Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"Never thought much about broke things until I got smashed up myself"

The source material Lucky Star (1929, Frank Borzage) is based on is called Three Episodes in the Life of Timothy Osborn. In the film the first episode resembles the other late silent era films Borzage made while at Fox, but the rest turns out to be a disappointment.

The German expressionist influence gives the opening dairy farm the Gothic semblance of a domestic black hole of a nightmare for Mary (Janet Gaynor). This is expressionism in one of its most enjoyable forms: she has to milk cows, but the low-key lighting and foggy production design make it look like she's in hell. Of course, the mundane is a living hell to many.

It is early dawn as the film begins and soon Mary has to go deliver milk to a crew of blue collar types. She travels down to their work site where Tim (Charles Farrell) has to take the job none of his other co-workers want because he's a pussy. So it's repairing high tension power lines for him while the others loiter down on the ground where it's safe.

Aesthetically the power lines work site looks amazing. Every time I watch it I think about how some sets just work way better than others and the backlot set is even more exotic than the sewers we first encounter the Farrell character working down in during the beginning of 7th Heaven (1927, Borzage).

The next episode is a hurried obligatory tour over to some unnamed WWI battle with no where near the level of attention given to the set piece as of those in 7th Heaven. And Tim's time as a soldier is no different from his civilian life. While back home Tim was pushed around and bullied to do all the hard work by his supervisor Wrenn (Guinn Williams), on the front lines Wrenn acts as Tim's commanding officer and similarly cons him into doing all the dangerous work while he goes off to look for girls with another soldier (played by Jack Pennick, the extra with that face you can't forget from countless John Ford movies).

After all this, about twenty-five minutes into the movie, the narrative plays out as a sentimental story about a crippled vet and his physical rehabilitation during which time he emotionally "rehabilitates" the poor farm girl Mary.

The first time I watched this film I wondered what happened to all of Borzage's creative camerawork. Why no dollies? No cranes? At first I mistakenly presumed it was a brilliant decision designed to depict the immobility of the wheelchair bound Tim. Now I doubt that it was anything that intentional. I am guessing that it is more likely because the film was shot with a camera that could record sound (even though I am reviewing the silent version, I've read that a part-sound version was produced simultaneously and a very common practice during these years) and was so big that it was not possible to move it the way Borzage had during the prior years up to this point.

Anyhow Tim pines over Mary. This script is based on a story by the same author who wrote the story The River (1929, Borzage) was based on, Tristram Tupper. And like The River this film is obviously an erotic male fantasy where a simpleton lusts over a girl he encounters all alone in a cabin in the woods somewhere. The difference is that instead of being seduced by a wanton sexpot, like in The River, the guy transforms a teenage girl from a broken home into a knockout whom he wants to domesticate--disturbingly, like a pet or object--employing the hokey subtext of fixing broken junk he finds as his objective with her.

There is also a hilarious scene where Tim bathes Mary near the brook outside his home. As he talks her into it, she undresses and he concernedly asks "just how old are you?" and after she replies "almost eighteen," he quickly decides not to look. This scene is funny in the context of pre-code Hollywood and because he was planning something in the way of foreplay apparently, but also because soon after this he ridiculously uses egg wash to turn her hair from mousy brown into a blond bouffant in the matter of a single conspicuous elliptical cut.

The ending is very predictable considering that Borzage is the quintessential romantic, especially when he's working with Gaynor and Farrell.

And finally, the title does not in any way relate to the film itself--something that always bugs me.


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