U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Bonus Weekend Noir Blogging: Frank Borzage’s Moonrise and the Politics of Race

I’ve decided to break our regular weekend silence by continuing our participation in the For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathon, which concludes on Monday.  Below the fold you’ll find what I hope is an interesting post on Frank Borzage’s Moonrise, a film which has been hard to see for many years but is, at least for the moment, readily available for your viewing pleasure.  But I wanted to devote the space above the fold to encouraging you to donate generously to the Film Noir Foundation.  Our blogathon hosts inform us that this year’s donations are lagging well behind last year’s take.  The problem is apparently not the level of participation–which is as high as it was last year in both blogging and donating–but rather the absence of a small number of big donations that the blogathon generated last year but has not generated this year.  While it would be wonderful if such donations reappeared at the last minute this year, it’s more likely that we can make up some of the shortfall by improving significantly on the number of small donors taking part. So, if you haven’t given yet, please consider clicking on the black bird above.  It’s the stuff that dreams are made of. (For more information on the blogathon and where the money is going, see here.)

Frank Borzage is so often called an under-appreciated director that it seems almost ridiculous to consider him under-appreciated anymore.  But while the amount of attention garnered by Borzage has risen enormously in the last quarter century or so, most of his films remain hard to see.  For years, virtually the only Borzage film available on DVD was the wartime variety musical Stage Door Canteen (1943), in part because it had slipped into the public domain.  The director’s many great melodramas, including among many others the silent Seventh Heaven (1927), which garnered Borzage the very first Academy Award for Best Director, and his trio of films set in interwar Germany, Little Man, What Now? (1934), Three Comrades (1938), and The Mortal Storm (1940), were available only on videocasette if at all.  
Then, in late 2008, the hideously overpackaged, but absolutely essential Murnau, Borzage, and Fox box set of DVDs was released.  Suddenly, four great Borzage silents (along with scraps of the lost film from 1929, The River) and six early Borzage sound titles were available. And since then, a steady trickle of other Borzage releases has appeared on DVD, including Three Comrades and the once extremely hard to find No Greater Glory (1934).
Borzage is best known as a director of melodramas, “seven hanky” pictures that took great advantage of the soft-focus photography that the director himself pioneered in the 1920s.  He directed only one film noir: Moonrise (1948), which was also his last great film (and arguably his only significant post-World War II effort).1  Like most of his output, it has been tough to find on home video.  The film was once available on Laserdisc, and is still available on VHS (though even this may be out of print at this point). But there’s no DVD and, as far as I know, no plans for one.  Those interested in seeing Moonrise have had to wait for it to show up–as it occasionally does–on TCM.
Then last fall, the film suddenly appeared on Netflix Instant View.  So, for the moment at least, Borzage’s one film noir is available for your viewing pleasure (assuming, that is, you have a Netflix account).  Run, don’t walk, to your Netflix queue and add Moonrise.  Or, better yet, clear out an hour-and-a-half of your time and just watch the damn thing!  It’s the weekend.  Live a little!
Moonrise is an unusual noir in many ways, most immediately in its setting: rural Virginia. Danny Hawkins (Dale Clark) is the son a murderer who was hanged for his crime. His childhood was spent being teased and bullied about the fate of his father and he fears that he, too, has his parent’s “bad blood.”  As a young man, he gets in a fist fight over his dad with a longtime nemesis, Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges) and accidentally kills him. He successfully hides the body, but now he has a murder of his own weighing on his conscience.  And, it turns out, Jerry had just proposed marriage to Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell), the woman that Danny loves.

All of this exposition takes place in the extraordinary montage sequence that opens the film:

It should already be clear that, as unusual as its setting is, there’s a lot that’s quite typically noir about Moonrise: its morally ambiguous protagonist, haunted by his past; its plot involving a crime and its consequences; and its look. Even more than most other noirs, Moonrise looks like something from interwar Germany. Though the film takes place largely outdoors, it’s entirely filmed on soundstages.  And Moonrise is a gloriously beautiful movie. Maybe I’m being overly swayed by the title (which is, in fact, from its source novel), but at times Moonrise recalls the first act of F.W. Murnau’s American masterpiece Sunrise (1927), with its swampy nighttime shots of the village.

