Back Pay, Frank Borzage

Suffering in Silents: Two 1922 Melodramas from Frank Borzage

Frank Borzage, king of silent film melodrama, shows how it’s done with Back Pay‘s tale of redemption and the James Oliver Curwood-inspired The Valley of Silent Men.

Frank Borzage: 1922 Silents
Frank Borzage
Undercrank Productions
7 March 2023

Frank Borzage is an undisputed master of sentimental melodrama, as long as we understand those aren’t dirty words. He made film after film about strong women and noble men who suffer for love, which redeems their sins and struggles. No matter how hog-washy or tear-jerky the story, he directed his actors to restrain and underplay their performances. He framed their action with ravishing visual beauty and underlined everything with Hollywood’s patented brand of non-denominational spirituality, always applied delicately.

These qualities are displayed in two hits from 1922 produced by William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures, distributed by Paramount. Hearst blew money on his productions, which shows in the gorgeous location photography in both films.

As explained in a brief extra about Borzage’s career, the young filmmaker had mostly been directing westerns when Hearst paired him with top scenarist Frances Marion. Borzage and Marion made eight films over 13 years, beginning with 1920’s Humoresque, from a Fannie Hurst story about a poor Jewish boy who grows up to become a famous violinist and receives a crippling war wound. This story is now more famous via Jean Negulesco‘s 1946 remake starring Joan Crawford and John Garfield.

Back Pay (1922)

Borzage’s Humoresque was so successful that Back Pay was clearly conceived as a follow-up. Also based on a Hurst story in which a man is wounded in the war, Back Pay follows the point of view of Hester Bevins (Seena Owen), a lonely, dissatisfied, small-town orphan who yearns for the excitement of New York and can’t stand the “hicks” around her. The “hicks” include cornfed Jerry (Matt Moore), who thinks his town and Hester are swell.

She turns down his marriage proposal because she wants more, so she takes a train to the big city in search of fortune and the good life. Now, one of the eternal verities of silent cinema is that rural towns are wholesome, simple places, even if full of “hicks”, and the city is a den of corruption where loose women drink champagne while dancing on tables. Before you can say Jack Robinson, five years have passed, and Hester’s living the high life, all bought and paid for by an older sugar daddy called Wheeler (J. Barney Sherry), as in big wheel or wheeler-dealer.

Briefly visiting Jerry, the scarlet Hester realizes he’s still waiting for her patiently in his gosh-darned way and still believes in her. One of the scenario’s subtle qualities is that even without the dullard Jerry to prick her conscience, Hester realizes that she’s Wheeler’s shiny possession and that he means nothing to her but a house, a chinchilla coat, and a Rolls-Royce. In short, she’s in the proverbial gilded cage, surrounded by equally craven friends. She’s comfortable but has no freedom and isn’t in control of her life. That’s why she feels empty and frustrated, much more than because of Jerry, whom she’s hardly thought about in years.

Shameless melodrama enters the story when Hester learns that Jerry is a wounded war hero. In his hospital room, she turns to the light flowing through the huge window and muses that everyone she knows is a rat who lives “scot-free” while Jerry is chosen to suffer. (Hurst’s novel even identifies Wheeler as a war profiteer.) “God! God! Where are you?” she cries, and Jerry takes her hand and says, “He was never so close to me as now.”

Hester feels spurred to a decision that drives the rest of Back Pay‘s running time. She learns self-respect from caring for others and aiming for higher moral standards, so the viewers can enjoy our sinful cake and renounce it, too. This is where modern audiences might roll their eyes at the far-fetched developments and quandaries, and that’s too bad for modern audiences. This type of melodrama, once very popular, has conventions no more rigid than westerns, horrors, or musicals. Such material goes with the territory and can be handled well or poorly. Borzage shows us how it’s done.

For example, when a sad thing happens, he keeps the camera steady on Hester for a minute as she absorbs and responds. Another director might have had Owen react extravagantly to the rafters, in the way we often mistakenly think of as silent film acting, but Borzage has her reign it in. The result has punch, especially in the hushed way that silent films draw us spellbound into the story and the shades of behavior. They require and reward our attention.

Another interesting element is how frankly Back Pay depicts the redemption of a woman society would condemn as immoral. It does so by making her the heroine without punishing her as talkies would after the 1934 Production Code crackdown. Indeed, the frankly sexual nature of Hester’s arrangement would hardly be spelled out so clearly in a later film. Wheeler is not mean to her, but she obviously lives on his indulgent leash. Considering Hearst’s life, that seems a daring element to include.

Aside from the many beautiful location shots, Back Pay‘s interiors are lit gorgeously by Chester Lyons. In fact, he shot both films on this set from Undercrank Productions, and Grace Waller illustrated the art titles on both. That brings us to the second film from the same year, The Valley of Silent Men. The print runs under an hour because several sections have deteriorated away. The missing portions are bridged with new title cards to explain the story.

The Valley of Silent Men (1922)

The Valley of Silent Men derives from another of the era’s bestselling novelists, James Oliver Curwood, who specialized in stories of Canadian Mounties and/or animals in the far north. Wikipedia informs us that when he died in 1927, he was the highest-paid author in the world. The Valley of Silent Men example is one of his Mountie tales.

Despite the missing footage, an interesting scenario scripted by John Lynch comes across. Surprisingly, it’s a serial-killer mystery. While Mountie James Kent (Lew Cody) is pursuing a bad man, he gets almost fatally shot and stumbles upon a murder by strangulation. Because circumstances look bad for his old chum Jacques Radison (J.W. Johnston), Kent nobly signs a confession on his deathbed. Nobody believes Kent’s confession of murder, but Jacques goes his merry way.

Then two weird things happen in The Valley of Silent Men. The first is that a plucky woman named Marette (Alma Rubens) arrives and behaves in a mysterious and high-handed manner. She tells Kent she knows the real killer who’s claimed two victims, but it’s her secret. The second weird thing is that Kent doesn’t die as expected but fully recovers. This means the law must act on his confession.

I suppose he can’t write a new confession confessing to perjury in the old confession. After a jailbreak and a third murder, the story’s second half is devoted to a chase across rapids and glaciers until we finally learn what’s going on. The revelation is worth the wait.

The big attraction here is the glorious photography in Banff, Alberta. We also get a cameo from John Hunter, aka Chief Sitting Eagle of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation. They participated on the crew in various capacities, such as stunt coordination, and did a lot of film work in Alberta. Chief Sitting Eagle is so photogenic he should have starred in his own dramas. There’s a statue of him in Calgary.

Frank Borzage: 1922 Silents is a Kickstarter-funded treat from Undercrank Productions in collaboration with the Library of Congress. The DVD presents two remastered features, Back Pay and The Valley of Silent Men.

Both films have been digitally remastered from prints struck from the original negatives. Every blemish hasn’t been removed, and we’ve mentioned that The Valley of Silent Men has special problems, but both films look very good and are tinted. They have new scores by Andrew Earle Simpson, who produced the disc.

One can watch Back Pay and The Valley of Silent Men with “fact tracks” on, which means little factoids appear on the screen. These identify the locations or spell out divergences from the novels. For example, in Hurst’s novel, Hester was raised in a house of ill repute. No wonder she wanted to get out of town.