Frank Borzage (1894-1962)

Frank Borzage
Frank Borzage

Frank Borzage was an actor and director in the Hollywood of the early Twentieth Century. He began in silent movies and successfully made the transition to Talkies and became one of the most successful of the early movie directors. He won the first ever Academy Award for Best Director for his movie 'Seventh Heaven' in 1927 and he gained a second Best Director Oscar for 'Bad Girl' in 1931.

During his 40 year career he made over 100 movies and he was one of the best known Hollywood directors in the 1920's and 1930's. He made some classic films such as Seventh Heaven (1927), A Farewell to Arms (1932), Little Man, What Now? (1934), Three Comrades (1938), The Mortal Storm (1940), and Till We Meet Again (1944). The expression "the Borzage touch" became synonymous with a romantic and sentimental style, treating love stories with a lasting and unusual tenderness.

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Frank Borzage was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on April 23, 1894, the fourth of eight surviving children of an Italian-speaking father and a mother whose native language was German. The family was Catholic and endured six infant deaths from influenza during Frank's childhood. The family was poor but extremely tightly knit and many of Borzage's films would reflect the importance of a strong, loving family amidst the uncertainty of poverty.

He became interested in the theater and acting whist still a boy and when he was just 14 he left school and worked in a silver mine to earn money to take an acting course. As a young teenager he began as a prop man and then started acting with traveling theater groups. When he was 18 he was attracted by the new acting medium of moving film and he began working for pioneering producer/director Thomas Ince who was revolutionising and streamlining the way movies were being made. Borzage swiftly made his mark as an actor and in 1914 became one of the early movie stars with the leading role in 'The Wrath of the Gods', a romantic melodrama.

He continued as leading man in several more films for Ince, and by 1916, had become a director as well as an actor, beginning with short one reelers, such as 'The Pitch O' Chance' in 1915 and 'The Silken Spider' in 1916. For the first two years of his directorial career he co-starred in his movies while also directing himself.

Many of his early movies were Westerns or thrillers like 'Nugget Jim's Pardner' in 1916 or 'The Ghost Flower' the following year with such stars as Bessie Love, William Desmond, Pauline Starke and Gloria Swanson, and it was only in the early 1920's that he began to establish his characteristic style and romantic themes that were to make him one of Hollywood's most successful directors.

His first critical and popular success as a director was the sentimental and vivid drama 'Humoresque' in 1920, about a gifted violinist born into a Lower East Side immigrant Jewish family. (The movie was remade with a completely different screenplay, in 1946, starring Joan Crawford).

He made other important silent films including the 1923 drama 'The Higher Law' (originally titled 'The 'Nth Commandment') and 'Seventh Heaven' in 1927, for which he earned the first ever Academy Award for Best Director and which helped make top stars out of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. In 1924 he used the same actors to make the superb 'Street Angel', one of the finest ever silent movies. Janet Gaynor won the Academy Award for Best Actress in succeeding years for 'Seventh Heaven' and 'Street Angel'.

He took to the coming of Sound with ease making his first all-talking feature, 'They Had to See Paris' in 1929. In 1930 he made a well received adaptation of a Fritz Lang movie 'Liliom' and in 1931 earned a second Academy Award for Best Director for 'Bad Girl'. In 1932 he directed 'A Farewell to Arms', based on Ernest Hemingway's tragic love story set in Italy during World War I, and starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes (who got a Best Actress nomination); he made 'Man's Castle' in 1933, a tale of love blighted by the despair of the Depression, starring Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young, which is equally affecting.

Borzage showed he had a lighter touch when he directed 'Desire' in 1936, a romantic comedy with Marlene Dietrich as a glamorous jewel thief and the following year 'History is Made at Night' conjured an irresistible romance from a story about a divorcee and her jealous ex-husband.

By this time, Borzage had come to be regarded as one of Hollywood's finest directors, admired throughout the industry for his imaginative and elegant touch in handling difficult story lines, and he now changed from working for a variety of studios, and settled at MGM, which was regarded as the most prestigious studio at the time.

As well as the romantic and sentimental work for which he had become well known Borzage also made more serious movies on topical subjects, such as 'Little Man, What Now?' in 1934 which dealt with the difficulties facing the ordinary man in Germany after World War 1. Later in the decade he directed Joan Crawford in three of her more unusual and thought-provoking movies; 'Mannequin' and 'The Shining Hour' in 1938, and 'Strange Cargo' in 1940. Also in 1940 he made 'The Mortal Storm', starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart, which demonstrated his ability to deal with contemporary social problems, in a movie about the destruction of an ordinary German family as the Nazis rose to power.

The quality of Borzage's work noticeably declined during the first half of the 1940's. 'Flight Command', made in 1941 was a routine description of the home life of military pilots and 'Smilin' Through' was an uninteresting remake of a ghost story, which had been filmed twice before. His best film of the period was 'Stage Door Canteen' in 1943 which used a breathtaking list of stars to help the war effort. In 1944 he returned to his theme of the liberating power of love with 'Till We Meet Again' about the love between a nun (Barbara Britton) and a fugitive American aviator (Ray Milland) transcending the hostile, war-torn world around them.

After the war, Borzage's career began to wane. He switched studios in 1945, moving to RKO making 'The Spanish Main', a gentle satire of the pirate movie, and then he moved again, to Republic Pictures where, in 1949 he made the finest movie of his later career, 'Moonrise', a poetic film noir filled with some visually unforgettable scenes.

It was almost the end of his career. His type of movie, with its rich romanticism, was no longer in demand in the more cynical world of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' and he made no further movies for 10 years. In the mid 1950's he directed three instalments of the series Screen Director's Playhouse, but he did not make another movie until 1958 when he directed 'China Doll', a WWII drama starring Victor Mature and Ward Bond. The movie was not well received on release but has since come to be regarded as a superb embodiment of the essence of Borzage's work. His last movie was 'The Big Fisherman' in 1959, a religious epic which flopped at the box office.

Shortly before his death, Borzage worked on some sequences in the 1962 film L'Atlantide (Journey Beneath The Desert), for which he was uncredited.


Borzage was not one of Hollywood's tyrannical directors. In fact he was extremely well liked by his actors and crew who enjoyed the unusually peaceful atmosphere he created on his movie sets.

He married three times, firstly in 1916 to silent film actress, Lorena "Rena" Rogers, the love of his life, who treated him poorly and during their marriage took lovers of both sexes. Borzage overlooked her infidelities and extravagances as much as possible and took mistresses of his own and was said to have had discreet affairs with numerous actresses such as Lupe Velez, Mary Pickford, Marion Davies, Joan Crawford and Hedy Lamarr. Nevertheless he was deeply distressed by the breakdown of their marriage and developed a drink problem.

They divorced in 1941 when her affairs became too public and he then married, in 1945, Edna Skelton, ex-wife of comedian Red Skelton. They divorced in 1949 and finally he was married happily to Juanita Scott, an accountant, from 1953 until his death in 1962. Borzage was treated for alcoholism several times during his Hollywood career and he finally quit drinking early in his marriage to Juanita.

On June 19, 1962, Borzage died in Westwood, CA, of cancer.

Frank Borsage Filmography (As Director)

The Mystery of Yellow Aster Mine (short)
The Pitch o' Chance (short)
The Pride and the Man
Dollars of Dross
Life's Harmony (short)
The Silken Spider (short)
The Code of Honor (short)
Two Bits (short)
A Flickering Light (short)
Unlucky Luke (short)
Jack (short)
The Pilgrim (short)
The Demon of Fear (short)
The Quicksands of Deceit (short)
Nugget Jim's Pardner (short)
That Gal of Burke's (short)
The Courtin' of Calliope Clew (short)
The Forgotten Prayer (short)
Matchin' Jim (short)
Land o' Lizards
Immediate Lee
1917 Flying Colors
Until They Get Me
The Gun Woman
The Curse of Iku
The Shoes That Danced
Innocent's Progress
Society for Sale
An Honest Man
Who Is to Blame?
The Ghost Flower
The Atom
Toton the Apache
Whom the Gods Would Destroy
Prudence on Broadway
The Duke of Chimney Butte
Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford
Back Pay
Billy Jim
The Good Provider
The Valley of Silent Men
The Pride of Palomar
The Higher Law (original title The 'Nth Commandment
Children of the Dust
The Age of Desire
The Lady
Daddy's Gone A-Hunting
The Circle
Wages for Wives
The First Year
The Dixie Merchant
Early to Wed
Marriage License?
Seventh Heaven
Street Angel
Lucky Star
They Had to See Paris
The River