Monday, July 20, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Lucky Star (1929) at UCLA

Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor were longtime costars, but until this evening I hadn't seen one of the dozen films they made together. That changed tonight thanks to a screening of LUCKY STAR (1929) at UCLA. It was part of the Frank Borzage series which will be playing at UCLA for the next several weeks.

There was only one issue with tonight's screening of this wonderful film: the last reel hadn't been shipped to the theater! Needless to say, it was quite a disappointment when the movie abruptly shut off, especially as I was enjoying it tremendously.

Fortunately the movie is currently on YouTube, and so I was able to watch the last 10 minutes of the movie as soon as I got home without having to wait to catch it on a DVD!

Other than that unexpected issue, seeing LUCKY STAR was simply a magical experience, all the more so thanks to live piano accompaniment by Cliff Retallick; he did a terrific job.

Gaynor plays Mary, a poor young farm girl who gradually establishes a friendship with Tim, a wheelchair-bound WWI veteran. Mary's mother (Hedwiga Reicher) pushes her to marry the smooth-talking Martin Wrenn (Guinn "Big Boy" Williams), thinking he'll save Mary from their hand-to-mouth lifestyle, but Wrenn has no intent of marrying Mary once he gets her off to the big city. And Mary doesn't want to marry Wrenn at all, as she has gradually come to realize that her heart is with Tim.

That's a bare bones synopsis of a richly detailed film. It delicately traces the evolution of Mary and Tim's relationship, beginning just before Tim goes off to war, when Mary is a young kid. Mary is no angel, and their initial encounter includes Tim giving her a lickin' for lying. As they get to know each other after the war, Tim gradually makes over Mary, giving her care and attention she's never had at home, and as Tim says at the end, ultimately Mary changes him as well.

One could admit that the ending stretches credulity while also saying it's completely perfect, in keeping with the film's fairy tale tone.

Gaynor and Farrell are, in a word, luminous. I've enjoyed Gaynor in a few other films, including the silent classic SUNRISE (1927), but I'd only seen Farrell in THE BIG SHAKEDOWN (1934). He's simultaneously handsome and deeply moving. I'm looking forward to exploring the rest of the many films pairing Gaynor and Farrell.

LUCKY STAR is completely absorbing, with its fairy tale feel accentuated due to most of the film being confined to two main sets, Mary's farmhouse and Tim's house. The sets look soundstage-fake at first, yet eventually that's forgotten as the viewer becomes completely wrapped up in the characters and their world, which is necessarily a small one due to disability and lack of money. The sets simultaneously manage to be both unrealistic and beautifully evocative; at times the characters look as though they're walking through paintings. The movie was filmed by Chester Lyons and William Cooper Smith.

The cast includes an impossibly young Paul Fix as a delivery truck driver, with Jack Pennick part of the WWI sequence. Delmar Watson plays Mary's little brother.

LUCKY STAR was believed lost for many years until a print was found in Holland in the late '80s. The silent version had been distributed to foreign markets, while a "talkie" version which was shot simultaneously and screened in the U.S. continues to be on the "lost" list. It would be fascinating to see the movie with dialogue, although one has to think it would not have quite the same magical haze with the characters speaking.

For those who'd like to read more, Janet Maslin reviewed the then recently rediscovered film for the New York Times in 1991, calling it "a vibrant piece of film history and an innocent delight."

LUCKY STAR has been shown on Turner Classic Movies. It's available on DVD.


Blogger mel said...

The final reel hadn't been shipped? How unprofessional!

I've heard of this sort of thing happening in the old days - but today?

Heads should roll...

1:18 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Mel! I cut UCLA some slack just because I've had so many stellar viewing experiences there -- other than the time they couldn't get the lights to turn off for the second feature, LOL -- but hopefully they are going to take a fresh look at their procedures after this. Unless the cans were somehow mislabeled so that both Archive and theater staff believed it was the complete film, the incident speaks to the need for some sort of inventory check-out/check-in system between the Archive and the theater. It seems as though the mistake should have been caught on one end or the other!

On the up side, what a wonderful introduction to Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor, including the live was a great evening till it ended too soon. :)

Best wishes,

8:31 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Though it's too bad about what happened, I'm glad you saw this and were able to see the end when you got home, even if less ideally. This is one emotional powerhouse of a movie, exquisitely done. I like where you say "It delicately traces the evolution of Mary and Tim's relationship." I think that's the greatest strength of the film--surely most of the movie is those scenes between the two of them and just the way Farrell and Gaynor look at each other has such depth of feeling that it's a pretty good example of one way that cinema can be most expressive. And for me, the emotional reality in that makes it very easy to see the whole as real and to believe everything that happens.

I was aware of that 80s discovery (ironically, it was premiered in L.A. by UCLA with great fanfare--and, of course, no missing reels) but didn't know there was a sound version of it. Not surprising as this was true of so many 1929 films and usually if one can compare it's the silent version that is better and I'm certain that would have been true here. In those three movies in a row with Gaynor and Farrell finishing with this one, Borzage seems made for silents and knows how to weave that spell that they can have. It doesn't mean he didn't have a great career in sound films to come with his share of memorable movies but the note these hit is still kind of special.

I agree that pianist did a great job with the music. If the movie had gone to the end and folks weren't sitting there mystified, I'm sure he would have gotten the ovation he deserved.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Blake, it was great to enjoy this movie together! Thanks so much for sharing more of your thoughts here. I was struggling at first to try to describe the movie so I'm glad to know you liked the description you cited. It was such a lovely film.

I assumed the pianist knew the film but he didn't seem sure if the movie was over at the end himself -- I'd be curious to know if he'd seen it before. If not, his spot-on musical choices are all the more impressive, that he was able to capture the mood so well.

Best wishes,

6:50 PM  

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