At about 120 years young, the art of cinema is still an infant in the grand history of art itself. And just look how far this young wiper snapper has come. Why, in the late twenties, when she was just 30-years-old, she started talking. Then in the ’50s the widescreen format was introduced in the form of Cinemascope, Panavision and others, not to mention the advent of 3-D. Special Effects jumped by leaps and bounds over the years and just look at where she is today. It really is rather impressive how far she’s come and such a short amount of time.
Like with all good art, it’s important to look at the history of the subject, see where it all started. Go back and study the greats and see what innovations they came up with to move the art forward. Back in the silent age there were many groundbreaking autuers hungry to show the world what they could do with a moving picture. Two of those men are honored here in this massive twelve disc box set. First we have the German born F.W. Murnau, who made 21 films between 1919 and 1931 before his untimely death and is best known for his early horror film, Nosferatu. Second we have the American born, Frank Borzage, who made over 100 films between 1916 and 1961 and was a two time Academy Award winning director (both of those films are included here).
The other name in the title of this box set, is William Fox, who was the founder of Fox Studios (later to become as it is known today, 20th Century Fox), and a prolific silent era producer. He had a hand in the making of all the films in this collection.
Enough of this history lesson, let’s talk about the films now, sound good? This box set includes two Murnau films and ten Borzage films, many of which are being released for the first time in this collection. Sadly, I was only able to review four of them.
Sunrise (1927) In this riveting film (Murnau’s first for Hollywood), a man from the country is seduced by a city girl and she convinces him to kill his wife and run off with her. Lucky for the wife he can’t go through with it, but now she is terrified of him. He chases her to the city in hopes of winning her back. Murnau shines as a director in this film with some of the best cinematography I’ve ever seen in a silent film, both breathtaking and innovative for the time. (note: this disc is double sided and includes the monotone movie version, 95 minutes, and the European version, with what appears to be Swedish text cards, 79 minutes.) Oscars: Best Cinematography, Best Actress: Janet Gaynor, Best Artistic Quality of Production and Best Art Direction (nominee).
City Girl (1930) In this Murnau melodrama a young man from the country goes to the city to sell his father’s wheat crop. There he meets a young waitress at a restaurant and falls madly in love with her. The young man ends up selling the crop for less than his father instructed when the price begins to drop. The young lovers marry and return to the family farm with the good and bad news. The mother loves her new daughter-in-law, but the father is furious about the money lost and blames the girl and tells her she’s not wanted. The next day the workers arrive to pull the wheat and begin to ogle the young bride. The young lovers have their first fight and their happy life seems like it may be short lived. And a coming storm brings all the troubles to a head. This is an entertaining melodrama with some beautiful cinematography. A fantastic silent film.
7th Heaven (1927) This Borzage drama is my least favorite of the three films I’ve reviewed here but is by no means a bad film. It’s a love story between a poor man, Chico, as sewer worker who aspires to be a street cleaner and Diane, a young woman who is whipped often by her absinthe-addicted sister. When Chico rescues Diane he at first detests her because of her weakness, but soon they fall in love. But theirs is not yet a “happily ever after” as WWI has begun and on the day they marry, Chico must go off to war. Will this young love survive such a separation? Will he? Oscars: Best Director, Best Writing, Best Actress: Janet Gaynor, Best Picture (nominee) and Best Art Direction (nominee).
Bad Girl (1931) Here we get another melodrama from the masterful mind of Borzage. A young depression era girl with an attitude, meets a young man with an attitude and it’s love at first argument. The film follows their quick courting and then their marriage as they struggle with juggling their financial woes with their dreams of the future. The acting by Eddie Collins as the husband is fantastic, akin to a young Jimmy Stewart. This is a truly wonderful early talky, again with some memorable cinematography. Oscars: Best Writing, Best Directing, Best Picture (nominee).
Other Borzage films in the box set not reviewed here include: Silent Films: Lazybones (1925), Street Angel (1928), Lucky Star (1929). Talkies: They Had To See Paris (1929), Liliom (1930), Song O’ My Heart (1930), After My Heart (1932), and Young American (1932).
All films are presented in fullscreen 1.33:1. The films here are presented in the best available presentation. Some of them are very good, others, such as 7th Heaven which has lines through it the entire film. The sound is pretty good and a few films have two different musical scores to choose form.
(again, only have four films to review I can only offer feedback on the special features available to me.)
Commentary by film historians Robert Birchard and Anthony Slide: These two are a little bland but they have a lot of interesting information to share. And the fact that there is two of them allows them to banter a little which helps keeps things sort of lively.
7th Heaven Screenplay
The River (reconstruction): (56 min.) On the B-side of this disc you get almost a whole movie as a special feature. This is a lost Borzage film with several reels missing. All available footage is presented with title cards and production stills to fill in the missing scenes.
The River Still Gallery
Commentary by ASC Cinematographer John Bailey: This is a very engaging commentary. Bailey really knows what he’s talking about and his depth of knowledge really adds to ones over all understanding and appreciation of the film.
Outtakes with commentary by John Bailey: (10 min.) A rare site indeed, outtakes from a silent film. The quality here is pretty bad as this footage has not been preserved, but it’s pretty cool to take a look at.
Outtakes With Test Cards: (9 min.) most of the same outtakes with test cards instead of commentary. Not as interesting without John Bailey’s insights.
Original Scenario by Carl Mayer with Annotations by F.W. Murnau
Murnau’s 4 Devils: Traces Of A Lost Film: (41 min.) This is Murnau’s lost film. There is no remaining footage of this film. Instead we get a narration of the plot with some dialogue over production stills and art.
4 Devils Treatment
4 Devils Screenplay
Murnau, Borzage and Fox Disc: (105 min.) This is an extremely informative, in-depth, and entertaining look at these three early cinematic visionaries.
This is a pretty impressive collection of early cinema, but at $239.99, I’m not sure how many people are going to run out and buy it. The four films I was able to review are stellar representations of this time period and are certainly worth renting. I’ve also read on line many complaints that the way the box set is designed it scratches the discs so keep that in mind if you think about buying it.
20th Century Fox presents Murnau, Borzage and Fox Box Set. Directed by F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage. Not Rated. Released on DVD: January 9, 2009. 12 films on 12 DVDs. Available at Amazon.com.
Tags: 7th Heaven