Borzage's silent farewell
By Robert Regan
Shooting was suspended on the silent version of Frank Borzage's Lucky Star after about a month while sound possibilities were discussed. It was decided to keep the first third as already shot and continue the rest as a talkie. A completely silent version, with some differences, was made for the foreign markets not yet wired for sound. After being lost for half a century, it was this completely silent version that was discovered at the Nederlands Filmmuseum in 1990. It was projected for the first time in sixty years at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone to great acclaim, and a few months later, it was the opening program of the 20th Rotterdam Film Festival. After the screening of 186 films by, among others, Kaurismaki, Muratova, Nicholas Ray, Losey, Godard, Kazan, Aldrich, Fuller, and Rossellini, a poll to designate the festival’s best film gave first place to Lucky Star.
Borzage's final silent film is one of the richest and most powerful of his career. Besides being a damned good movie, superbly acted by Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor in Harry Oliver's brilliantly evocative rural New England sets beautifully photographed by Chester Lyons, Lucky Star is a compendium of themes and motifs that recur throughout the director's work. His lovers are friends before they are lovers, and through their friendship, each learns from the other, becoming a better person and a better lover.
Much has been written about the spiritual element of love in Borzage, but the carnal element is also significant. His lovers are always touching each other, and he makes much of their hands and feet in many films. Farrell's Tim, who has returned from the Great War having lost the use of his legs, becomes attached to Gaynor's Mary, a grubby, unkempt, and slightly dishonest adolescent living with her mother and younger siblings on a hardscrabble farm. In a scene of unexpected eroticism, he washes her hands, face, and hair. When undoing the back of her dress to continue the cleansing, he suddenly remembers to ask her age, and seventeen is old enough for him to send her off to a creek to continue the process by herself.
In Borzage, his characters' hands are almost as important as their eyes in telling us about them, as with Madge Bellamy's dirty fingernails in Lazybones. Feet and shoes are important motifs, as in A Farewell to Arms, here because of Tim's disability, and as part of Mary's dressing up for a dance. This latter scene introduces the significant white dress that will be remembered from 7th Heaven, Man's Castle, Little Man, What Now?, and many more throughout more than forty years of Borzage films.
Lucky Star is the sort of film that leads one to understand, if not entirely agree with, the critics and historians of an earlier era who bemoaned the coming of sound. As Action francaise wrote at the time, “This story takes place in the poetic setting that belongs only to Borzage, in the landscapes reconstructed as if in a dream: the fog, the snow, the twists in the road and the fences dotted with unreal sources of light.”