Frank Borzage, one of the finest directors of the Golden Age of Hollywood, made the first talkie version of Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár’s play Liliom for the Fox Film Corporation in 1930. Throughout the film there is extraordinary cinematography by Chester A. Lyons, but one scene in particular is a standout: when Julie (Rose Hobart) sits at the bedside of the wounded Liliom (Charles Farrell).
The camera gets closer, making the scene increasingly intimate as well as more melodramatic in combination with the dialogue and the swells in the score. And then…
This is such an unusual close-up. As soon as editor Margaret Clancey cuts to this shot, you are struck by how much headroom there is above Hobart and by the low placement of her chin, dipping slightly out of the frame. That is exactly what makes the shot so memorable: it defies typical Hollywood standards for filmmaking and for how to photograph a star, particularly a female star.
As Hobart sits and quietly weeps, the camera captures her sorrow. Deglamorized though she may be, there is something beautiful about the way Rose Hobart cries onscreen, the big tears even more noticeable because of the stark planes of her face and the fairly small amount of makeup on it.
The scene continues and as the glistening tears make their way down her face, Hobart continues to dominate a scene which is really supposed to be a major moment for Charles Farrell. Instead it is Rose Hobart who I remember best (no offense to Farrell; he’s a fine actor in his own right), the close-ups of her face giving her a cinematic privilege that is not extended to Farrell. I would not be surprised to learn that Borzage saw The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) because as I watched Rose Hobart in this emotional scene in Liliom, I thought often of Dreyer’s unforgettable close-ups on Renée Maria Falconetti.