December 07, 2008
Frank Borzage through "Little Man, What Now?"
The first exchange of dialogue in Little Man, What Now? (1934) is what caught my attention and immediately drew me into the film. It is raining, and camera moves in on Pinneberg, the protagonist, as he waits in front of the office of a gynecologist. On the street, a man is giving an impassioned speech for a small and ambivalent group. A stranger approaches Pinneberg:
Stranger: You like the soapbox orator, young man?
Pinneberg: I can't even hear what he's saying.
Stranger: Ah, just as well. I heard him. He said that the rich are too rich and the poor are too poor. And he's going to change things--he's going to make the rich too poor and the poor too rich. He's going to change God's work!
In its opening minute, the film captures the problems of the outside world and the social conditions of our couple and dismisses it all. "Nothing much wrong happens to the peaceful man," the stranger says in the office shortly afterwards. Although the rest of the film is driven by the problems posed by tough social times, bitterness and aggression are not responsible solutions--social hardship is not important. What is important?:
Love, of course. This romantic solipsism is what so powerfully draws me to Borzage's work and what he is famous for. It is by love that man conquers the world, not by hate. But fostering love is difficult when the world conspires against it--this is the prototypical Borzage theme and wonderfully exemplified in Little Man. Our couple struggles to rise above the social tragedies they face; when Pinneberg is being interviewed for a job, he says this to his potential employer as he pleas for a position:
Pinneberg: I don't want to walk the streets, Herr Lehman.
Lehman: Many are walking the streets these days.
Pinneberg: Yes, I know. I'm afraid of the streets.
Lehman: The streets? Or of yourself?
Poverty breeds hate and malice. It is not poverty Pinneberg fears but the feelings that come with it; he values his love and peace and fears that he will become a man of anger and resentment. This is Borzage's central conflict. Love is our triumph, however low the world may bring us (be it to sewers or shanties). Borzage's world is thus not just a proclamation of love, but a deep understanding of social dilemma and a philosophy of progress. The handling of social issues is something I greatly admire in Little Man. There is a clear sense of morality and tolerance. My favorite touch is the socialist character Heilbutt, who not only gives a passionate and awesomely concise speech in favor of his fellow workers, but who also becomes the savior of our couple at the end as they are simultaneously within their brightest and darkest hour.
Perhaps what most attracts me to Little Man, What Now?, and to Borzage's work, is the sincerity of the characters. Generally, the more characters proclaim their love with words, the less I believe and understand that love, but there is a balance of words and action and an understatement of conflict (perhaps because of the theme of personal triumph) that makes a Borzage love wholly sincere. When Pinneberg and Lammchen are in the woods, or at the carousel, or in the park, there is an overwhelming sense of honesty, a feeling that the conflict, however minor, is real, a liberating knowledge that the connection between them is genuine.
It is innocence. This sincerity is true of minor characters, too; a character's motivation does not need to be continually questioned or assessed. They are straightforward and simple and clear. This is also true of Borzage's filmmaking, and I love it. Borzage's is a rare and delicate sensibility, one that truly believes in love's powers. It is not cynical, it is not ignorant, it is not doubtful, it is not arrogant, it is not overstated, it is not defeated--it is sincere. It is wonderful.
[Borzage box in several days! I will have to wait a few weeks before I can get my hands on it, but having exhausted most of what is available on home video I am ecstatic for this set.]