Saturday, May 02, 2009

Young America (Frank Borzage 1932)

The next few weeks, eh?

Ok some spoilers below although I tried to minimize them as much as possible. As always, click on the pix to make them bigger.

Like all great directors, Frank Borzage synthesized seemingly contradictory ideologies. His oeuvre reveals a 19th-century Romantic suspicious of, if not utterly blindsided by, modernity and industrial capitalism. But films like Liliom and 7th Heaven display a total immersion in the technological wizardry of that most modern of 20th-century entertainments, the cinema. As Murnau, Borzage and Fox (both the documentary and the book) proclaim, Murnau's work (and Fox's money) spurred Borzage to exploit cinema's potential more fully. But any dazzling effects and byzantine camera movements were put in the service of a melodrama that harked back to the 19th century and arose from the wear and tear of modern life.
Young America lacks the cinematic fireworks of some of its predecessors in the box. But it's a perfect introduction to the melodramatic mode in which Borzage worked and flourished.

An often didactic plea to approach juvenile delinquency with compassion, Young America resembles the Warner Bros./First National social problem films of the time, e.g., I Am A Fugitive From The Chain Gang (1932) or William A. Wellman's extraordinary run of gritty programmers, especially Wild Boys of the Road (1933). But Borzage juices the genre for maximum melodramatic impact by fixing his gaze rather calmly upon secondary or even seemingly throwaway characters for whom the swift injustices of the modern city have proven devastating. So his take on modernity is less hectic than Murnau's. Both directors evoke the bewilderment of encountering a wide array of urban dwellers on a daily basis. But where Murnau in Sunrise (1927) whizzes by blurred bodies on a city street, Borzage here contemplates his characters in the lengthy proximity of the train or bus ride, taking in their faces, their gestures, their ways of speaking.

Juvenile court provides Borzage with a perfect opportunity to indulge in this aesthetic. Here we encounter "young America - boys from all walks of life" as Borzage parades several of them in front of Judge Blake (Ralph Bellamy) to hear their cases. The first shot of the film explicitly links their fates to not just Blake but to Edith Doray (Doris Kenyon) as well who will serve as the film's heart and thus Borzage's closest surrogate. A dolly shot, it follows the boys into the court room

where it picks up Edith as she walks into the judge's chambers (overseen by a painting of Lincoln and a bust of what looks like Shakespeare)

and finally rests on her meeting with Blake.

She has come to see Blake to gather information for a paper on juvenile court that she is to read at her woman's club. Blake obliges and allows her to sit next to him as he hands down his verdicts.

As unconventional as this already may seem, even odder is Blake's appearance and demeanor. He has stiffened his hair into a wind-swept look that comes off rather "mad scientist" in the spectrum of male Hollywood star coiffures of the era.

And he affects a downright insolent slouch while addressing the young men from the judge's bench.

No doubt he presents himself in this manner in order to create a bond with the juveniles whose lives he will change forever. But it also makes him a type, a weird sort we don't time to figure out as we pass him by on our way through the city/ movie.

While Blake remains a bit of a cipher, however, he serves to render modernity more legible, one of the key goals of melodrama. As a judge, he plays a vital role in the dissemination of what Foucault calls biopower, the explosion of judicial, medicinal, psychological, etc. discourse that the modern state uses to create ever-knowable subjects. Privy to biopower's enormous paper trail, Blake knows every boy "mentally, morally, and physically" before they even step foot in his courtroom. Little passes him by. So by the time the JDs are seated across from him, he can read the truth behind their faces. For instance, he knows that George is crying because he's sorry for himself and not for what he's done.

After consulting the paper work on Freddie, Blake knows that he has run away only not out of delinquency but rather to see his mother who has been committed to an insane asylum.

Most importantly, when Edith comments sypmathetically on Sam's "fine face," Blake informs her that he's a thief and a gang leader, "one of the worst boys I've ever handled."

By the end of the scene, Blake has transformed the boys, passing before us like unknowable strangers on a train, into docile subjects capable of rehabilitation and legible through and through.

Before that happens, though, we are introduced to the hero, Arthur Simpson (Tom Conlon), an orphan living in poverty with his aunt.

