Taking a break from Kathryn Bigelow while I wait for two more DVDs to arrive, I watched another Frank Borzage movie last night, skipping over Song o' My Heart (1930) in the chronological sequence, both because it sounds dull and because I have been very curious to see his version of Liliom. This is based on the Ferenc Molnár play of 1909. It was apparently first adapted to film by Michael Curtiz in 1919 (when he was still working in Hungary -- the play is set in Budapest), but I believe this version is lost. It was also adapted by Fritz Lang in 1934 during his sojourn in France before he headed to America and Hollywood. Then it was adapted as a Broadway musical called Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1945, which was in turn filmed in 1956.
I've never seen the Molnar play, but I've seen Lang's film three times (on two different DVDs), Carousel once on the stage (back in high school) and once in the 1956 film, and now the Borzage film. The story bugs me in all versions, although the story varies somewhat between the versions. There are basically three acts to the story. In the first act a brash carnival barker named Liliom takes up with a meek girl named Julie. They both give up their jobs to be together. In the second act we see that she loves him devotedly despite the fact that he beats her and leeches off her and her aunt. His no-good friend tries to talk him into committing a robbery. In the third act he ends up in the afterworld after committing suicide when the robbery goes bad. He spends time in hell, and then he is allowed to return to earth to visit Julie and the daughter who was born after his death. The bottom line in all these stories is that he really does love Julie, despite his abuse of her, and she really does love him. My problem with the story is I find it impossible to sympathize with Julie's love for Liliom, let alone sympathize with Liliom's anger management problem.
However, after a single viewing I may like Borzage's treatment of the story better than Lang's. (Carousel doesn't have much to recommend it, as far as I can tell. It soft pedals Liliom's abusiveness, which takes the teeth out of the story, and the music isn't very interesting to me either.) The story fits very nicely into Borzage's obsession with transcendent love, whereas Lang's obsession with fate is perhaps too grim, even though his Liliom is lighter in tone than most of his other films. Others have remarked that Borzage makes this Julie's story rather than Liliom's. He also treats it as a story of outlaw love -- the two lovers against the restrictions of society; even, in this pre-Code film, living in sin together.
One reason that Borzage may have chosen to focus on Julie is that Charles Farrell is terribly miscast as Liliom. His nasal voice doesn't work very well in the character of a charming brute, which is interesting because he successfully played a similar character in Borzage's great silent film, Seventh Heaven (1927). I found that if I tuned out his voice, his performance as Liliom actually wasn't so bad.
This is true of the movie in general, actually. It suffers from some of the common problems in early sound films. The dialogue frequently sounds stilted and forced. Visually, however, the film is magnificent. It is completely setbound, and the first two acts take place in and around the expressionistic carnival (shades of Caligari) where we first discover Liliom. The whirling rides act as symbols of the whirl and confusion and excitement of life. They are almost always in the background, framing the conversations and confrontations between the characters. The scenes in the afterworld are largely set on trains -- a mixture of miniatures and large-scale fogbound sets, as in the still above. These scenes are utterly enchanting and magical, and there's one shot of a train arriving from nowhere and crashing the frame that is a perfect representation of the story's shift from the natural to the supernatural.
I still find Julie a real drag -- a limp dishrag -- but Borzage finds in her someone who is in love with love. She could have a partnership with the dull but diligent carpenter, who comes to ask her out every week, but she chooses romantic love instead and remains true to it in the face of hard reality. There's a certain beauty in that, I'll admit. It's also true that Liliom has to pay a price for his inability to express his feelings except through violence. But the final line of this movie is just as wrong as it is in Lang's film (and one assumes in Molnár's play). "He hit me but it felt like a kiss." Screw that noise. Maybe Julie has merely convinced herself that it's true, but it always feels to me that the male directors of these films are trying to convince me of it too. It always feels like an apology for male violence against women.