But this is also very much a Frank Borzage film. A great photographer of actors and especially their faces, Borzage makes the most of the very physicality of his terrific cast, even focusing on Gail Russell’s nervous habit of clenching her hands as a way of establishing the character she is playing.  But most Borzagean of all, this is a film that ultimately finds redemption for its protagonist, which is a very unusual way for a film noir to end, especially one from the late 1940s. And unlike, say, Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), a noir with a formally redemptive ending that is partially undercut by thickly layered irony, Moonrise is strikingly unironic, not least about the power of love and the possibility of grounded and successful masculinity.2

Despite its relative unfamiliarity to all but cinema nerds, so much has been written about Moonrise that there might seem to be little to add.  But I do want to call attention to one aspect of the film that is not as frequently discussed as it should be.

One of Moonrise‘s most striking characters is Mose, an elderly African American man played by Rex Ingram.3  Nearly everyone writing about Moonrise notes what an unusual character Mose is.  Devoid of the poisonous stereotyping found in most black characters in classical Hollywood cinema, Mose is a figure of great wisdom and dignity, who is also a confidant of the film’s (white) protagonist, Danny Hawkins. Before we ever meet Mose, we are told about how well read he is.  And Mose ultimately tells Danny what he needs to hear to own up to his own crime and re-embrace his humanity.  Ingram called it “the best role ever written for a Negro.”

Somewhat surprisingly, very little has been written about what the film has to say about race.  Certainly nobody–neither Mose nor the white characters–discusses the color line in the movie, despite the fact that the film is set in Virginia, older characters frequently mutter about “Yankees,” and the Civil War is even explicitly invoked in a scene set in an abandoned antebellum mansion (which apparently sits next to Mose’s much more modest home).   And the few lines uttered by Mose about being black that appeared in the novel don’t appear in the movie.

However, I entirely agree with Holger Römers’s sense that Mose’s place in Moonrise

call[s] into doubt the widely held opinion about this auteur’s œuvre that “[i]n the end”, as Hervé Dumont summarizes, “[Borzage] shows only limited interest in social mechanisms.”

Römers correctly notes that a role like that of Mose would have stood out for audiences at the time (who certainly wouldn’t have seen Mose as a somehow post-racial figure) and that Mose has a number of dialogues about nature and humanity with the almost equally unusual character of Clem Otis (Allyn Joslyn), one of Hollywood’s–let alone film noir’s–few thoughtful and non-violent Southern sheriffs.

Mose also spends the entire film talking about “race,” though the word is never used in the context of the color line. Instead, he talks about the “human race” and the “dog race” (Mose keeps a pack of coonhounds and works as a hunting guide).  Mose’s final words in the film–which Römers notes don’t appear in the source novel–are spoken to one of his dogs: “If a man knows how to rejoin the human race, once he’s resigned, it helps, Mr. Dog, it helps.”

If Moonrise avoids the most obvious facts about the politics of race in the real world of the American South, it is shot full of subtler racial politics.  To take another example:  the town features a (white) soda jerk, whose exaggerated hipster lingo–like most mid-century hipsterism–obviously has a debt to African American cultural…though, again, the film never draws attention to this point.

I would go further than Römers, however, by noting that Borzage’s handling of race in Moonrise is entirely typical of the serious, but often indirect, engagement with politics that one frequently encounters in Borzage’s films. One of the reason that critics have spilled so much ink denying that Borzage was interested in politics is that the director made three films before Pearl Harbor set in interwar Germany and dealing at least in part with the rise of fascism.  Two of these films–Little Man, What Now? (1934) and Three Comrades (1938)were made at a time when the Production Code Administration was still scrupulously avoiding offending the Nazis, lest Hitler’s government try to interrupt the flow of Hollywood product to European screens.  Indeed, the German consul in Los Angeles spent months pressuring Joseph Breen to shut down production of Three Comrades, which was based on an Erich Maria Remarque novel.

