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The Projected Image: A History of Disability on Film
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Lucky Star

"There can never be a Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell love team again," Janet Gaynor told Look magazine in 1970. She and Farrell had long since retired from the silver screen, and their classic romantic pairings of forty years earlier already seemed like something out of a forever-lost world, never to be regained. Now, forty years since Gaynor's reflection, in a world where film preservation, Turner Classic Movies and other entities have made classic film much more widely accessible, Gaynor-Farrell masterworks like 7th Heaven (1927) and Street Angel (1928) shine again, giving us a glimpse of that lost world in all its ethereality. To that list add Lucky Star (1929), a film that was itself believed to be lost forever until an immaculate nitrate print showed up in Amsterdam in 1989 and was restored.

7th Heaven and Street Angel established Gaynor and Farrell as one of the all-time-great pairs of screen lovers. Both films were directed by Frank Borzage, Hollywood's foremost romanticist. The duo's third film, Lucky Star, was also directed by Borzage but had a more troubled journey to the screen and did not resonate as well with audiences, although seen today, it easily ranks as equally superb.

Based on a five-page short story by Tristram Tupper entitled Three Episodes in the Life of Timothy Osborn, first published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1927, it tells the story of the love between a farm girl and a crippled WWI veteran. Before the war, Timothy (Farrell) works as an electrical lineman and has a friendship with Mary (Gaynor). But he returns from the war without the use of his legs, and, unable to resume his old job, spends his time mending "broken things." He also becomes quite a master of acrobatics with his wheelchair, doing wheelies and maintaining his grace in what the Pacific Film Archive later described as "one of the most extraordinary images of disability in cinema." Timothy and Mary become sweethearts, but the girl's mother wants her to take up instead with Timothy's sergeant from the war. As usual in Borzage's best films, love is shown as a transcendent, healing power, able to overcome all odds, and the film builds to a delirious climax of rehabilitation. There simply has never been a director better than Borzage at showing the process of falling in love, and at making its power emotional, lyrical, and participatory for an audience.

By the time of Lucky Star, Borzage had been directing for fifteen years and had over fifty credits under his belt. He was at the height of his powers, and so was silent cinema in general. In the late 1920s, silent filmmaking techniques in Hollywood had reached a zenith of sophistication, and astonishingly fluid movies were being made left and right. (As film historian Kevin Brownlow has said of Lucky Star: "From the opening scene you know you are in the hands of a master.")

It's ironic, then, that at the time Lucky Star was released, the film was more famous for being a part-talkie -- one of the first features (particularly from Fox) to incorporate talking sequences. The film only had dialogue added midway through production, however. Shooting had started on February 4, 1929, as a 100% silent picture, because even though Fox had been adding talking sequences to its films for months, it still produced some completely silent movies for the many theaters not yet wired for sound. But on March 24, studio chief William Fox decreed that from then on, Fox would release only sound films in English-language territories.

Production on Lucky Star shut down for a few days while sound equipment was organized and the two stars went to Palm Springs for lessons in diction. A dialogue director was brought on set when filming resumed, but Borzage soon ejected him. The last half of the film was shot in two ways, silent and sound, so that foreign-language markets would be able to project the completely silent version. The talkie version was released in America, reviewed by critics, and is today a lost film; the silent version was released overseas and is the one that was rediscovered in 1989 and restored.

Borzage biographer Herve Dumont has written that Borzage filmed Lucky Star entirely on a soundstage in a brand-new complex, Fox Movietone City, that the studio had just constructed. Borzage "wanted to modulate light a great deal," wrote Dumont. "This excluded natural lighting, which was too unreliable." The massive indoor set included "two farms with neighboring fields, groves, stream, waterfall, hills, paths... a village square... and small station with a railroad. Lighting this complex required 60 arc lights and 80 incandescent spotlights." The visual control that all this afforded to Borzage paid off handsomely, as it allowed him to mirror the ethereal qualities of the story's emotional content in the look and feel of the sets themselves. As one French critic (quoted by Dumont) declared, "This story takes place in the poetic setting that belongs only to Borzage, in the landscapes reconstructed as if in a dream."

On May 16, 1929, a few weeks after production wrapped, the first Academy Award ceremony was held. Janet Gaynor won Best Actress for her combined work in 7th Heaven, Sunrise (1927), and Street Angel. Borzage also won an Oscar® that night, for 7th Heaven. (A second directing Oscar®, in the comedy category, was handed out to Lewis Milestone for Two Arabian Knights [1927].) In late May, Gaynor left her footprints in the cement of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and six weeks later, Lucky Star opened nationwide.

Unfortunately, Gaynor's wave of good publicity was not enough to rescue Lucky Star from the critics. Variety called it "a poor programmer" and complained about the length and the melodramatics. The New York Times was indifferent at best, saying the film "deals with nothing new, and...ends with a rather sentimental flourish." Of course, it was the talkie version they were reviewing, which Dumont has written was much more "explicit" and on-the-nose in its melodrama. It was also quite a bit longer in running time. Another likely reason for the poor reception was that the film's modest scope and quiet story came off as an old-fashioned anachronism in a sea of modern talkie releases, most of which promised spectacular use of sound. In any event, what the critics and audiences saw as Borzage's, Farrell's, and Gaynor's first talking film is known today as their last silent film.

A few months after Lucky Star, Gaynor and Farrell's next picture was released: the modern, sharp -- and 100% talkie -- Sunny Side Up (1929). Pure entertainment, it became a huge hit, but despite that film's triumph, Gaynor and Farrell would have varying success adjusting to sound. Gaynor fared well, with a voice that matched her sweet, petite look, but Farrell had a tough transition because his thin voice seemed at odds with his tall, full frame. Eventually he lowered his voice and was able to make quite a few sound films. All the while, the duo kept appearing on screen together; they teamed up in twelve films, nine of which were talkies (not including Lucky Star). But it is their silent work, including Lucky Star, that remains best remembered and loved today by filmgoers lucky enough to experience it.

Producer: William Fox
Director: Frank Borzage
Screenplay: Sonya Levien (writer); John Hunter Booth (dialogue); H.H. Caldwell, Katherine Hilliker (titles); Tristram Tupper (story)
Cinematography: Chester A. Lyons, William Cooper Smith
Art Direction: Harry Oliver
Film Editing: H.H. Caldwell, Katherine Hilliker
Cast: Janet Gaynor (Mary Tucker), Charles Farrell (Timothy Osborn), Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams (Sgt. Martin Wrenn), Paul Fix (Joe), Hedwiga Reicher (Mrs. Tucker), Gloria Grey (Mary Smith), Hector V. Sarno (Pop Fry).
BW-85m. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Jeremy Arnold

Sources:
Sarah Baker, Lucky Stars: Janet Gaynor & Charles Farrell
Jeanine Basinger, Silent Stars
Herve Dumont, Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic
Connie Billips, Janet Gaynor: A Bio-Bibliography

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