Sunday, October 14, 2012

Lucky Star (Fox, 1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Lucky Star, a 1929 production from (pre-20th Century) Fox and the third in their successful series of films co-starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. It was shown as part of the series on the depictions of disabled people in films that Turner Classic Movies is running every Tuesday this month, and it fit into the tear-jerker mold of the two previous Gaynor-Farrell films, Seventh Heaven (one of the two films, along with Sunrise, that won Gaynor the first Academy Award for Best Actress; in the earliest days the award was given for one’s entire body of work in a given year, not just one particular film) and Street Angel, both directed, as was Lucky Star, by Frank Borzage. The story began as an awkwardly titled novel, Three Episodes in the Life of Timothy Osborn, by Tristram Tupper, and was adapted into a screenplay by Sonya Levien. It was one of those early films on the cusp of the silent-to-sound transition that was released both ways, as a straight-on silent and as a sound film with a Movietone music track and four sequences of dialogue, and the listing on the film in the chapter on Gaynor and Farrell in James Robert Parish’s book Hollywood’s Great Love Teams gives credit to both the dialogue writer (John Hunter Booth) and the title writers (Katherine Hilliker and H. H. Caldwell). Alas, all that seems to survive is the alternate silent version, made for theatres that still hadn’t wired for sound, and the sole extant print was discovered in the Netherlands and both the opening credits and all the titles were in Dutch. The film was restored at the George Eastman House, and they drew on various sources, including a cutting continuity of the sound version, the source story and the Dutch titles, to write a new set of titles in English that were serviceable except for the forced rural-dialect spelling of some of the words. Certainly the film was easy to follow, and though it was a bit less path-breaking than Ben Mankiewicz and his co-host on TCM made it seem — its basic plot (a World War I veteran returns from the war with a disability and tries to resume his relationship with the girl he was seeing before he left) had been done four years earlier in The Big Parade (one of the blockbuster mega-hits of the silent era and a movie that no doubt would have still been remembered by the original audiences for Lucky Star) — it turned out to be an utterly haunting movie.

In his book on John Ford, Tag Gallagher argued that Friedrich Murnau’s signing by Fox and the success (artistic and commercial) of his film Sunrise strongly influenced Fox’s other directors, including Ford and Borzage, and while I didn’t think much of that theory when I read his book, the more late-1920’s Fox films I actually have had a chance to see, the more correct it seems to be. Lucky Star looks like a German movie of the period — the oblique camera angles, the forced perspective of the sets, the careful framing and painterly lighting, and most obviously the fact that virtually the entire movie was shot inside a soundstage even though it’s set in a rural community and quite a lot of it takes place outdoors. Gaynor plays Mary Tucker, a teenage farm girl (when the film starts she’s still 17) who’s worked nearly to death and frequently brutalized by her hard-bitten mother (Hedwiga Reicher) — obviously Mary’s dad died in the backstory and one reason mom is so hard on her (and on her siblings, though we get so few shots of the rest of the family we’re not sure how many kids there are — aside from one kid sister, Milly, played by Gloria Grey) is that they’ve got to keep the farm going pretty much by themselves. One of their few sources of income is selling milk to the linemen working on the local phone lines (so the community, though rural, is developed enough to have telephone service in 1917 — a lot of places still didn’t), which Mary is seen diluting with water so it’ll go farther. She has two large canisters which she intends to sell for a nickel to the boss of the outfit, Martin Wrenn (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, known primarily for the comic-relief roles he played in 1930’s films like Kelly the Second but here cast as the villain!), only when Martin throws the coin at her instead of handing it to her, she steps on the nickel and claims she never got it. Martin and his underling, Timothy Osborn (Charles Farrell), get into a fight on top of a telephone pole — like Rudolph Valentino and Walter Long in Moran of the “Lady Letty,” they have to flail at each other with one arm each while using the other arm and their legs to hold on — and when Timothy realizes that Mary has deceived both of them and needlessly put their lives at risk, he literally takes her over his knees and spanks her long and hard. Meanwhile, Timothy has overheard a message going out over the line they were working on that the U.S. has got involved in World War I, and both he and Wrenn enlist.

Overseas, Timothy’s legs are crushed by a water truck that overturns, and when we see him again he’s living alone in a cabin and spending his time racing his wheelchair from room to room — he’s proud of how fast he can move in it (and a shot of steam rising from a meal he's cooking in the background reveals Charles Farrell really is moving that fast in the chair; it's not fast-motion photography) — and building gadgets, some of them quite elaborate in a Rube Goldberg sort of way (including a system of pulleys by which he can lower a bucket into the nearby lake and thereby get himself water). It’s not clear how he supports himself financially, though we were probably meant to think he makes his living by selling some of his devices. When Mary first sees him — she’s thrown a rock through his cabin window as a joke — he appears in the window and carefully conceals his disability from her as long as possible, but eventually she comes in and he’s “outed.” (This gimmick was used in the 1935 film The Dark Angel — also about a returning World War I veteran, though in that case he was blind instead of in a wheelchair — and it’s possible this scene appears in the 1923 silent version of The Dark Angel, which I’ve never seen, and Borzage and his writers copied it.) She and Tim start a relationship of sorts, which leads her to dress better (thanks to some money from the sale of their farm’s produce which she keeps from her mother — something Tim lectures her about when she confesses it to him), bathe and wash her hair in eggs (a scene that led me to joke, “Tim, when you said you’d make me an omelet, I didn’t think this was what you had in mind!”). Unfortunately, Mary’s mom doesn’t want her to tie herself down to a cripple (the C-word is actually used in the titles); instead she encourages Mary to marry Wrenn, believing that he’s still in the army (they threw him out after the war ended, but he still wears his uniform), that he has money and he’ll be able to guarantee her a good life in a large city. Mary is about to go off on the train with Wrenn when Tim, who in a previous scene had practiced getting out of the wheelchair and using crutches — only to find his legs still couldn’t support his weight — tears off towards Mary’s house, then when he sees the sleigh that’s taking Mary and Wrenn to the train, he goes to the train station, and somehow he’s able to pull himself along on the crutches until the power of Mary’s love miraculously gives him the strength to walk, and the last shot of the film is Mary and Tim standing together on the tracks of the departed train, with him standing proud and tall as they embrace.

The ending of this movie has rightly been criticized as preposterous — “The scenario asked viewers to accept the adage that love can conquer all, and that this love would give paralyzed [sic — we’re never actually told the exact nature of Tim’s injury] Farrell the strength to crawl over the hill to Gaynor’s farm and then the energy to lick the equally big-framed Guinn Williams,” Parish wrote — and yet the film overall is so intense and moving, and (until that strange ending) so true to the life of a person living with a disability, that Lucky Star triumphs over its ending. Much of what makes the film great is Farrell’s performance — which, compared to his rather empty juvenile performances in the other films I’ve seen him in, Sunnyside Up and Delicious, suggests he was actually an actor more suited to the silent screen than to sound. The high point of his acting occurs when Mary changes clothes at his place so she can attend a dance at the Firemen’s Hall — where she’ll dance with the able-bodied Wrenn and give him the idea that she’d be interested in him. Farrell’s acting when she leaves him behind is utterly convincing and surprisingly understated, almost Chaplinesque in its careful delineation of pathos; he’s also utterly believable as a person who, even if only temporarily, has lost the use of his legs. (The scene in which, having fallen down while trying to use his crutches, he has to drag himself across his living-room floor and lift himself up by his arms to get back in his wheelchair is especially convincing; Farrell manages to drag his legs behind him and make them look like dead weight.) Unfortunately, Fox, the Eastman House, TCM or whoever outfitted this film with one of Christopher Caliendo’s spiky scores, relying mostly on piano, flute and harp and making the film seem considerably more dire than Borzage and his writers probably intended — and Caliendo misses one sound effect that would have made the movie more convincing: when Tim plays a portable phonograph (one he’s made himself and gives to Mary during the course of the story), Caliendo should have broken off his own music and used a record of the period instead.

Overall, Lucky Star (a title never explained in the film itself) is a great movie that could have been even better, especially if the character of Wrenn had been made less of a villain and more of a Ralph Bellamy type (ironically Bellamy himself played a person in a wheelchair in the 1935 film Hands Across the Table), the sort of man who’s a perfectly nice guy and a decent match for the heroine but who doesn’t excite or move her as much as Tim does. Even that preposterous ending could have been made more credible if Tim had been shown using one of his homemade gadgets to give himself range-of-motion exercises in his bed (if he could devise a system of pulleys and ropes to get water without having to go outside for it, he could surely have made his own exerciser from similar materials!), and if the writers had inserted a bit of exposition to the effect that whatever physical damage had been done to his legs had healed and it was only the emotional burden and the fear of failure that was still keeping him dependent on the wheelchair. (In more recent films with this premise that’s usually been supplied by two doctors anxiously discussing the case, but Lucky Star may be unique among films about disability in never showing any of the protagonist’s medical care.) Lucky Star is one of those films that could have been better, but it’s a marvelous movie just the way it is — and having worked as caregiver for a disabled man for almost 30 years (until his recent death) I can attest that the way Tim’s character is drawn, with a thin veneer of pride over a deep (if eventually overcome) self-pity, is pretty close to the real thing — indeed, between the disabled character and the domineering mother, in some ways watching this film was a busman’s holiday for me!