This is an expanded version of an essay I wrote for Sight and Sound in 2020. The First Year (Frank Borzage, 1926) screens this week at MoMA on the opening night of the After Alice, Beyond Lois programme, curated by Kate Saccone and Dave Kehr to commemorate 10 years of the Women Film Pioneers Project.
Frank Borzage was one of the greatest Hollywood directors of young love. When we remember his silent work in particular, a very distinctive kind of romantic melodrama come to the fore: a passionate tale in which two youthful lovers confront unbearable adversity and yet are finally saved by the redemptive, mystical power of true love. Most famously, this path from darkness into light was trod by Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell in a trio of celebrated Borzage films from the end of the silent era: 7th Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928) and Lucky Star (1929).
When we think of Borzage films, we may also be thinking of Frances Marion, silent Hollywood’s star screenwriter. They made several films together, beginning with one of the silent era’s definitive melodramas, 1920’s Humoresque, based on the novel by Fannie Hurst. Marion had a genius for capturing the foibles of human nature, the absurdity of social hypocrisy and also the promise of passionate love, on screen.
Not all of their films are melodramas, of course. An out-and-out farce that they collaborated on has recently been restored, with funding from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and is screening as part of the After Alice, Beyond Lois screening programme at MoMA in New York this month. As this bright character-led comedy, 1926’s The First Year, shows, Borzage and Marion could tell a moving story of young people saved by love even amid pratfalls and roughhousing. Marion’s twin talents for comedy and romance, for creating characters that are both ridiculous and all-too believable, come to the fore. It’s not really so surprising that Fox remade this comedy in 1932 with Borzage’s dream lovers, Gaynor and Farrell, in the lead roles.
The First Year is a newlywed comedy based on a play of the same name by Frank Craven, and this adaptation stars Irish actor Matt Moore (Traffic in Souls, The Unholy Three) and Katherine Perry (an actress who married Owen Moore, Mary Pickford’s first husband). They play Tom and Grace Tucker, who are barely twelve months into their marriage and already considering chucking it in. Money is tight in the Tucker household, and Grace is tired of what she considers to be domestic drudgery, while Tom is pinning his hopes, and financial solvency, on selling a plot of land to the railroad company. Therefore, their future happiness seems to hinge on a dinner party, hastily cobbled together in order to impress a railroad official (J. Farrell MacDonald), who brings along his former-showgirl wife – a remarkably sweet comic turn from Margaret Livingston.
It’s a classic sit for a sitcom: the kitchen catastrophes pile on top of each other to create a delectably disastrous dinner while the Tuckers attempt to put on graces beyond their humble means, in the manner more recently skewered by Mike Leigh. Despite Grace’s protestation that she “didn’t do one little thing extra!”, it’s an aspirational spread scrounged on the cheap, and plagued by mishaps from the start. Even the shopping trip goes awry, leaving Grace stranded in the rain, accidentally abandoned by her hubby – a scene that’s genuinely moving rather than farcical, thanks to this film’s emotional sensitivity. And the table hardly groans with goodness, with Grace judiciously serving fresh melon to her guests and mouldy fruit to Tom, accompanied by a pitcher of a throat-stripping cocktail mixed from rank bathtub gin.
Grace’s assistant in the kitchen and at the table is hired maid Hattie, an 11th-hour replacement who makes it perfectly clear she’d rather be anywhere ese. There’s no doubting that this character is an offensive stereotype – the slothful African American maid – but as played by Carolynne Snowden, Hattie gains a little more gravitas, and threatens to steal the whole film. What may have been written as laziness is performed as disdain, and the feeling persists that Hattie is the only person present who can see right through the Tuckers’ sycophantic charade. Snowden was a dancer, actress and activist known as “California’s Josephine Baker”, who broke many barriers for women of colour in the entertainment business. She appeared in just 14 feature films, mostly playing maids as she does here, though she was at least granted a screen romance with co-star Stepin Fetchit in In Old Kentucky (1935). In The First Year she proves her mettle as a silent movie comic, with a lanky, deadpan slapstick that’s far more distinctive than any of the film’s other performances.
By the time The First Year wraps up, the Tuckers have seen off financial ruin and a vengeful ex-boyfriend, as well as weathering the storms of embarrassment and physical injury. As a wiser soul comments, they have merely been suffering from “matrimonial measles”, a disease that it is safest to encounter in one’s youth. Heartbreak, tragedy or merely cold feet and a spoiled dinner: Borzage and Marion offer true love as the cure.