Monday, April 23, 2012

A Little Space All to Ourselves: Frank Borzage's Mannequin (1937)

A great silent director who was not martyred with the coming of sound and a great sound director who did not experience the late flowering upon which others of his generation built their critical reputations, Frank Borzage nonetheless can stand beside any of his Hollywood comrades in terms of the clarity of and his commitment to his specific view of the universe - which is to say, there was no one in Hollywood during the studio age who was any more an auteur than the great Borzage, despite what has felt, at times, his outsider status to the auteurist pantheon. Of course, the home video availability (or lack their of) of much of Borzage's better work has been one of the larger obstacles to his broader appreciation, with only the December 2008 release of the "Murnau, Borzage and Fox" box-set belatedly serving to right this historical wrong. A far more humble corrective, Warner Archive's 2009 addition of the director's Mannequin (1937, M.G.M.) on their direct-to-video format contributes not only another strong offering in the director's exceedingly rich Depression-era corpus, but also, quite conceivably, the most precise single articulation of the Borzagian worldview.

This definition occurs early in the director's Joan Crawford star-vehicle, with the Mannequin's Hester Street lead expressing both her feelings and Borzage's point-of-view to boyfriend Eddie Miller (Alan Curtis), as the two sit under the stars on a Coney Island beach: "look Eddie, here's a world," gesturing at the sand. "You and I have this little space all to ourselves; and what we feel for each other shuts out the rest, so what more do we need? That's all people have to fight for is a little place to themselves." Crawford's Jessie Cassidy makes this profession following the picture's opening glimpse into her depressing domestic life, where her long workday in a textiles factory is followed by the sound of screaming babies - as the camera carries her up the rickety staircase - sauerkraut and sausages and the cynical asides of her ne'er-do-well brother Clifford (Leo Gorcey); the boundlessly unlikable Clifford has no intention of finding a job of his own, intent instead to live off the hard labor of his older sister. Jessie dreams of three rooms of she and Eddie's own, which the latter succeeds in giving her after Jessie refuses to return to her family's flat following their incandescent starlit evening. In so doing, Jessie and Eddie become a married, post-Hays Code corollary to Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young's poor, live-in lovers in Man's Castle (1933, Columbia), the Borzage film from which Mannequin will draw most consistently.        

The director, however, begins to divide his characters on the basis of gender, with Eddie professing a greater economic ambition than his wholly devoted young wife, whom he enters in a chorus line to earn extra money while his career as a boxing manager remains stagnant. Borzage elegantly figures this disparity in the differing objects of Eddie and Jessie's gazes during their wedding-night dinner at a Lower East Side, Yiddish Chinese restaurant. As the young married couple dances during this semi-comic sequence, Eddie repeatedly glances at local millionaire John L. Hennessey (Spencer Tracy) while Crawford's Jessie moons at her new husband, never once diverting her attention from the man with whom she wishes to share a little piece of the world. Eddie indeed shows himself unworthy of Jessie's love, both in his lack of reciprocal affection and also in his small-time grifter's mentality. In his desire to get ahead the easy way, Eddie is expressly compared to Jessie's Pa (Oscar O'Shea), who responds to the former's complaints about the deficiency of "the system" by advising his son-in-law to go on "relief" - given that the government was unable to get him a job. It is worth noting that while Borzage remains a poet of the working poor, Mannequin explicitly relies upon a "supply-side" economic model for the picture's strikingly anti-Leftist final act.

As Eddie and Pa converse, lounging in echoing postures as they smoke in tandem in the Cassidy's modest Hester Street flat, Ma (Elisabeth Risdon) advises her married daughter to not waste her life (as she has, having cried herself to sleep for years) with a no-good husband much like her own; instead, Ma proposes that Jessie seek her happiness whatever this might mean, even if she must go about it alone. In this respect Mannequin introduces a generational specificity with the Progressive-cohort immigrant housewife encouraging her daughter, in proto-Feminist fashion, to break with the traditional conception of a woman's place (for which Pa advocates in the adjoining room). In this fashion, Mannequin additionally problematizes the Borzagian conceit as it identifies the limitations of the picture's (and the director's) romantic worldview, particularly when the feelings of the one are not shared by those of the other.

The Borzagian however does find consequent, perfected expression in Jessie's subsequent relationship with Hennessey, with the latter falling for the comely Mrs. Miller upon first seeing her at the Lower East Side eating establishment. Though unaware that she is still married when he discovers her subsequently in the "Gebhart Frolics," Hennessey nonetheless disregards Jessie's marital status, kissing the woman for whom he has orchestrated an elaborate series of parties inviting her 'Frolics' co-workers. Even at this still relatively early stage in the narrative, the spectator has already begun to switch allegiances to 'other man' Hennessey, who not only will provide Jessie all that she lacks materially, but far more importantly, he will give her the selfless love, a fundamentally Christian combination of agape and eros, that provides the core of the Borzagian worldview. Consequently, Mannequin encourages divorce as it taps into the broader de-sacrilization of marriage that spawned the concurrent 'comedy of remarriage' cycle. Borzage's offering perhaps might be classified instead as a romance - in the Shakespearean sense, only partially to echo Stanley Cavell's parallel taxonomy - of divorce.

In this respect, there is a certain anti-Roman Catholicism present in the Catholic Borzage's Mannequin, even if in the larger sense there are few Hollywood films that more fully articulate the faith's mode of being in the world. It is again the Irish-American Hennessey and his beloved who best exemplify this ideal: for the business magnate and his factory girl-cum-wife Jessie, love - and by implication, the family (here in micro-form) - takes consistent precedence over the concerns of the world, which is to say over those of money (to define the film in opposition to a more Protestant ethic). For example, when a newly divorced Jessie first arrives at Hennessey's office, the latter loses all interest in his substantial labor problems that his company faces, focusing his attention instead exclusively and unwaveringly on his visitor. Similarly, when the two spend their honeymoon alone in an Irish cottage, before the warm glow of the hearth in a picturesque, if kitschy definition of the same Catholic value system, it is Jessie now who seeks to block out the rest of the world by discarding a telegram that addresses her husband's financial problems. 

Ultimately, Hennessey experiences financial ruin, thanks to the ill-advised striking of his well-compensated employees. However, Jessie remains true at this most dire moment of crisis, even advising her now broke husband to sell the jewelry that he has purchased out of his deep affection. Indeed, it will only with be with their return to nothing that the Borzagian again comes into crystalline view, as a personal philosophy that, while reflective of the Great Depression and grounded in the American immigrant experience, nonetheless possesses the quality of the universal, a catholicity of the human. All that Borzage's lovers seek is a little space to themselves, the heaven that is referred to in the director's silent masterpiece (7th Heaven; 1927, Fox) and which is spied not in the stars above but in the shanty homestead below in the former's sound equivalent, Man's Castle.

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