“Can’t Stop Marathon” Review #1: Lucky Star (1929, Borzage)

June 30, 2011 — 17 Comments

I’m a very heavy user of the Filmspotting.net message boards. It’s one of the best film communities you’re likely to find on the entire web. Friendly folk who love real, in-depth talk about movies and other subjects. I recently decided to take my forum participation to the next level by starting a marathon. The premise is simple. I gave everyone and anyone on the forum the mandate of choosing five films I had yet to see. Any films. Good, bad, long, longer, disturbing, fun, anything. My first set of five films, submitted by forum member, Junior, consists of five films by Frank Borzage. First up: Lucky Star.

First of all, I have to admit complete ignorance of the work of Frank Borzage. I have not seen a single one of his films, and going into Lucky Star, I was completely unaware that is was silent. No problem, I like many silent films. But I have to say, I was a little worried. In my experience, silent dramas have often been too slow for my liking. A lot of stationary shots of people wildly acting out motions. You get the idea after a few seconds, but the shot just keeps going on and on way past the point of tediousness. So it was with a little bit of trepidation that I stepped into the world of Borzage. After watching Lucky Star, all I can say is, that trepidation has been fully been replaced by a ravenous desire for more.

Lucky Star tells the story of a young girl and two men. The girl, Mary, is a precocious thing; a little devious, often silly. Tim is a fine, upstanding man who works for the electric company. He’s right an honorable. Wrenn is Tim’s opposite, a contemptuous jerk who only gets by because of his strange ability to charm those unsuspecting. And so you have the workings of a love triangle. But, before that, the two men enlist in WWI and go off to fight in France. Wrenn is kicked out of the army, but pretends as though he is still a Sergeant. Tim is far less lucky. He is nearly killed by a shell, and loses the use of his legs. When they come back from the war, Tim strikes up a friendship and blossoming romance with the young Mary. Wrenn then attempts to steal her away and marry her. Classic romantic drama.

Two specific elements help Lucky Star rise well above your ordinary romance, though. The first is the manner in which the relationship between Mary and Tim is developed. Tim becomes something of a father figure to Mary, teaching her how to be a good person, helping her learn to value cleanliness and respect. At the same time, Mary keeps Tim grounded, occupied by another human being rather than wallowing in his own sadness. Their relationship grows and develops and never once feels cheap or manipulative. It worth nothing that the actors are also excellent. Mary, as played by a young and ravishing Janet Gaynor, is simply magnetic. Charles Farrell, as Tim, is equally great. Sympathetic in all the right ways, and strong, too.

The other elements that raises Lucky Star up is the direction. Scenes last as long as they need to. The shots are often beautiful, and there is a great mix of stationary and moving cameras. This all lends the film a wonderfully watchable quality, even by the standards of the fast-paced, quick-cut editing we’re used to seeing today. Borzage really made the most out of a film that really did not need to be visually inventive. He clearly pushed his actors to give subtle, humane performances, which is quite remarkable in a silent-era film.

There is one thing, though, that has not sat so well with me regarding the film. There is a character development in the final minutes of the film, that while feeling completely earned in a dramatic sense, is both fairly illogical as well as somewhat in opposition to the theme of universal acceptance the film clearly addresses when dealing with a “cripple” in a wheelchair. It isn’t a big enough problem to undermine the film at all, but I have to wonder why a film that was so subtle and complex up to that point would abandon that in favour of the all-important happy ending.

Still, the happy ending is there, and it makes me smile. Lucky Star is a wonderful film, silent or not, that has me absolutely eager to watch whatever else Borzage’s filmography has in store. I’m also looking forward to more of Janet Gaynor, the real revelation for me in this film. It’s not always easy to find a romance that follows standard tradition without succumbing to cliché and silliness. Lucky Star is an example of a film that tells a classically simple story, a romantic drama with a love triangle, and does so with style and substance. It’s a great film, and it’s a great way to start off what is sure to be a great-but-taxing marathon.

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17 responses to “Can’t Stop Marathon” Review #1: Lucky Star (1929, Borzage)

  1. 

    Welcome to the cult of Borzage! No go watch more!

    The real question, as one John Hernandez put it, is “do you believe in the miracle of love?” That’s a core question that will probably define whether or not Borzage is a director you like or love.

  2. 

    LUCKY STAR!

    The movie is great, obviously, and you described why quite well. I disagree that the ending hurts it. For me the movie is about learning to grow in relationships. Once that growth happens any mere physical boundaries can be overcome through sheer force of will. That line I always quote, “souls made great through love and adversity.” This movie’s got them both in spades.

    • 

      Yeah, I wouldn’t say that the ending hurts the film at all, just that my brain was going “that’s illogical, and while it fits that one theme, it kind of undercuts the other theme.” Not really a problem, but it was something that stuck out in my mind. Stupid brain.

  3. 
    Giancarlo Stampalia November 8, 2011 at 1:30 am

    Lucky Star is indeed a beautiful film, possibly Borzage’s greatest, in the tradition of grand love melodrama. But, while the same director had pulled all the stops out in his more famous 7th Heaven, here he pushes some of them back in, delivering a restrained, measured film with restrained, measured performances.

    No wide-eyed silent-film ranting here, but quiet, realistic depictions of humans quietly interacting (and holding some of their feelings back for themselves and not showing them to the world). Farrell and Gaynor certainly interact, and are irresistibly charming together.

    Now, the ending. Well, from a realistic-scientific point of view, the scepticism of Corey’s post might be justified. But the point is made in the realm of transcendence/poeticism. The same magical resurrection/transformation that revived Chico in 7th Heaven revives Tim in this film. The magic of love, or the magic of life, and of human will and emotions. And that snow! What could be more enchanting than that whitening coat of snow delivered by heaven, to make Tim’s climb more difficult but also to visually give light, and softness, to that climax? That whiteness is equated with winter wonderlands, with silence, purity, innocence. If you look at all that through logical/realistic eyes, you miss the point.

  4. 

    A love story of kindness, compassion, and the caring for someone innocent. I understand what everyone is saying above. I just believe this film gave me a sense of believing childlike.
    I was totally into the plot and I believe this is one of the best films I seen in a long time.

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