Little Man, What Now? (Frank Borzage / U.S., 1934):

It takes Fritz Lang to spot the horror of small-town America, for the tremulous delicacy of Weimar Germany you go to Frank Borzage. The camera floats down from the activist spieling atop a soapbox to Douglass Montgomery and Margaret Sullavan together in the rain, and at once the synergy between tumultuous national spaces and privileged private worlds is established. Penniless and about to bring a child into a land of "too many organizations," the young couple move through a gallery of frail sanctuaries punctuated by vivid cameos (DeWitt Jennings’s Neptune-bearded workshop tyrant, Alan Hale’s affable pimp, Alan Mowbray’s motion-picture peacock). Beneath the soft-focus textures lurk poverty and demonstrations and "messages from the great leader" -- woodland idylls are short-lived yet palpably sensual, Berlin is a lavish edifice promptly revealed as a brothel. Sullavan glides and glows like a Molnár nymph but Montgomery can’t help being grounded in the darkening quotidian mood, modeling a template of fine-boned vulnerability and violence for future Nicholas Ray protagonists. ("I’m afraid of the streets," he tells a potential employer. The reply slashes him: "Of the streets... or of yourself?") Sharply corroding the atmosphere of brittle romanticism with each appearance, a seething protester (Fred Kohler) and his tiny wife (Mae Marsh) plod in and out of the narrative as if warning about the folly of placing ideology above emotion -- the lovers’ cracked-mirror counterparts, and cameos as unsettling as any of Dr. Mabuse’s conspiracies. A portrait of faces and hands clenched and caressed, a dreamscape of grime and satin, Borzage’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, just about. Back from the darkness outside, Montgomery falls in supplication before his beloved ("Take care of me, please"); the couple’s newborn son receives the eponymous question, Three Comrades and The Mortal Storm provide increasingly distressed answers. Cinematography by Norbert Brodine. With Catherine Doucet, Muriel Kirkland, and Donald Haines. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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