I should clarify that 'The River (1929)' today exists only in an incomplete form, with about forty minutes of footage considered lost, including the opening and final acts. Nevertheless, a 2006 reconstruction runs for 55 minutes and fills in narrative gaps with intertitles and promotional stills. Importantly, the surviving footage pretty much depicts in its entirety the romance of Allen John (Charles Farrell) and Rosalee (Mary Duncan), which is the backbone of the story.
I originally heard 'The River' described as the most erotic film of the silent era, so I naturally said to myself, "that piece of information has absolutely no bearing on my interest in this film." In fact, it isn't as described (something like 'Erotikon (1929)' would probably be closer to the mark), though leading actress Mary Duncan certainly does sultry very well. Farrell's traditional co-star was Janet Gaynor, but I can see why the switch was made here. Gaynor was always the epitome of feminine innocence and fragility; this role requires an actress with a hard crust, someone along the lines of Marlene Dietrich.
Most of 'The River' unfolds in an isolated valley, where the construction of a dam has been temporarily postponed. All the workers leave for the winter, except for Rosalee, whose boyfriend has been arrested for murder, and Allen John, who misses the last train because he keeps getting distracted by the womanly presence. The small cast, and confined surroundings, thus breed an element of intimacy (though I can't recall so much as a kiss between the two lovers). Nobody did melodrama like Borzage, and this here is beautifully-shot melodrama.
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