Nevertheless critics have gone out of their way to claim that Borzage’s German trilogy–or at least its first two parts–isn’t really concerned with politics at all.  And even The Mortal Storm (1940), the third of the films which focuses entirely on the rise of Nazism, is sometimes seen as imperfectly antifascist.  Borzage’s apolitical reputation was bolstered over the years by the producer Victor Saville’s repeated (and apparently false) claims that he himself had to direct the key scenes involving Nazism in The Mortal Storm, as Borzage was so naïve about German politics in 1933 that he imagined it to be like Democrats and Republicans.

In fact, Borzage’s films are deeply political, though also very unconventional in their politics.  Borzage’s own political beliefs were always very private, though there is some evidence to suggest that he was fairly conservative.  His only public statements about politics were some rather dyspeptic anticommunist declarations in Cold War-era interviews.  Certainly his German trilogy contains little Popular Front-style antifascism.  Though not at all apolitical–as their reputation suggests–these films are in many ways antipolitical, suggesting that love–which in Borzage’s films has a truly transcendent quality–can provide a path for their characters to escape the morass of German politics, though, especially in the final two of these three films, that escape might have to take place in the afterlife.

I’ve thought a lot more about Borzage’s German trilogy–about which I write a bit in my book and more in various conference papers that I really need to get around to expanding and publishing–than about Moonrise.  But I suspect that a careful reading of the later film will reveal a kind of melodramatic politics of love and race. Unlike the German trilogy, each of whose films feature on-screen acts of political violence from which its protagonists hope to escape, Moonrise entirely avoids representing the actual, violent politics of race in the American South….as, indeed, any Hollywood film of the 1940s would have had to.  It doesn’t even seem to present these politics in a displaced form (as does, say, They Won’t Forget (1937), which turns the antisemitism of the Leo Frank lynching into a story about purely sectional hostilities). And yet in telling a story about a (Southern white) outcast’s return to humanity–and giving an African American a central role in leading him there–Moonrise presents a powerful racial message of a sort that one doesn’t expect to find, especially in a film noir.


1 As befits its director, Moonrise has a very well developed reputation as an underappreciated masterpiece.  There are some excellent essays about it available online, none better, in my opinion, than Holger Römers’s “‘The Moral of the Auteur Theory’: Frank Borzage’s Moonrise (and Theodore Strauss’ Source Novel),” from issue 42 of the online film journal Sense of Cinema. Though the essay takes the form of an argument with Andrew Sarris about auteur theory, it’s in fact a wide-ranging appreciation of the film which, unusually, discusses its source material as well.   Readers wanting a more comprehensive discussion of the film should take a look at Römers’s piece; as you’ll see, I’ve drawn a lot on it for this post.
2 This lack of irony is one of the things that separates it from its better known cinematic cousin,  Charles Laughton’s rural, expressionist noir masterpiece, Night of the Hunter (1955).

3 Ingram is, incidentally, a fascinating figure.  Trained as a physician–he was the first African American to graduate from Northwestern Medical School–he was apparently discovered on the street in Hollywood in the 1910s.  After Paul Robeson, he was probably the most significant African American actor in Hollywood in an era in which significant roles for blacks were nearly nonexistent. Today, he’s best known for his appearance as the genie in the Alexander Korda version of The Thief of Bagdad (1940), but he’s also terrific in Sahara (1943), one of the most frankly anti-racist of the World War II combat pictures. 

One Thought on this Post

  1. Ingram was a wonderful actor, no two ways about it, and in Sahara, he’s a very powerful symbol that the armies of some of the Allies were integrated, but not the U.S., and anyone was capapble of heroism. I’d say this film and Intruder in the Dust are a great double-bill, BTW. Great post!

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