Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Moonrise

Directed by Frank Borzage
1948
The United States of America


By 1948, Frank Borzage, that old master of Hollywood, that unapologetic romanticist whose work triumphed during the Twenties and Thirties, had fallen by the wayside. The man who had won the very first Academy Award for Directing in 1927 was now struggling to secure projects. Perhaps Borzage’s brand of earnest melodrama turned sour in the mouths of a generation who had struggled through the hell of World War Two. As the years marched on, war-time idealism melted into nihilistic cynicism. This was no longer a time when a director who concluded an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms with doves and church bells could flourish. And yet, as his career began to crumble, Borzage managed to release one more true masterpiece; a film that reconciled his passion for lovers facing adversity with the nightmare psychoses consuming America ego. That film was Moonrise.


The opening few minutes of Moonrise set the tone for the rest of the film. It begins with the execution by hanging of a man accused of murder. The proceedings are shown via shadows that seem chiseled onto the wall behind the gallows. As the hangmen pulls the lever, smash cut to the crib of a newborn. A grim outline of a toy doll literally hangs over the bedsheets as the criminal’s infant son, Danny Hawkins, wails and wails. Jump cut to Danny as a schoolboy forced to endure the taunts of his classmates. “Danny Hawkins dad was hanged! Danny Hawkins dad was hanged,” they chant as their ringleader Jerry Sykes wraps his hands about his throat and pretends to choke himself to death.


Another cut, another few years pass. Danny’s torment continues. And finally, one night as Jerry beats him senseless, two things break: Danny’s mind and Jerry’s skull.


Those who know Borzage purely by reputation as a romanticist may be shocked by the jagged, neo-expressionist visual grammar used in these scenes: extreme shadowplay, stilted frame compositions, and high-contrast chiaroscuro lighting. But Borzage had been using such techniques for decades, having first picked them up from his contemporary F.W. Murnau while they were both working at Fox in the 1920s. Though Borzage’s films were rich in sentimentality, they demonstrated acute stylistic acumen. As the film continues, Borzage continues to reveal bold stylistic techniques. One of the most apparent is his consistent use of crossfades between charged images: a young woman wringing her hands in church into an old woman’s hands knitting; a paranoid man’s face into a raccoon. Indeed, Moonrise is not a film that can simply be watched passively. It demands to be watched, not merely observed.


From Danny’s desperate act of murder, the film charts his mental decimation, emotional reconstruction, and psychological reconciliation with his actions. A few kind souls help in his rehabilitation. The first is Mose, a retired brakeman who lives in self-imposed isolation in the woods with his hounds and guitar. Played with great dignity by Rex Ingram, Mose may be a kindly old Black Man who helps the White Protagonist, but instead of solving Danny’s problems, he helps force him to confront them.


But the other is sweet Gilly Johnson, a schoolteacher who quickly forms the other half of Borzage’s romantic universe. It is here that we find the major difference between Moonrise and many of Borzage’s other films: the forces that seek to tear the lovers apart. Often these forces are external ones such as World War One in A Farewell to Arms (1932), the sinking of a lavish ocean liner in History Is Made at Night (1937), or the rise of Nazism in The Mortal Storm (1940). But in Moonrise the adversity springs from Danny’s tortured mind. It manifests itself physically, such as an early scene where traumatic flashbacks cause him to crash a car while she was in the passenger seat, and  mentally. During a coon-hunt with Mose he has a minor breakdown while shaking a raccoon out of a tree. Borzage cuts to a pile of logs next to a cabin...a pile suspiciously similar to the one where Danny murdered his tormentor. Does Danny project himself on the raccoon? If so, then what does it say about his desperate attempts to capture it?


Danny’s internal dilemma of coming to terms with a forced act of violence takes on new meaning when evaluated in the context of post-World War Two American society. One of the cornerstones of film noir were protagonists who were damaged, either physically or mentally, by their time in the armed forces. If we consider Danny’s psychoses as allegorical, then Moonrise becomes more than just a dark melodrama; it enters the realm of bona-fide film noir. Consider Danny as America: haunted by the specter of a violent tragedy (Danny’s father’s hanging/World War Two), the protagonist is goaded into violence (murder/World War Two) by an incessant attacker (Jerry Sykes/the Axis) that leaves him broken, beaten, and bruised.


Of course, this is merely one possible reading. While it isn’t absurd to believe that Borzage may have deliberately made such comparisons, there is no doubt that at the end of the day his primary concern in Moonrise was Danny Hawkins and Gilly Johnson. Their love is no panacea, but it offers hope that Danny can rebuild his life. And therein is Borzage’s secret: the belief that despite everything the world may throw at you, love can be a force for salvation and goodness. His romanticism does not deny the world, it burns in spite of it.

2 comments:

  1. "Moonrise" truly is an emotional experience.

    Of the cast, I find it particularly pleasing to see Allyn Joslyn is the unaccustomed role of a kind and decent man such as his sheriff.

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    Replies
    1. I agree. Thanks for popping in, my friend!

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