When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
Categories: Classic Film, Good Stuff

I don’t think it was ever released on home video, but thanks to Turner Classic Movies, we occasionally get the chance to see BORDERTOWN, a Warner Brothers drama from 1935. The two top dramatic talents then under contract to Warners (Paul Muni & Bette Davis) are lensed together in their early, edgy days of raw talent.

Now-forgotten director Archie Mayo was as equally gifted as the film’s two stars.  In this movie, he gave interesting and naturalistic stage business to even the most insignificant of bit actors, while energizing his camera with a hungry prowl.

In the Depression Era, Warner Brothers’ slogan was “Combining Good Citizenship with Good Picture Making.” With that motto to guide them, Warners produced films on injustice (I WAS A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG), homelessness (WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD), and drug addiction among the ex-military (HEROES FOR SALE).

BORDERTOWN deals with a Latino growing up tough in Central L.A., who works his way through law school only to be disbarred soon after graduation for getting into a fight with an opposing attorney.  The film opens with a painterly documentarian montage of the Mexican neighborhoods of Los Angeles (reminiscent of the large body of leftist independent filmwork of the 1930s by directors such as Willard van Dyke or Pare Lorenz), which dissolves to the seeking, probing studio camera of Mayo as it climbs the stairs to an urban law school.  BORDERTOWN isn’t grounded in the hegemonic Hollywood imaginary of the classic era:  in the first non-documentary shot, we see the graduating class of a law school with Asian, African-American and Latino men and women sharing the front row.  Warners also had the cajones to cast an actual Latina actress (Soledad Jimenez) as Muni’s mom.

The first half-hour is totally Muni’s film (Davis doesn’t enter until after he’s disbarred and disillusioned, and is employed by Davis’ husband in a Mexican casino).  Mayo lets Muni’s performance spill over at the edges, the same way Nicholas Ray gave artistic growing room to James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.  In addition to occasional bursts of inspired extemporaneous creativity, Muni displays his professional craft by nailing the cadence and inflection of Spanglish (English was not his first language; he was born in the Ukraine).

Without spoiling the narrative, there’s a murder that occurs in the film which was later lifted and inserted in the Humphrey Bogart film THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (D: Raoul Walsh, 1940).  It’s fascinating to document the segue in Warners’ style between the decades of the 1930s and 1940s when their filmmaking shifted from realism to melodrama:  the murder in the ‘forties film had waves of Max Steiner music and angled shots loaded for dramatic effect.  In BORDERTOWN we get natural sound and a fragile human figure placed in a field of industrial horizontals.

Depression-era second-lead Margaret Lindsay (as the Gringa love interest for Muni) delivered her performance in her impeccable skill (she never lost her touch even a decade later when appearing in such Poverty Row epics as Edgar G. Ulmer’s CLUB HAVANA).  Ms. Lindsay never married, so many are revisiting her place in Hollywood society as a possible member of the film colony’s Sewing Circle.

The story is novelistic in its narrative arc, and ends with a final line that is highly ambivalent:  is it a racist remark or an articulation of empowerment?  But for the one hour and forty minutes beforehand, it’s an engrossing show of a passionate and gutsy Muni, Davis – the caged minx, and the “genius of the system” mechanics of Warner Brothers at its most socially conscious.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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