In 1945, with World War II drawing to a close and another upheaval in the habits of moviegoers in the offing, Republic Pictures head Herbert J. Yates recognized that the market for the B-Westerns, action films, and comedies that had kept the studio humming since the mid-'30s was in danger of drying up. He decided to mount some prestige productions and sought out the talents of major directors, writers, and producers who thought in terms of something more substantial than Roy Rogers capturing rustlers. That led him to director Frank Borzage, and culminated with Moonrise, the most expensive movie ever made by Republic up to that time, but one that was worth every penny. Arguably Borzage's finest directorial effort and the most hauntingly beautiful movie ever issued by the studio, Moonrise is filled with delights at just about every level that it is possible to enjoy in a movie -- John L. Russell's cinematography is some of the finest you'll ever see in a black-and-white movie, and his work, coupled with that of editor Harry Keller, achieves a quality of elegant visual lyricism that often flows like poetry, never more so than in the movie's extraordinary opening montage. Additionally, the movie offers Dane Clark in one of the most sympathetic roles of his career as Danny Hawkins, a young man who has been hounded and tormented all of his life because of his father dying on the gallows. Danny isn't perfect, and he has his mean side and his self-destructive side, which we get to see in painful close-up perspective, but he's also as kind and gentle as circumstances and his intelligence allow, and that's considerably more than all but a handful of the other characters in this movie could say. Gail Russell also slips effortlessly into an almost impossibly written role as Gilly Johnson, a schoolteacher who befriends and then falls in love with Danny; the part is written almost too sweet to be true, but Borzage lucked out in getting Russell, whose natural gentleness allows her to seem totally convincing in most of the more difficult aspects of the part.
There are also a brace of unexpected and unusual characterizations and portrayals throughout the rest of the movie: Rex Ingram in one of the best roles of his career as Mose, a retired railroad brakeman who happens to be the most well-read man in the town of Woodville and possibly the entire county, and the man most conscious of his place in the universe, a philosopher and a sage whose wisdom transcends the racial divide that separates him from the rest of the town; Allyn Joslyn, who normally played comedy roles, portraying County Sheriff Clem Otis, who is more thoughtful and articulate than anyone around except maybe Danny; Ethel Barrymore as a backwoods matriarch, in a brilliant and totally unexpected scene; Harry Morgan as a sympathetic deaf-mute, the complete opposite of the sinister mute character that he portrayed in The Big Clock that same year; and Charles Lane, barely recognizable as a mysterious man in black.
Not everything about the movie is perfect, despite its visual and acting splendors. Dane Clark's portrayal of Danny is marred by his distinctly urban accent and vocal inflections, which make his use of the phrase "I reckon," intended to show Danny's backwoods origins (which are essential to the plot), very awkward; and Russell's almost burlesque Southern accent in a very important scene not only doesn't seem like her voice but appears very obviously to have been looped in, as she's facing away from the camera for most of the scene. Those flaws in writer/producer Charles F. Haas' script -- based on Theodore Strauss' novel -- prevent Moonrise from achieving quite the classic status of which every other aspect of the movie makes it seem worthy; but for all of those problems, there are still many layers of delights and haunting beauty, as well as impending tragedy lurking not far from the surface. Even composer William Lava, never a front-ranked musician in Hollywood outside of the action genre, rose to the occasion here, delivering an inspired score in a heavily orchestrated, highly melodic mode more often associated with Max Steiner.