Reviewed by: Adam Micklethwaite

Set in pre-World War One Budapest, this ‘love story of Julie, a serving-maid, and Liliom, a merry-go-round barker’ is an innovative and intriguing – but fairly inconsistent – adaptation of Franz Molnar’s stage play. Filmed in 1930, during the early years of “the talkies”, the film is certainly notable for its experimental techniques and remarkable production history. It was disliked and misunderstood by the Hollywood big shots and banned from many Catholic countries for its ‘irreverent’ depiction of the afterlife – but now appears substantially dated, due to its wooden performances and leaden dialogue.

Typically for Borzage, Liliom begins with an unlikely love story between two remarkable characters from the lower echelons of society: Julie, the pretty serving-girl who refuses to fear, and instead falls in love with, the big, bad, philandering fairground barker, Liliom (Charles Farrell). Following the established formula, the romance undergoes substantial difficulties, as they both lose their jobs and Liliom succumbs to the temptation of crime in order to finance his dream of emigrating to America. However, it is here that the conventional love story ends and something altogether more unusual and interesting begins, as Liliom is unable to win out against his demons, leading to a tragedy which forces him to undertake the ultimate journey.

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In many ways the film marked a departure for Borzage, not least in the recent advent of spoken dialogue which brought a whole new dimension to the cinema, but also in the tragic nature of the film’s central love story (prefigured in the opening slide, which references Liliom’s death), in stark contrast to the sentimental, romantic happy-ever-after which viewers had come to expect from the director. It was also a break-up of the Farrell-Janet Gaynor partnership (Gaynor being out-of-favour with William Fox, having demanded more control over her own career choices) and indeed of the now-familiar formula which had characterised their three previous outings under the watchful eye of Borzage.

Farrell may have been a huge star in Hollywood when Liliom was being filmed, but nothing can disguise how badly his performance has dated since then. The delivery of his lines now seems not only rigidly theatrical, but also extremely stilted and artificial, in stark contrast to his performances in Borzage’s silent classics, such as 7th Heaven and Street Angel, where visual expression and body language conveyed far more than anything this script has to offer. In addition to this problem of dialogue, there is also the question of how to respond to the character of Liliom – something which apparently gave the Hollywood studio and marketing execs of the day quite a headache. A notorious philanderer and a quick-tempered, self-centred anti-hero, he is certainly not an easy character to like. It is hard to understand what exactly Julie sees in him in the first place, and even harder to see why she stays with him.

Julie (Rose Hobart) is herself a very unusual, unconventional, somewhat paradoxical heroine. There is something proto-feminist in her refusal to fear Liliom for his past or for his reputation, but her unquestioning devotion seems, at best, misguided, and at worst self-destructive. The controversial denouement implies a sado-masochistic dimension to her affection for Liliom and also suggests an aspect of self-delusion in the implication that his memory makes her happier than he ever had during his lifetime.

Liliom was the first film to use the technique of rear projection, in which the actors are positioned in front of a screen, behind which is a projector, projecting the desired background image. This technique is used to phenomenal effect in the famous train sequence, in which the ethereal transport of the afterlife travels from the tracks of the rollercoaster through the window and right into the room where Liliom lays dying. This beautiful sequence is a potent visualisation of the eternal journey of the afterlife, a symbol of progress, and of the promised land of America towards which our Hungarian hero aspires; the antithesis of the circular, repetitive, unchanging merry-go-round which seems an apt metaphor for the consistent mistakes which Liliom has made throughout his life.

In many ways the film is representative of the transience of Borzage’s genius: moments of brilliance such as the hypnotic merry-go-round sequence, which serves as a visualisation of the whirlwind romance of the lovers; and the visual poetry of the aforementioned train sequence. But we also have an unsettling, good-for-nothing central character who (in spite of several mitigating actions and qualities) remains very difficult to identify with; an unconvincing central love story; and a kind of ambiguous religious dimension which is neither wholly reactionary, nor wholly revolutionary. Like the film’s hero, it suffers something of an identity crisis, which ultimately makes Liliom more of a curiosity than a masterpiece.

Ironically Liliom seems to have aged more than Borzage’s earlier silent works, and is now perhaps more well-remembered for its experimental techniques and troubled history than for the film itself.

Reviewed on: 08 Jan 2010
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A serving girl falls for a fairground barker.
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Director: Frank Borzage

Writer: SN Behrman and Sonia Levien, based on a play by Franz Molnar

Starring: Charles Farrell, Rose Hobart, Estelle Taylor, HB Warner, Lee Tracey, Walter Abel, Mildred Van Dorn, Guinn Williams, Lillian Elliot, Dawn o’Day, Bert Roach, James Marcus, Harvey Clarke

Year: 1930

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US


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