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Frank Borzage’s “Green Light” (1937)

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer from Green Light.

I’m not usually much of an enthusiast for “inspirational” films, which often seem forced and insincere, but for as long as I can remember, Frank Borzage’s 1937 medical drama Green Light has had a claim on my heart and mind. Perhaps it’s because Borzage — one of the greatest, but yet one of the most historically neglected directors — is at the helm of the picture; perhaps it’s the strength of Errol Flynn’s portrayal of idealistic doctor Newell Paige, who takes the rap for another doctor’s malpractice, convinced that in the end, the truth will come out, and exonerate him at last. There’s also Margaret Lindsay and Anita Louise, both fresh and appealing in the film, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s quite believable role as Dean Harcourt, a radio evangelist who dispenses remarkably sound advice, exhorting his listeners to pay heed to the “traffic signals” of human existence.

Some days, the film argues, you get a green light, and you can just get up and accomplish whatever you wish; other days, a yellow light, for caution; and sometimes, a red light, which forces you to stop and consider your situation – and you must wait, and wait patiently, until the green light signals that you can continue your journey.

As Elizabeth A. Kingsley notes on her website, And You Call Yourself A Scientist!,Lloyd C. Douglas was Senior Minister at the First Congregational Church of Akron, Ohio, during the 1920s. He became a published author of non-fiction works during that time and then, having moved to Los Angeles in 1926, he began writing fiction, telling stories that illustrated his own passionate belief in the need for faith, and of the benefit to the many that comes through the self-sacrifice of the individual. Douglas’s first novel, Magnificent Obsession, was an enormous best-seller; it would eventually be filmed twice, in 1935 and 1954. A number of Douglas’s other novels would also become films. His most frequent interpreter was Frank Borzage, and anyone who has any knowledge of the director’s career will have no difficulty understanding why.

As is the case with Douglas’s novels themselves, there is no cynicism in Frank Borzage’s films, and nary a breath of irony. When his characters talk about “God”, they mean it; when they talk about “love”, they mean that, too. His films deal primarily with men and women who can recognise each other’s souls; who struggle not just with love and passion – although there is plenty of that in Borzage’s work; refreshingly, he never shied away from the sexual aspects of love – but with issues of dedication, of loyalty, of self-sacrifice and self-denial. They are intense, romantic, and utterly sincere – and they have, consequently, an almost unparalleled ability to make modern audiences squirm with discomfort.

His most frequent interpreter was Frank Borzage, and anyone who has any knowledge of the director’s career will have no difficulty understanding why. As is the case with Douglas’s novels themselves, there is no cynicism in Frank Borzage’s films, and nary a breath of irony. When [Borzage's] characters talk about “God”, they mean it; when they talk about “love”, they mean that, too. His films deal primarily with men and women who can recognize each other’s souls; who struggle not just with love and passion – although there is plenty of that in Borzage’s work; refreshingly, he never shied away from the sexual aspects of love – but with issues of dedication, of loyalty, of self-sacrifice and self-denial.

Green Light, perhaps the least known of all the Lloyd Douglas adaptations, is nevertheless a classic example of the author’s work. It tells the story of Newell Paige (Errol Flynn), a rising young surgeon whose career is destroyed when he takes the blame for his mentor, Dr. Endicott (Henry O’Neill), who botches an operation and causes the death of a patient. Paige’s heroic gesture leads to further heartbreak when he falls in love with Phyllis Dexter (Anita Louise), the daughter of the unfortunate patient, only to have her recoil in horror from, as she believes, the man who killed her mother. The film follows Paige as he struggles up from the depths of despair to the salvaging of his sense of self-worth; and finally, to his gaining of both love and faith through, in typical Douglas fashion, an act of near-fatal self-sacrifice.

Much of Green Light, particularly the first half of the film, is taken up with debates over the nature of faith, and the eternal versus the here-and-now. In this, the medical profession, in the shape of Newell Paige and the nurse who loves him, Frances Ogilvie (Margaret Lindsay), faces off against the positively saintly Dean Harcourt (Cedric Hardwicke), who was the human inspiration of the doomed Mrs Dexter (Spring Byington), and who later helps Phyllis Dexter to work through her feelings of anger and hatred against those who caused her mother’s death. Unusually, Green Light is the story of a man who finds God through science.”

In times of trouble, I always find Green Light serves as a useful corrective to whatever the current problem might be in my own life; for years, I had to rely on a copy I taped from TCM, but now, at last, the film is available from Warner Archive on DVD, and when I found that out, I immediately ordered two copies. It’s a beautiful, deeply felt, utterly sincere film, and one which Errol Flynn was pleased to be in, as it marked his first “modern” role, after the swashbuckling antics of Captain Blood (1935) and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). But Green Light, for all its merits, wasn’t a resounding commercial success, and so Flynn was soon pressed back into service in period pieces, forever the dashing action hero. Yet in this film, we can see a side of him that’s simply not on display elsewhere; Flynn’s Newell Paige is a real, fully drawn character, and under Borzage’s inspired direction, Green Light still packs a punch even in these jaded times, and is well worth viewing.

Frank Borzage directing Spring Byington and Errol Flynn in Green Light

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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