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Ouch...this didn't age well--it's a strange and very uneven film.
I can now see why this particular film directed by Frank Borzage is not one of his more famous ones. It simply isn't a very good film by today's standards. Much of this can be attributed to when it was made. Borzage was a fine director--particularly of silents. This one, however, is one of his early talking pictures--and it suffers from several problems relatively common in early talkies. The sound quality is only fair (you'll want to use the optional captions), some of the actors way over-annunciate and the dialog is, at times, poor. However, it was up to the director to re-shoot scenes where lines were flubbed--and too often they were used as-is and the film looks a bit rough because of it. A few examples are Julie's girlfriend and her often lousy style of delivering her lines (bizarre is more like it), the awkward way Farrell knocks down Hobart at 35 minutes into the film and the subsequent stilted dialog between Hobart and her male friend, the Carpenter.
As for the plot, "Liliom" is an odd film. Unlike some of Borzage's films where the nobility of the common man is demonstrated (such as in "Street Angel" and "Seventh Heaven"), here in "Liliom" the characters are poor but very earthy. Liliom is a ne'er-do-well--a leech who feeds off his girlfriend, knocks her up and hangs with low-life friends--a type plot you'd never see once the Production Code was strengthened in 1934. It's rather odd to see Charles Farrell (Liliom) in such a role--not the usual nice guy and a bit odd looking underneath his gypsy-like hair and mustache. As a result, it's harder to connect with his character and, in fact, you find yourself hating him. As for his poor girlfriend, Julie (Rose Hobart), she just seems weak and pathetic--and incredibly needy. Put in psychological terms, he seems like an antisocial personality and she like a dependent personality.
When the film begins, Liliom meets Julie and he seems taken with her but also very indifferent at the same time. As for the quiet Julie, she is clearly smitten and allows him to move in with her. He doesn't work and soon she becomes pregnant. All the while, one of Liliom's old girlfriends keeps popping in and out of the picture. When Liliom learns that Julie is pregnant, he finally tells the girlfriend to take a hike and he wants to be responsible. So, he does what such a guy would do--plans on a robbery with his friend to get cash. What happens next you'll just need to see for yourself--and I pretty much suspect that you will never guess! And does it get weird!!
While I found the plot at first unpleasant due to the annoying characters, sub-par acting for a Borzage film and disliked the sloppy scenes needing re-takes, there still was a lot to like in the film. Borzage was a master at cinematography and used black & white film in an ingenious manner--and the film's use of shadows and wonderful sets are impressive. This is something Borzage perfected in the silent years and it clearly carries over here. Also, while some noted that the rear-projected backgrounds were not very good, it was the first film to use this technique--and you need to give the film makers credit for this. I particularly loved the scene where the train came through the window--it was surreal, beautiful and impressive. And speaking of this, the plot does change and picks up considerably towards the end--and must be seen. As a result of so much good and bad, the overall film is bizarrely uneven. I cannot hate it, but I really couldn't unequivocally recommend it either (even with a cool second half). Simply put, it should have been a lot better.
By the way, it is interesting and fitting that H.B. Warner was cast as the Magistrate in the film considering only a few years before he played Jesus in "The King of Kings". And, didn't the plot seem to justify and even romanticize domestic violence?!
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