Lucky Star is a movie of moments.
A moment when a man, washing down the head of a young girl who’s grubby as can be, happens to ask her how old she is, and realizes, with a start of embarrassment, that she’s not the kid he’s imagined her to be, but a young woman.
A moment when a girl, grateful for the support and friendship of a crippled man, hugs him—and he, after a moment of euphoria, realizes that the love is all on his side; she does not see him as a lover, but as a friend, perhaps as something like an elder brother.
A moment when a crippled man, desperate to be ‘normal’ again, rises painfully up on crutches, grins in triumph—and crashes to the floor the next instant.
I will admit I’ve had very mixed luck when it comes to silent films. Some—the biggies like Metropolis or Bronenosets Potyomkin—have been spectacular, worthy of all the acclaim they’ve won. Others, like The Black Pirate and The Mark of Zorro have been relatively underwhelming. Unimpressive enough, actually, to put me off watching silent films for a while. The other day, though, remembering that I had Lucky Star sitting in my pile of films to be watched, I decided to risk it—and ended up watching it in one go.
The film opens early one morning in the American countryside. The widow Tucker’s household rises at dawn and gets down to work. The eldest daughter Mary (Janet Gaynor) goes off to milk the cows; her mother (Hedwiga Reicher) attends to other chores, and the younger children go about cleaning themselves up as best as they can. It’s obvious, from the ragged and neglected look of the toddlers, that this is not a well-to-do family. Mary may not go around in tatters, but that’s about all the difference there is between her and her younger siblings.
This neglect is not limited to the appearance of Mrs Tucker’s offspring; Mary’s obvious lack of training when it comes to ethics is soon made apparent. Martin Wrenn (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) stops by, en route to a job further down the road, where he’s foreman to a group of workers. He reminds Mrs Tucker to send on milk, and Mrs Tucker yells to her daughter to hurry it up. Mary, with no qualms whatsoever, calmly tops up the milk in each urn with water.
… and, when she arrives at the spot where the men are working (Wrenn sitting comfortably in a folding chair while the others do the hard work), she displays another instance of dishonesty. All the men pitch in with a coin or two as payment for the milk; Wrenn tosses a nickel at Mary’s feet. She takes advantage of his not looking towards her as he does so, and quickly scrapes dust over the coin. She then reminds Wrenn that he hasn’t paid her.
This, naturally, begins a quarrel, since Wrenn insists that he has, indeed, paid Mary. Support comes to her from unexpected quarters: a worker, Tim Osborne (Charles Farrell), who’s up the telephone pole, doing some work, tells Wrenn off for trying to wriggle out of paying the ‘kid’. A heated argument breaks out between the two men—so heated, in fact, that Wrenn shins up the pole and they come to blows, up there at the top of the pole.
The fight is interrupted by a telephone call, which Tim receives right there, atop the pole. It’s momentous news: war has been declared. Even as Mary looks on in surprise, the men disperse, hurrying off to enlist. Wrenn is the first to slide down the pole—he’s in a rush to sign up and go to France, because those French ladies, he’s heard, are quite something. His fight with Tim put aside for the moment, he asks Tim why Tim isn’t coming, too. Tim explains that he has to finish the work he’s begun. He’ll complete that, and then follow.
With all the men gone and Tim up the pole, Mary bends down and scrapes at the dust, digging out the nickel Wrenn had tossed there. Tim, looking down, notices this and realizes what the girl’s done. He comes down the pole and gives Mary a good talking-to for having cheated Wrenn. Mary can’t see what’s wrong with that; Wrenn’s an unpleasant man (and can afford this), and Mary and her family are in serious need of money. Tim cannot make her understand, and sets about teaching her a lesson by upturning her on his knee and spanking Mary. She, not to be outdone, bites him hard on the thigh.
Mary isn’t done yet. When Tim limps back to his house to change and to pack his bag, Mary comes by and spitefully pitches a large stone at his window.
