Wednesday, June 08, 2011

THE RIVER (1929)

Charles Farrell, a strapping but innocent young man who has never known a woman in any way, shape, or form (even his mother died when he was a baby) builds himself a barge and goes sailing down the river to get a look at life. At a dam construction site, he puts in for the winter, just missing a big fuss in which the foreman (Alverdo Sabato) has been sent to jail for the murder of a man who was paying too much attention to Sabato's mistress (Mary Duncan). Left behind are Duncan, living alone with a pet crow which she takes care of but also sees as the eyes of Sabato still watching her, and big burly deaf-mute Ivan Linow, a buddy of the dead man who has vowed to get revenge. Farrell and Duncan meet cute-sexy while he's swimming naked in the river (and exposing, briefly, much more flesh than usual for the average male movie star) and take a liking to each other, engaging in some awkward but sensuous flirtation which causes him to miss his train to the big city. After a number of missed trains, he decides to stay for the winter and they set up housing together, but when he proposes marriage, she tosses him out in a snowstorm, telling him he's not man enough yet. He decides to show her by going on a tree-chopping marathon in the storm, but after the fourth tree, he collapses. Linow finds him unconscious and almost frozen to death, and he and Duncan try desperately to save his life (pictured below).

Added as an extra on the SEVENTH HEAVEN disc in the Frank Borzage boxed set from Fox, this silent film is a reconstruction of a 75 minute movie of which only about 45 minutes remains extant. Missing are the beginning (which sets up the backstory about Duncan, Sabato, and Linow), a couple of scenes in the middle, and the climax, in which Sabato escapes jail and comes to the river to kill Farrell. The disc includes on-screen text summarizing what's missing along with a handful of stills to illustrate the action. Still, what's left is remarkable, and really does tell a clear stand-alone narrative. The pre-Code story is very sexy, with an unusual focus on the hunky Farrell in what would typically be the role of the female: the virginal innocent (whose semi-clad body is often on display) being wooed by a more experienced lover. He's actually quite good at coming off as innocent but also sexy and confident, and Duncan is equally good at being a woman of the world without seeming trampy. The sets, of her cabin, the construction camp, and the ravine with the train track running over it are nicely detailed and almost expressionistic. One perfect scene summarizes the plot, the tensions, and the visual style: one night in her cabin, he sets a checkerboard up on the bed, ready for a good game; she clearly just wants to screw. She throws the board off the bed and lights a candle, but the light causes a huge shadow of the crow and its cage to be cast over the bed, stopping her in her tracks. It's a shame the entire film doesn't exist, but what's left is still quite wonderful. [DVD]

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