I confess, when it comes to silent melodramas, I’m a complete and utter sap. This is so much the case that when I watch Buster Keaton’s finest comedic endeavor, Sherlock Jr., and Cecil B. DeMille’s overwrought melodrama, Manslaughter, I found myself gravitating towards the melodramatic. Perhaps is the heavy reliance on acting or the ease at which one projects oneself into such abstract works of drama. Or maybe I’m just a sap.
Therefore, Lucky Star had me the moment Janet Gaynor (from Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans) appeared onscreen as a dirty little farm girl called Mary Tucker. She’s a scoundrel and will try just about any trick to swindle people out of their money. World War I veteran Timothy Osborn (Charles Farrell), takes it upon himself to set her upon the straight and narrow and show her the value of both internal and external beauty. But he’s playing with a fire that he can’t stomp out, especially with his paralyzed legs.
The film plays a lot like conventional melodramas of the time, a love triangle, helpless victims and nail-biting suspense. It’s a formula that always gets me. The players and the characters are different and it has its own kind of thematic tie, but if you’ve seen similar films and didn’t like them, there’s not much this film is going to do to make you think differently about the genre.
What might cause for some contention is the ending. On a purely emotional level it works. It got a bit dusty when I was watching. But, there’s a bit of a leap the film asks you to take. Perhaps it’s the same leap that most melodramas ask us to take. But here, it’s presented in such a direct and overwrought way that either you buy its plausibility or you utterly reject it. I’ve debated back and forth in my head where I stand on it and still have yet to come to any definitive position.
Yet there are some fantastic performances that might just draw you in if you’re neutral on the genre. Janet Gaynor is, as always, disarming. A tiny smile and a short gaze and she has won you over. You can’t help but sympathize with her even if she is a scoundrel, or maybe because she is. Charles Farrell is forced not only to work on a simple dramatic level, but also to bring an entire physicality. Often the most gut-wrenching moments of the film are watching him move about. It’s clear he put a lot of effort into getting every movement just right because it’s a masterful performance.
And the final noticeable performance is by Guinn Williams as Sgt. Martin Wrenn, the third corner of the triangle. Few performances have made me utterly hate a person and this is one of them. By the end of the film I wanted to punch him in the face. His ability to play a sophisticated scum and prey off of others so easily makes him a fantastic and memorable antagonist.
Just as memorable are the fantastic images by director Frank Borzage and cinematographers Chester A. Lyons and William Cooper Smith. From the soft, inviting images to the elegant framing there’s a care with each image. Credit must be given to the fantastic set designs that lend themselves well to having action play out in both the foreground and background, giving the camera a lot more to work with.
There’s not a whole lot that makes Lucky Star different from any number of similar melodramas besides the fact that it’s all done so well. The conclusion might be off-putting to some but by then you’ve likely invested yourself to the point that it will work on some level. For me, it serves as yet another example of why I love the genre so much. It’s simple, slim and beautiful, heavily dramatic and often devastating at points. Most would probably delve into the silent era for those joyful comedies but I’ll take the silent melodrama any old day of the week.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing