Saturday, 23 March 2013

Mountain girl… The River (1929)

Before Murnau there was Borzage… uniting Mary Duncan and Charles Farrell in this tale of backwoods sensuality.

It’s remarkable how many cast and crew were shared by the two directors over the short, intense period when they were both at Fox. Duncan was in Murnau’s lost 4 Devils as well as City Girl whilst Farrell starred in that film as well as Borzage’s Seventh Heaven and Street Angel with Janet Gaynor who was also in Sunrise

Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan
The two directors shared expressionist techniques with the American heavily influenced by the German: pre-code and pre-crash these two helped set the high water mark of silent film creativity before the financial world took a tumble and Murnau met with his untimely ending.

That The River survives at all is a near miracle and, indeed, fair chunks of the recovered film were beyond saving including the beginning, three scenes and the whole of the climactic final reel. Yet, what does remain, is the very heart of a film often described as one of the most erotic of silent movies.

Allen John arrives at the camp
Much of this lies with the emotional honesty of the two leads, particularly Mary Duncan who proves again what a technically gifted actor she was. Playing an earthier character than in City Girl she transforms from predator to love-struck saviour as Charles Farrell’s innocent but ever-present sexuality wins her over.

Duncan is Rosalee, hard-bitten girlfriend of the local gangmaster Marsdon (Alfred Sabato) at a backwoods dam construction site. Bored with her bullying paramour she has an affair with one of the men but Masrdon kills him and his taken off to face justice.

Marsdon is arrested
Farrell plays Allen John a real backwoods-man who has built his own boat to explore up river. Unable to get past the dam he lands in time to prevent the dead man’s deaf mute friend Sam (Ivan Linow) from exacting revenge.

The men of the camp head off to the city for the winter and Rosalee is astonished to see a naked Allen John floating past the river’s leathal whirlpool and towards the shore. Just as he’s about to climb out of the water she surprises him leaving him to hide behind a rock… very much at the mercy of this confident and frankly quite forward woman. A lovely scene that sets the tone of their relationship.

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Allen John soon becomes fascinated by Rosalee – one of the first woman he’s ever met beyond his mother. She teases him relentlessly not used to men of such clean living niavity. Allen John is forever missing his train and rocking up at Rosalee’s shack. She knows what he’s after but he – genuinely – doesn’t.

As Rosalee begins to warm to the big sap, she is prevented from taking action by the pet crow, Marsdon has left behind often seen looming in expressionistic shadows – there’s even a mement when Rosalee tries to move him away form the light only to leave him in a place where he creates an even bigger shadow… expressionist humour?

Winter looms and Allen John misses the last train till Spring. He buys provisions for Rosalee but she spurns his offer – she’s underestimated his good heart. She throws the food into the river but, together they rescue it.

The sexual tension rises and Duncan’s physicality is strikingly brought to the fore as she shows her longing for the young man. But then there’s that bird… she tries to kill it as it interrupts their flow once again but Allen John stops her. In her anger she stabs him with a blade which luckily breaks before it can penetrate his chest…

Spoilers:  Driven to frustration, Allen John goes out into the snow and starts manically chopping down trees – a metaphor to show how he can provide for her every bit as well as Marsdon.

He’s relentless and, failing to stop him Rosalee leaves him to it. He returns to his boat but fall unconscious as his fire goes out. He’s found the next morning by Sam who brings his friend to Rosalee’s – he is near death.

The two fight to revive him and as Rosalee sends Sam off to get help, she realises that the last chance is to use her own body heat… opening her coat she climbs into the bed and lies as close as she can to the man she now knows she loves.

It’s a wonderful scene and probably a quite shocking one for the time. Even if the film’s actual ending was extant, Allen John’s revival would still be the story’s pivotal moment… there were tears in our living room.

Possibly in recognition of this, the reconstruction fairly rushes through the final scenes which see Marsdon’s violent return and Rosalee’s plunge into the whirlpool. Whilst Sam drags off Marsdon to his fate, Allen John dives in and rescues her: the two are re-born.

I’ve written about other partial silent films but this one feels more balanced because of the remaining focus on the love story although it would have been good to see the whirlpool rescue! Farrell and Duncan have real chemistry which no doubt persuaded Murnau to cast them in City Girl.

I watched the Edition Filmuseum DVD which is replete with a booklet and extensive PDF extras. There’s a video essay from Janet Bergstrom on Murnau and Borzage at Fox and on a second disc, three short westerns from 1915 and 1916 starring a young Frank Borzage.

Available direct or from the BFI (not online though, you'll have to visit!) this will warm the cockles of anyone’s heart.

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