Monday, May 04, 2009


After a weekend of loud movies and sportscasters, there's nothing like cleansing the palette with a silent film. It's like meditation or a skin peel, but much more productive and not so new age-y. The black & white photography will take you back to day one while the occasional intertitles will pace your heart rate down and give your eyes time to soak in the scene. But it's the special ones that will remind you how short a century of cinema we've truly had. For, in Lucky Star's best moments, Frank Borzage's simple film can hang with the exotic work of Bertolucci, Kubrick, and Wong-Kar Wai and never feel out-of-time and dated.

I'm remembering a conversation I had a while back with blogger buddies Greg and Bill over The Earrings of Madame De... or, more specifically, the 1950's films of Max Ophuls as a whole, and how elegant and sophisticated the camera movements in those movies were and how shocking it was for me to witness such technical expertise from an era five decades in the dust. You can chalk that ignorance up to a lot of things: age, lack of wisdom, lack of exposure, a modern film culture's indifference. You certainly can't blame the many hero film preservationists from Criterion to Bogdanovich to Blue Underground and on for pulling the old forgotten oeuvres of yesteryear back up against the tide of the current iMovie revolution. Bless them all.

While the personal discovery of a movie like Lucky Star is reason enough to celebrate the advent of DVD, it's also a scary reminder of perhaps what's been lost (and what will be) as the transfer from film to video to DVD continues to selectively thin out the annals of film history. We should be thankful for what we have, I suppose, but it's a little disheartening to discover a masterpiece like Lucky Star, look into its directors past, find that he directed over 100 films in his career, and then realize that, roughly, only 15 of them are currently available on DVD. It's true that Borzage worked in an era where studio directors made 20 films in a year without sneezing, but as his post-1930s output "slowed" to 2-3 movies a year, he began making big time films with stars like Spencer Tracy.

So tell me, how is it that a movie produced by Ernst Lubitsch, directed by Frank Borzage, and starring Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich isn't available on domestic DVD???

I mentioned earlier that Lucky Star is a simple film. The set is basically constructed of two houses with a winding path in between. Mary (Janet Gaynor) is a bloody-knuckled teenage farmhand playing the role of husband and son to her widowed mother, and Tim (Charles Farrell), is a young, foppy-haired, ethical and honest cutie who works for the utilities company. Their paths cross when Mary brings Tim and his co-workers some milk but they kind of hate each other at first like star-crossed lovers always do. WWI comes between them, and when Tim gets back, he's in a wheelchair and Mary has matured (almost). Her idea of a first reunion is to go schoolyard on Tim's house by slinging a stone through his window. But Tim shrugs it off, or, rather, in his loneliness, welcomes it like a angry kiss. Mary and Tim are inseparable.

The rest of the film mixes through classically romantic and melodramatic images that have been parodied away in the eighty years since Lucky Star's release, but it is validation of Borzage's talent (and Gaynor and Farrell's as well) that the onscreen moments between the two lovers retains a passionate sincerity. It's difficult for me to pinpoint how. The explanation probably lies somewhere in the intangibles of a great director, the invisible genius you can't capture or teach, but just admire from afar and in wonder over nerd-circle discussions.

I'll take my shot in naming at least one definitive, however. Key to Lucky Star's brilliance, I think, is Borzage exploiting his cinematic limitations. Yes, this was the silent era, so directors were without a cloud of reference that included sound, color, tracking shots, etc., but Borzage still exhibited a tremendous amount of confidence in his actors by letting his camera sit on a scene for an extended take. Take, for example, the scene where Tim attempts to walk on his crutches for the first time. The still frame simply holds Tim, his wheelchair, the crutches, a dresser, a window, and a door, yet the moment is like a mini-movie in itself. We know Borzage is letting it roll, so we settle in and tell ourselves stories about Tim's struggles. It's the ultimate in image-to-eye transference of information, and it rings like anything but silence in my head.

**The image of Janet Gaynor was found on DVD Beaver.


Greg said...

as the transfer from film to video to DVD continues to selectively thin out the annals of film history. ...

I think about that almost everytime I search for an old film only to find it's not on DVD. Like Morocco for instance, also with Cooper and Dietrich (like Desire) but directed by von Sternberg. Then I think of all the crap that is available on DVD instead and it makes me cringe.

Lucky Star is one I haven't yet seen and would love to now that I've read more about it here. Are the Borzage DVDs available seperately or only as a part of the box set?

Fox said...


The Borzage movies are all available separately on Netflix. I recently watched Borzage's Bad Girl too, and enjoyed it, but not near as much as Lucky Star.

I recently watched a Warner Bros. Archive movie, and you'e right that the quality wasn't a pristine transfer but I hope that they continue to do it (and that others follow) because even though the product wasn't ideal, it's 1000 times better than never having it. (btw... still waiting to see if Netflix will start carrying those).

Marilyn said...

Borzage is about at the top of the bubble for rediscovery. He's already been the subject of a couple of retros here in town. I haven't seen much of his output, but this sounds great. Gaynor and Farrell were among the best of their era. Of course, Gaynor was the star of the timeless love story Sunrise.

Coincidentally, I was watching a silent film last night, a rather silly Richard Dix film about Hollywood called Souls for Sale (1923), notable primarily for its cameos (Chaplin, Fred Niblo, von Stroheim, Jean Hersholt).

Fox said...


What a face Janet Gaynor had! I guess that can be said for many silent-era stars because their physique was their voice, but she especially must have been a joy to photograph. She almost doesn't seem real, like she's just a figure in a painting come to life.

A local theater here in town does a great job every summer of running classic films on the big screen. I don't want to say I have a beef with them, because I don't, but the only silent films they ever play are the standard Chaplin. Nothing wrong with that, but it would be great to see other silents on the big screen.

Maybe there is fear of a low turnout. I don't think there would be in a big town like mine, but that business fear is understandable. And there does seem to be a barrier between silents and talkies even among people who are filmheads. I'm not immune at all. I find myself having to be in "a certain mood" to watch a silent movie, while I can pretty much through any genre of talkie film on and run with it.

Marilyn said...

We have the Silent Summer Film Festival every year, to which I trace my obsession with Richard Dix (they screened The Vanishing American). Their programming was always at a very high level, but lately, it's become more humdrum. (If I see the Phantom of the Opera on their roster one more time, I'll scream.) I wonder if that has to do with ticket sales or a changing of the guard at the Silent Film Society of Chicago. I used to be in on their doings through a friend who is on the board, but he hasn't had time for them. Perhaps you should try to get on the programming board, Fox, and have a say. There are so many films that are available for full projection now.

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