Thursday, 18 March 2021

A Brunswick Pop-up Cinema at gallery gallery - Peter Hourigan tracks down BACK PAY (Frank Borzage, USA, 1922) in the backstreets


Seena Owen, Back Pay

I’d really been completely unaware of Frank Borzage’s Back Pay 
(1922). Of course, everyone knows his beautiful films with Janet Gaynor such as Street Angel(1928) and Seventh Heaven(1927). And his filmography stretches from 1913 to 1961 with many very special films. Now, after having a chance to see Back Pay in a screening with a unique atmosphere it’s one of the Borzage films I value highly. 

                   This place has instead been turned into Arts spaces. It seems some artists use the spaces for studios, there is a Dance Studio, though I believe this has had problems related to Covid and lockdowns. A large space, under the factory Saw Tooth roof is being repurposed and a part is becoming a screening room, comfortable re-purposed old sofas for seating, a good screen and ceiling mounted projector. 

                      But the film is of course, the thing.  And Back Pay is glorious.  It’s not a particularly unusual story.  Small town girl is attracted by the glamour of the big city, but falls victim to its vices, until…

                    Hester Bevins (Seena Owen)  is the small town girl  yearning for the bright lights of the City, despite the ardour of her beau Jerry Newcombe (Matt Moore) .  But she turns her back on him for New York where she makes it in the world of parties and bankers! We don’t see her ‘earning’ her living, but we get the idea. Her banker friend won’t give in to her pleas for the $22,000 chinchilla coat, and least not now having only given her the gold plated Rolls Royce last week.

                World War I doesn’t really affect her until she learns that Jerry has been wounded and has been repatriated. When she visits him, his condition, and his still ardent passion for her cause her to re-evaluate her life and her values.  And to add any more would be to stray into spoiler territory.

                       It is no surprise that this comes from a novel by Fanny Hurst, writer of many romantic novels with a dash of social issues – for example, race, women’s rights –  many of which became enduring films such as Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959) and Back Street (1931, 1940). And no surprise either that the script was by one of the most famous and accomplished scriptwriters of the period, Frances Marion, who wrote most of Mary Pickford’s best films. 

                         From start to finish, Back Pay is a visual glory. Cameraman Chester Lyons worked with Borzage on several occasions.  His images of small town life glow with life and light.  When Freddy tries to persuade Hester to marry him, they’re out in the countryside at dusk. A low light picks them out but turns the large tree Hester is bracing herself against into a large black barrier. There’s a sense of hope, unseen possibilities (how Fred is hoping things will turn out) but enclosed by heavy shadows and emptiness – Hester’s future symbolised neatly. 

Seena Owen, Matt Moore,  Back Pay

                        Light coming into dark rooms dominates some of the bleak scenes when Jerry arrives back hospitalised. The light highlights our point of interest – but it’s surrounded by shadow, and shadow appears to be winning, as it may be for Jerry.   I could go on with more examples, but my pen is not powerful enough.

                       Another delight comes from the titles. Frances Marion’s dialogue is crisp and insightful, telling and succinct. And there are the titles that make comment, perhaps a bit dramatically romantic and cod poetic, but still emotional as they pass across the screen.

           New York meant everything to Hester; but to New York Hester was only an unreckoned drop of its lightblood—Youth

            And later we read,

But Hester did not realize that with Jerry she had walked out of the streets of Babylon, and that there was no returning. 

              On many of these titles the art work is yet another enriching element.  An object on the side of the dialogue card will add a special poignancy to the words. 

               Silent films were not presented in silence. And accompanying silent films today is a challenge that has defeated many. A couple of muso friends   calling themselves the Gallery Pop Up House Band (I’m not even sure if they would capitalise that description) provided an effective soundtrack for our viewing.  No attempt at creating tunes, or even sound effects, just an ambience that never tried to draw attention away from the film. They were outside in a large gallery area and their sounds were bounced into the screening room by the saw tooth roof of the space, present, filling in the silence, supporting the film. 

                Actually it’s rather exciting that such an event happens. And those of us there felt we were really rather privileged.

                 Back Pay has been preserved in the Library of Congress and a beautiful recent restoration can be seen if you click here for the Internet Archive.  There is no soundtrack at that site. 


Editor's Note. Since posting this report from Peter Hourigan, Melbourne critic Jake Wilson has sent in this note: I was surprised and delighted to see Peter Hourigan's account of the Gallery Gallery screening of Back Pay, an event I played a role in to the extent of choosing the film. I've passed it on to the organisers -- I know they're planning further screenings, with different people curating each time. This is something of a trial run for the venue as a mini-cinema -- it'll revert to a gallery/installation space in a couple of weeks, but with the idea of switching back again further down the track. To keep in touch about further screenings at Gallery Gallery check out their Instagram page here 

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