At times it seems to be a comedy; I laughed out loud alone at least three times, a rarity, and was charmed immediately by the realism and wit of the opening scenes, those depicting sarcastic, smart Dorothy (Sally Eilers) escaping the dull self-degradation of her store modeling job to try and have a fun night on the town until she meets mysterious sourpuss Eddie (James Dunn). But thanks to its gradual development of a real sense of intimacy and empathy, Bad Girl probably broke the crying-in-a-movie record for me previously held by either Up or The Best Years of Our Lives. Perhaps it’s a coincidence and perhaps not that both Bad Girl and Best Years use their titles ironically. Dorothy isn’t a “bad girl” at all, which is the larger point here, that her quite normal choices — to stay in a man’s house until 4am cuddling and probably having sex with him, to fall hard in love with a guy whose great ambition is to open a radio repair shop, to display some less-than-joyous ambiguity about her pregnancy later, to assert herself in her own life and marriage — would brand her as “bad” or “dirty” in the patriarchal eyes of the moralist society, and certainly in those of her histrionically protective brother (who sees her as a child, hence the “girl”). This, Borzage with playwright Viña Delmar reel you in with casual observances of misogyny, of working-class hope and disappointment, all tackled without condescension.
This matters ultimately because of the film’s flawless character development — especially of Eddie, a less arrogant but equally sensitive and insecure variant on 7th Heaven‘s Chico, who we come to know and identify with and love ever so gradually, to the point that when he breaks down in front of his wife’s preferred pediatrician, you — if you’re anything like me — completely lose it. It’s not merely that he has held himself together until then, because we’ve always known the complexity of what was underneath, even when he was acting like a nonchalant oaf as people danced around him, even as he wordlessly condemned the portraits of misery he and Dorothy witnessed at the foot of her stairs on that first night. It’s more that we know this is hard for him, that expressing something like this is taking everything he’s got, but that he is that much in love. We understand perfectly, of course, for she too is a person we come to know as though she were in our life, and her unknowing condemnations of her husband and his lengthy absences — egged on by skeptical pal Edna (Minna Gombell, wonderful) — break our hearts because we understand, but also we know.
The film keeps you in its glow because it captures, much like Heaven and Sunrise and not many other films, the actual lived-in experience of being in love, particularly of wanting (regardless of your gender) to present yourself and your world in the best way possible to the one for whom you feel craziest and most beholden. But it also gets the bad stuff, the miscommunications and growing pains and failed leaps of faith, broken promises and empty ones, all so vividly. Borzage knows the subject; you can tell he does. It’s so real and tangible it’s like you can reach out into that beautifully artificial New York City skyline and touch it. What’s more, it implies a sense of spirited goodness that exists in the larger world if you can search, a world wherein even the amateur boxing opponent can be moved to give you a break because he gently sees himself in you, just as you see yourself in this film. That sense of familial commonality is in part economic, of course, as much as it indicates central decency; the film owes much to its time — it’s unmistakably a Depression story — but that seems only to make it more prescient and universal. Economic disasters do much to level the playing field, don’t they?
Borzage’s camera moves with the intensity, the flowing spatial dizziness, of the emotions it seeks to capture. And how he got these peformances out of Ellers and Dunn, I could never tell you. How intriguing that this expression of what Hollywood was best at — at really deeply expressing the human experience with directness, charm and empathy for the masses — would lose the top Oscar to the star-studded, glitzy, melodramatic Grand Hotel. Kind of says it all. But no matter — this film, thanks to Fox, is out there for us to see now and we can see so much greatness in it. I see Renoir, I see Demme, I see every subsequent film that’s made me really deeply love its occupants. I see love itself in it. This is a truly great film. I don’t say that often.