Crucially, his crime is most explicitly linked to modernity - he drove a car that didn't belong to him (but only to move it away from a fireplug). Contrast this with Washington Lincoln Jackson who stole a vegetable wagon because he wanted to ride its horse.

The city in Young America plays up this contrast because it is a city in transition, poised between agrarian and urban modes of existence. And the fundamentally good Arthur finds himself caught in between with various adults and authority figures convinced that he is the worst boy in town. Much of the time, Borzage blames this predicament on cars as a sort of modern scourge. The first time we see Arthur outside of the courtroom, he is already driving another car which does not belong to him, again to move it away from a fireplug so that the owner will not receive a ticket. But it always brings him to the wrong place at the wrong time.

In this instance, he meets up with his friend Nutty (Raymond Borzage, the director's nephew). Nutty too bears the marks of a city in transition. But he has arrived at a more peaceful relationship with his environment, a farm boy making do in a rapidly developing town. Arthur finds him trying to hypnotize chickens.

And later Nutty mans an elaborate rig constructed from modern detritus such as tires and Fuller Varnish cans.

But quickly Arthur gets in trouble again as a man bursts into the scene and accuses him of trying to steal the chickens. Arthur flees to a busier part of town where he rescues a dog stuck in traffic, one of many reminders of Arthur's good in the face of dangerous modernity.

The dog belongs to Edith who rewards his good deed by entreating her grouchy, suspicious husband Jack (a perfectly cast Spencer Tracy) to give Arthur a job in his store because she is one of the few people who she believe in Arthur's goodness.

In the next scene, Arthur and Nutty walk to school and come across Clarence Paine. "Guys like (Clarence)" make them sick because he is always hanging around girls. "Any guy that walks to school with a girl is a big sissy," Nutty proclaims.

If we accept John D'Emilio's theory in "Capitalism and Gay Identity," then here we have another effect of modernity before us - the modern gay subject. Or at the very least, Clarence exemplifies the wider range of masculinities available in a city. After a classroom fight that gets Arthur suspended, the teacher (an uncredited Jane Darwell) elects Clarence to monitor the class (presided over by another portrait of Lincoln) while she takes Arthur to the principal's office. Clarence's swishy response of "yes, teacher" sets him up for the ridicule of his classmates who proceed to ignore his temporary authority.

Without spoiling too much more of the remainder of the story, suffice it to say that Arthur does everything, including breaking the law, for a greater good and gets punished for it each time. Edith's awareness of this fact compels her to take Arthur in to her middle-class home despite the vehement protestations of Jack. When the couple return home one evening to find Arthur gone and some money missing (again, taken by Arthur for a good reason), Jack gives Edith an ultimatum - either he goes or Arthur goes. Arthur overhears this conversation from outside and knows he has to do yet another bad thing for the good of the marriage.

He comes inside and acts the bad boy he never was before storming out of their lives. Jack assures a devastated Edith that there was nothing she could do to help the boy and the couple reconcile. Arthur looks on again through the window, happy that his ruse has saved their marriage.

And in a gut-wrenching shot that resembles the end of Stella Dallas (King Vidor 1937), he makes his way towards an uncertain future, wiping the tears from his eyes.

Film theorists such as Linda Williams and Patricia White have suggested that the end of Stella Dallas fuels a fantasy of escape from motherhood. Similarly, we ought to entertain the notion that this sequence in Young America fuels a fantasy of escape from bourgeois standards of comportment. Mitigating against such a reading somewhat is the fact that the film does not end here. Arthur wanders throughout the city and catches Jack being held up by two burglars in his store. The burglars notice Arthur and take him along in their getaway car. As Jack and a police officer drive after them, one of the burglars tries to shoot at them. But Arthur saves their lives by taking the wheel and slamming the car into a ditch. At last Jack sees the true, good Arthur as he cradles the injured boy in his arms. The last scene shows Arthur has finally found his place in the city, integrated into the middle-class utopia of the Dorays' home. But the fact that it took the destruction of a car to arrive at this happy ending (in a film sewing a great deal of anxiety around city life) suggests that Borzage believes much more fervently in an agrarian, pre-modern utopia. As classical Hollywood's most incurable Romantic, where else would he find it?

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