At the front, though, Tim realizes that Mary isn’t as bad a penny as he had imagined her to be. Encouraged by a poster exhorting women to support soldiers by writing them letters and knitting them socks, she sends him a poorly spelled but sincere little letter, hoping he hasn’t been badly hurt, and offering to knit him a pair of socks. Tim is very touched, until he discovers that Wrenn (who is now sergeant, and to whom Tim reports) shows a nearly identical letter that he has received from Mary.
A short time later, all thoughts of Mary and socks have flown out of Tim’s head. Wrenn, who had been ordered to transport large pots of hot food to the men at the battlefield, ignores the order and tells Tim to go instead. While Wrenn goes off (taking the truck) back into town so that he can spend some time with the ladies (he boasts to the driver that he promises marriage to them all, that’s the way to succeed), Tim takes the food to the fighting soldiers—and has the bad luck to be shelled. The cook who’s accompanying him is killed, and Tim’s legs are crushed under the weight of the wagon.
Cut to a year later. Tim, after two years away from his home town (a year in France, a year in the hospital, as he explains to a visitor), has come home—in a wheelchair. He lives on his own, so it’s difficult to manage, but he does. He has installed an anvil and furnace at home, so that he can do a blacksmith’s work, putting together broken things. He laughs ruefully, pointing out that he himself is broken, but can do nothing about it.
Mary, passing by, happens to see Tim sitting at his window, and that two-year-old grudge resurfaces. She picks up a stone and flings it through one of the remaining windows of Tim’s home, smashing it. Tim, who’s lonely as can be, even welcomes this somewhat unruly company, and invites Mary in. She’s a little surprised, and shy, but she accepts—and then realizes, when she sees him from top to toe, that Tim is crippled. This is embarrassing, and Mary is suitably ashamed of her own behaviour. She apologizes for breaking Tim’s window, and he forgives her readily enough.
Soon, they are chatting easily. Mary, in her guileless and naïve way, asks Tim what happened to his feet; and he cheerfully tells her he’s ‘saving his legs’. For what, she asks. For a special occasion, he replies, taken by her childish candour.
And Tim does think Mary is little more than a child: that was why he had spanked her two years earlier, and that is why he now takes her under his wing. He makes her wash her hands before eating, he fashions a handkerchief out of a piece of cloth and pins it to her bodice so that she will stop wiping her nose on her sleeve. He gives her, as a present, a little gramophone turntable he’s put together, along with a little record she can play on it.
He tries to teach her right from wrong, and why it just isn’t right for her to keep back some of the money she earns from selling milk, instead of handing it all over to her mother. She relieves his loneliness, and to her he is—what? Because, as the days pass, the relationship between the poor and bedraggled girl and the crippled ex-soldier begins to change…
What I liked about this film:
The sweetness of the love story, and the believability of it. The problem I have with far too many films, even many which are supposedly romances, is that the development of the romance is hard to swallow: too swift, too sudden, too out of the blue. Or too much of a superficial physical attraction that pretends to be love.
Lucky Star, in that sense, is one of the most believable love stories I’ve come across: it’s easy to see the gradual development of the love between Mary and Tim, beginning as mere acquaintances, developing into a warm friendship, and then moving slowly on into a realm where it just takes a little nudge for the declaration of the love. Part of the success of this as a love story is in the way it’s written and directed (the director was Frank Borzage): unhurried, gentle, with the relationship based on mutual understanding, empathy, and humour. The other part of it is in the acting of Farrell and Gaynor.
Farrell, in particular, is brilliant at conveying so much through his eyes that there were several moments in the film when I couldn’t help but think that perhaps it was just as well that Lucky Star was a silent film (though, according to IMDB, some dialogues had originally been part of the film—they have since disappeared, with English intertitles having to be added from the Dutch-language print of the film that’s survived). To be honest, the depth of emotion that Farrell could convey just through his expressions was something I thought might have been lost had there been dialogue.
What I didn’t like:
Not really something I didn’t like, but something that did make me roll my eyes a wee bit. The last ten minutes, where something rather hard to believe happened.
Despite that, though, I‘d still happily watch this film all over again. Lucky Star was sweet, it was heart-warming and romantic, and really pretty absorbing. Worth a watch.
Lucky Star is available on Youtube, here, among other channels.