Screen Romanticist Borzage Triumphs Over History



Originally released in May of 1934, two months before the industry-wide enforcement of the pre-existing Motion Picture Production Code, Universal Pictures’ production of director Frank Borzage’s Little Man, What Now?, adapted from a contemporary bestseller by German author Hans Fallada, casts romantic leads Douglass Montgomery and Margaret Sullavan as a young couple struggling through one of the worst economic disasters in modern history. Set in Weimar Germany mere months before the Nazis took power, Borzage’s poetically-charged screen romance – title-dramatizing the eventual birth of the couple’s child from hopeful conception to open-ended emergence into an uncertain world – effectively triumphs over hardship, setbacks, and an ongoing national disaster, without trivializing the scope or threat of the real-life dangers facing the prospective parents at every turn. Kino Lorber Studio Classics presents an underknown romantic classic from an underappreciated master screen romanticist this early August from a brand new 2K master; offering viewers a cogent and deeply-expressed window on the relevant problems of almost exactly ninety years ago.

The film opens in an unnamed provincial German city where a young couple, Hans (Douglass Montgomery), and Emma, or “Lämchen” (Margaret Sullavan), awaits an appointment with a prominent gynecologist. After a tense encounter with an older, impoverished couple (Fred Kohler, Mae Marsh) in the doctor’s waiting room – the latter husband furious that Hans and Lämchen’s appointment should somehow give the younger couple preferential treatment – the young Pinnebergs (if we can indeed infer that they share the same last name at this point in the story) resolve to somehow make a life for their now growing family, despite the considerable difficulties and obstacles that await.

As unemployment and inflation soar, and vague political forces war openly in the streets, Hans’ lowly position as one of three clerks to imperious corn merchant Kleinholz (De Witt Jennings) is entirely dependent on keeping his recent marriage secret, so as to appear romantically available to Herr Kleinholz’s possessively infatuated daughter (Marie Kirkland). When the ruse is discovered during one of the Pinnebergs’ idyllic Sunday afternoons in the country, the entire motoring Kleinholz clan suddenly coming up on carefree Hans and Lämchen disporting themselves in the woods, Hans finds himself given immediate notice the following Monday morning. Rather than wait out the next few weeks of much needed pay, Hans quits on the spot.

The scene shifts to the legendary beauties and terrors of Weimar-era Berlin, where the Pinnebergs hope to establish themselves with the help of Hans’ flighty stepmother Mia (Catherine Doucet) and her mysterious connection to jovial if vaguely corrupt ‘operator’ Holger Jachmann (Alan Hale). With the well-meaning Jachmann’s help, securing tenuous work as a department store clothing salesman, the cruel sales quota retail novice Hans must meet to keep his position runs parallel with naive Lämchen’s gradual discovery of the illegal “entertainment” purposes of their dubious housing situation with Frau Pinneberg and Herr Jachmann. 

Eventually without home or employment in an increasingly dangerous city – alongside rampant crime, daily demonstrations, and open riots – the imminently expectant Pinnebergs are taken in by a kindly horse-teamster, Herr Puttbreese (Christian Rub), who provides them with an attic room above his stables, where their luck certainly couldn’t get any worse…

And indeed does not. The first of three films directed by Frank Borzage set between the world wars in Germany, the two later dramas Three Comrades (1938), based on an Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front) novel, and The Mortal Storm (1940), based on the anti-Nazi bestseller by author Phyllis Bottome, perhaps not so uncoincidentally also star Margaret Sullavan, who for her comparative lack of experience in films (amassing less than twenty credits over her entire career) nevertheless always registers strongly for her characters’ boundless courage, pluck, and resolve.

Borzage as a screen romanticist receives little credit for his unmistakable social and political sympathies – in fact had already dealt with a young American couple struggling through the Depression in Man’s Castle (1933) and had just previously portrayed children falling victim to a destructive martial frenzy in the strikingly anti-war No Greater Glory (1934) – and though the Nazis themselves remain unnamed in his later Germany-set films, Little Man, What Now? in particular does not spare viewers the conditions under which they were able to rise to power. The terrifying chaos that greets the wide-eyed Pinnebergs upon arrival from the country into belly-of-the-beast Berlin – one of the more memorable set-pieces in 1930s Hollywood movies, with the clawing, huddled masses filling a vast train station seemingly without spatial limits – is gradually dispelled as the emerging family faces down greed and corruption, and overcome hunger and impoverishment, towards celebrating the birth of their son in an attic above a stable overlooking the sleeping city. Having essentially created a place Apart through their steadfast devotion to each other – Sullavan as Lämchen clearly the stronger of the two, and at no point allowing despair to overwhelm their worsening situation – the Pinnebergs have not so much faced up to reality as stood down hopelessness.

While it might be almost anywhere else trite to say Love Conquers All, the best movies of Frank Borzage for 90 minutes or so of screen time somehow make you believe it. The dreamy, poetic atmosphere of even Death Overcome – famously, in both Borzage’s 7th Heaven (1927) and History is Made at Night (1937) – similarly defeats political and social evils by simply imagining – and crucially, believing in – a better world through redeeming love. In short, who wouldn’t want to spend a magical day in the country traipsing through a wooded glen with Margaret Sullavan?

Overwhelmingly answering that question are demonstrated (and equally committed) Sullavan ‘stans’ Allan Arkush and Daniel Kremer, in their enjoyable feature-length commentary, included as a special feature with Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray. Filmmaker Arkush and film historian/maker Kremer praise at length the uniquely elfin-by way of-ramrod steel screen qualities of this justly celebrated, if privately temperamental and complicated screen actress; showing that, as in the best of Borzage, a rocky life of fragile mental health, multiple marriages, and death at a relatively young age need not in any way impede an amply justified, postmortem screen crush. Also addressing such varied topics as Borzage’s unjustly forgotten legacy as a major Hollywood auteur, the curious lack of screen impact of male lead Douglass Montgomery, and the weird, sad, puzzling mortal end of influential and highly prolific 1930s costumer Vera West – whose signature dazzling white, sleeveless gown in famously as-yet unmentioned dressing mirror-triptych may go a long way towards explaining Miss Sullavan’s appeal here – certainly add depth and appreciation to one’s viewing of Little Man, What Now?

Reminding viewers that the problems of today, tomorrow, or yesterday by no means exist in a vacuum of “unprecedented” scare-quotes, this pellucid presentation on Blu-ray of History Overcome – from nearly 90 years ago – remains romantically relevant and eternally present in whatever 98 minutes one happens to view it.

Images used in this review are derived from various sources and are not meant to represent the visual quality of Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray.