There seems to be a curious near-unanimity among critics and historians of cinema that attributes the paternity of Desire (1936) to its producer, Ernst Lubitsch, rather than to its credited director, Frank Borzage. One of the reasons is that Lubitsch is better known as the director of sophisticated comedies, while Borzage is seen as a melodramatist. For John Belton, “[D.W.] Griffith and Borzage […] use and believe in the melodrama as a way of seeing the world.”1

While it is well known that Lubitsch supervised the production, Borzage’s output does include several genres apart from the one he is best known for. Among them are comedies he directed with varying degrees of success, such as The Circle (1925), The First Year (1926) and They Had to See Paris (1929), to name a few. And this story of Madeleine (Marlene Dietrich), an international jewel thief redeemed by her love for Tom (Gary Cooper), an American engineer, shares many thematic and aesthetic aspects with his other works. After all, most Borzage films are about the redemptive power of love. It is a love that, according to Michael Henry, has the power to transform two people who at first have “only their solitude in common.” By revealing their true nature to each other, Henry argues, “they discover their angelic vocation.”2

Much like her character, Dietrich was on a journey to discover her angelic acting vocation. Her collaboration with Josef von Sternberg, which had created her femme fatale image, was by this time at an end. In Desire, she is no longer a vamp, clothed in chiaroscuro light, ready to manipulate men. Here, she is radiant, exuding rather than reflecting or absorbing the light. She is no longer maleficent, but rather benevolently waiting to find the man to whom she will grant the privilege of conquering her. She is in complete control, but graciously gives the man the impression that she is prepared to cede some of it. Once again, we are in familiar territory, where “Borzage’s heroine is the one who decides when the romance becomes carnal. She is a desiring subject at least as much as she is the object of male desire.”3 Dietrich, who later on was critical of many of her directors, praised Borzage. It may be a sign that, having freed herself from the Sternberg image, she was acknowledging that Borzage had played a part in forging her new screen persona.

The transformation and purification by love takes place during a holiday in Spain, where the two characters meet by accident and their destinies change forever. It is a Spain as stylised and poetic as the Paris of 7th Heaven (1927) or the Naples of Street Angel (1928) – two of the director’s better known films. Borzage’s visual style has been often overlooked, despite the testimonies of his collaborators. Director of photography Joseph Ruttenberg, who worked with Borzage on a number of his later films at MGM, recalled that “Borzage took a long time to prepare each technical aspect of the film, carefully planning each shot and lighting set-up.”4 He also adds that the director was trying to make the technical aspects unobtrusive, thinking they should serve the story rather than drawing attention to themselves. Belton notes that “Borzage’s visual style reflects his belief in the immateriality of objects and characters. His images have little to do with real things; rather, like Plato’s ideal forms, they refer to an absolute and eternal reality that exists on a purely abstract level.”5

As in many of his films, the characters have to climb or descend stairs in order to be together, the camera following their journey from a distance. Also as in many of his films, the characters are often present in the same frame, but in two separate spaces. Screens, windows and grids often separate the characters, impede communication between them or conceal altogether the reality of what is going on. At the beginning of the film, we see Tom from the outside, through the window of his office. He seems to be arguing with someone, but at first we cannot hear the words. Only after the camera moves inside do we realise that what we have taken for a dispute is, in fact, a rehearsal for a possible argument with his boss regarding holidays. At the jeweller, Madeleine is constantly seen behind ornate grilles. In the hotel in San Sebastián, she can see through her window the men arguing on the balcony, but neither she nor the spectators can hear what they are saying. Sequences like these underline the voyeuristic aspects of the film, in which the characters seem constantly to be watching or spying on others.

The protagonists also have to keep an eye on themselves, as they are almost invariably lying about their true identities and motives. Madeleine pretends to be an aristocrat rather than a thief, while Tom pretends to have a higher position, salary and social status than he actually has. Once they fall in love, as in many other Borzage films, they have to stop pretending in order to achieve that spiritual community of the couple noted by most critics as a constant of the director’s work. Even in adverse circumstances, they achieve happiness. According to Kent Jones, “Happiness is far too weak a word to describe what Borzage’s couples experience.”6 In Desire, as in many of his other films (the most obvious – and, at the same time, most subtle – example being 1928’s supremely erotic The River), this communion is more than spiritual. Madeleine and Tom admire one another’s appearance under the Spanish Moon, but we are left in no doubt that waiting for the Moon to come out is the lovers’ erotic code for the next instalment in their passionate physical love. The spirituality in Desire is as much carnal as sacred.

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Desire (USA, 1936, 99 mins)

Prod Co.: Paramount Pictures Prod: Frank Borzage, Ernst Lubitsch Dir: Frank Borzage Scr: Edwin Justus Mayer, Waldemar Young, Samuel Hoffenstein Phot: Charles Lang Ed: William Shea Art Dir: Hans Dreier, Robert Usher Mus: Frederick Hollaender

Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, John Halliday, Zeffie Tilbury, Ernest Cossart, Alan Mowbray, Akim Tamiroff.

Endnotes:

  1. John Belton, The Hollywood Professionals, Volume 3: Howard Hawks, Frank Borzage, Edgar G. Ulmer (London: The Tantivy Press, 1974), p. 78
  2. Michael Henry, “Frank Borzage ou les ailes du désir,Positif 386 (April 1993): p. 83.
  3. ibid., p. 86.
  4. Joseph Ruttenberg, “Souvenirs d’un directeur de la photographie”, Positif 142 (September 1972): p. 72.
  5. Belton, op. cit., p. 123.
  6. Kent Jones, “The Sanctum Sanctorum of Love: Frank Borzage,” Film Comment 33.5 (Sep 1997): p. 41.