Frank Borzage’s Lucky Star Was the Apotheosis and End of Silent Cinema
Note: This is the hundred-and-fifty-first in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my favorite 1929 film, LUCKY STAR, directed by Frank Borzage.
Frank Borzage was one of the Great Romantics of old Hollywood. His apparent naivete drew criticism for some time after his heyday, during which he was widely celebrated; for example, he won the first Academy Award for Best Director (when the award was separated between drama and comedy) for 7TH HEAVEN (1927). However, as with many directors of the old establishment, Borzage’s reputation grew once again after he was dead and gone. Now, many return to his work and find the apparent simplicity refreshing. I’m one of them. In most Borzage works you can find kernels of acknowledgement of greater societal ills, some more blatant than others, among the pure romantic inclinations. LUCKY STAR is a perfect example of this, a pinnacle of silent film released the same year as the semi-official start of the sound era.
It’s worth mentioning that LUCKY STAR was also released as a part-talkie, but the silent version is all that’s left. Perhaps it’s for the best, because of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell’s number of on-screen relationships, this is the most tender and heartwarming. The universality of the slow build of their relationship is more affecting to watch than even those of 7TH HEAVEN and STREET ANGEL (1928), and wider in scope than the more typical plotting of SUNNY SIDE UP (1929). And I don’t just throw the upper-case R Romantic around for Borzage; especially in the silent era, he was practicing the Romantic movement of art and literature both visually and thematically.
I’m not sure I entirely support the Expressionist label applied to many German films and subsequent Hollywood films that took cues from and were literally made by the German filmmakers who invented Expressionism on screen. The later silent works of Borzage are some of said to have the style of Fox peer F.W. Murnau especially. Certainly, 7TH HEAVEN and STREET ANGEL feature exaggerated set design and chiaroscuro lighting. But nowhere in those films can you find Expressionist performances, and both movies’ dueling influences and verticality ultimately remind me of paintings like “Arrival of the Stage Coach” (1859) by Carl Spitzweg. I’d even argue Murnau’s SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927) fused his previous Expressionist innovations with the dreamier mysticism of the Romantic love story. From that, LUCKY STAR has more in common with SUNRISE then I think Borzage’s previous Gaynor-Farrell romances, and not just because Gaynor appears in both. Both LUCKY STAR and SUNRISE suffuse dark, moody settings with light and elation, echoing the style of a Caspar David Friedrich and “Two Men Contemplating the Moon” (1820), or maybe more fittingly, “Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon” (1824).
LUCKY STAR’s sets, designed by Harry Oliver (nominated for the first Oscar for Best Art Direction for 7TH HEAVEN), carry this dark-light influence beautifully into its agrarian world. Borzage was very skilled, with a few films of the silent era, at creating an Americana out of time, bringing an almost European or foreign sensibility to the realms of THE RIVER (1929) and, most of all, LUCKY STAR. It’s almost hard to describe just how deeply LUCKY STAR’s setting pulled me into its story, whether it was because of the cloistered roads leading to and from Mary’s (Gaynor’s) and Tim’s (Farrell’s) homes, the pond besides Tim’s abode, or the nightmarish battlefields of France.
Speaking of France: perhaps some attention could be paid to the story of LUCKY STAR. Rural utility workers Tim and Wrenn (Guinn Williams) go off to join the war, and when they get back, Tim’s legs no longer work and Wrenn struts around as if he were a decorated soldier of World War I, when in fact he was a lazy coward. Tim and Mary develop a friendship after their contentious run-in before the war, and in a far cry from his more aggressive Borzage performances, Farrell presents a gentler, wiser character who restrains his love for Mary. The way Mary’s mother treats someone like Tim, a cripple incapable of delivering a good life to Mary, as she puts it, and Wrenn, a self-serving liar who seduces Mary’s mother and convinces her to give her daughter up to him, are elements that may have been cast in a larger, social context. But Borzage is more concerned with the immediate, interpersonal relationships, although the treatment of Tim and Wrenn is itself an indicator of larger problems, and the nuanced disruptions at home that the war caused.
But it’s in the details of Tim and Mary’s relationship that the heart of LUCKY STAR lies. Whether it’s his sudden ingenuity in the face of a life of paraplegia or his goofy yet kind contributions to the farm girl’s hygiene, the small elements of their dynamic generally eschew cultural considerations and rise above cinematic cliches, even as LUCKY STAR and Borzage may appear to leverage or create them. It’s as refined as silent film got, an incredibly poignant and mobile film amid the slew of novel mediocrities and interesting experiments that represented the sound era in its first year or two.