Director: Frank Borzage
Cast: Charles Farrell, Rose Hobart, Estelle Taylor, HB Warner, Lee Tracy, Walter Abel, Mildred Van Dorn, Guinn Williams, Lillian Elliot, Anne Shirley
Most people are probably most familiar with the story of Liliom through Rogers and Hammerstein’s beautiful musical Carousel (which I think is the team’s masterpiece). And Fritz Lang’s 1934 adaptation of the play is also probably more famous than Frank Borzage’s. But the story, characters, and themes are so very much Borzage’s bread and butter than his telling of the story is, without a doubt, the definitive one.
Julie (Hobart) is a somewhat shy girl who loves arrogant ladies man Liliom (Farrell) from afar. They finally meet one night at the carnival where Liliom works as a barker at the carousel. When he flirts with Julie, his boss, Madame Muskat (Taylor), who has a thing for Liliom herself, fires him. Liliom and Julie marry, but Liliom spends his days laying about without a job. Julie loves him, and he loves her, despite the fact that he doesn’t treat her very well. When he finds out she’s pregnant, he decides to join up with a friend in a robbery. But, as usual, things go very wrong.
This is so very much the kind of story Frank Borzage loved. He was a hopeless romantic, and the transcendant power of love was a theme that was prevalent in most of his films, and it’s extremely present, and powerful, in Liliom. Not only does the love between Julie and Liliom transcend their inability to communicate as a couple, it transcends death. And it makes Liliom a better person, even though that might happen a little too late. For some, it might be hard to get past Liliom’s rough treatment of Julie. But relationships are often messy, especially when the characters are so extremely complicated, and Borzage is able to look past the surface difficulties and see the beauty of the relationship.
Borzage always had an excellent style, but Liliom is quite unique, in many ways. The story takes place in Budapest, and Borzage clearly tried to make the setting and overall tone of the film have a European feeling. Most of the story takes place in the house that Julie and Liliom share with Julie’s aunt. It’s an odd, almost stage-like setting, with large rooms, that are almost entirely empty save for one piece of furniture, huge windows, stairs, and tall, empty walls. It gives the entire movie a kind of other-worldly feeling to it, almost as if Borzage is saying that Liliom’s life and afterlife aren’t that far apart. The carnival is used to great effect, and it visible in most scenes. You can see it through the window of the house, almost as if it haunts Julie and Liliom. Most impressive are the scenes of the afterlife. Not only does it look really beautiful, but just the concept of the train to the afterlife through the clouds is very creative.
This was the first sound film I ever saw Charles Farrell in, and let’s just say that is voice is… unfortunate. It’s very high and not at all what you’d expect to come out of his mouth. But it’s kind of proof that a voice like that wasn’t quite the career ender many think it to have been. Farrell made films well into the 1930s and remained quite successful throughout. Despite his voice, though, Farrell gives a really wonderful performance. He’d had practice playing tough guys who actually had big hearts in other Borzage films, and this is kind of the culmination of all that. He plays the arrogant rascal so well, but he gives Liliom so much heart. His development of the character, right through to the end, if beautiful.
Rose Hobart’s performance might be a little stagey, but the important thing here is making Julie’s undying love for Liliom, despite his treatment of her, believable, and she does a beautiful job of that. She makes Julie a sweet, shy girl who becomes Liliom’s moral compass.
Borzage’s Liliom is really just a stunning film. It’s one of his most visually unique films, but it’s all about the emotion. It truly reduced me to tears in its final act. A beautiful piece of emotional filmmaking.
By Katie Richardson