Sven Nykvist called "Lucky Star" his favorite film at the Telluride Festival this year. Why should "Lucky Star," Frank Borzage's 1929 silent film be cinematographer Nykvist's choice, when the festival was brimming over with voluptuous images from every era?
There was "Raise the Red Lanterns," the newest and even more visually stirring work by the director of "Ju Dou" and "Red Sorghum." There were the multilayered tableaux of "Prospero's Books," whose visuals are worked in a palette that includes high-definition TV and computer graphics. Or, if Nykvist was drawn to black-and-white beauties of the past, why not Louise Brooks, caught by cameraman Rudolph Mate in "Prix de Beaute?"
Los Angeles film lovers will have a chance to judge the purity of Nykvist's choice for themselves next week, through a pair of screenings at UCLA and a series of lucky chances.
Certainly, "Lucky Star's" glowing black-and-white images would appeal to any cameraman worthy of the name. Borzage envisions an idealized American hamlet, all mists, sunsets and snowfall or, in his 1919 battle scenes, a hell-night lit by shellfire. However, it's not too much to suggest that the entire Telluride presentation had something to do with Nykvist's appreciation.
Accompanying Borzage's silent film was a score that was sly, patriotic, stark, romantic and triumphant by turns. It's the work of inexhaustible British composer-instrumentalist Adrian Johnston, a whirlwind one-man band who plays all the score's 15 instruments: piano, every kind of percussion and those electronic oddities that simulate entire string and brass sections. I can swear to the music's rousing effect because I was in that theater too, cheering the unabashed romantic hokum of the finale, as well as Johnston's musicianship-cum-endurance.
Somewhere else in that packed crowd were two more Los Angeles-based film lovers, screenwriter Kevin Jarre ("Glory") and Universal Pictures executive Jim Jacks, and as a result of their enthusiasm, UCLA's valuable film preservation program got a gallant proposal. Jacks and Jarre, spearheading a group of nearly a dozen film-industry artists and executives, offered both funds and behind-the-scenes work for a gala screening of "Lucky Star" to benefit UCLA's film preservation work and to bring to Los Angeles audiences the experience they had at Telluride.
Archive director Robert Rosen found the offer "touching and thrilling. That one act of restoration could inspire an act of help for other preservationists was wonderful. Best of all, they responded to 'Lucky Star' not because it was old, but because it was good, it was beautiful."
UCLA is striking a nice balance in its screenings: Following the $50 benefit Nov. 13 will be an evening screening at regular-people's prices, $8 and $5, Nov. 14. (It will be interesting, in these recessionary times, to see how each evening does.) The redoubtable Johnston will be on hand both evenings.
If anything, there is a slight irony here. Borzage, eight of whose films were saved by UCLA's preservationists, had an extremely long and prolific career, from 1916 until 1961, although he's possibly best known for the work of his earlier years. (And for arguments over the pronunciation of his name. Those who knew him say, firmly, Bor-say-ghee.) His "7th Heaven" won him one of the first directing Oscars; its co-stars Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell are reunited in "Lucky Star." Yet "Lucky Star," a quintessential example of Borzage's ability to create a small perfect world, wasn't recovered by UCLA.
For years, it was believed to be lost. It wasn't until archivists at the Nederlands Filmmuseum opened a film can in their vaults to discover a pristine nitrate print of "Lucky Star" that its existence was known. They took their find to the annual silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy, and it was the Pordenone zealots, properly known as Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, who commissioned Johnston to compose and perform his score for the premiere of "Lucky Star" at Pordenone's 1990 festival.
Next stop for film and Johnston's "orchestra" was the Rotterdam Festival, where for the first time in its history, a non-contemporary film was voted "best picture." Then came the acclaim at Telluride.
What will audiences find, at the end of this reconstruction trail? Glorious photography and perfectly matched music, certainly. Nuances of performance by Gaynor and Farrell that may be a revelation, especially to those who only knew Farrell from the '50s television series "My Little Margie." And a few underlying ideas, absolutely true to their time, about the disabled or about abusive parents, which--for all this era's shortcomings--may make you very glad you live now and not in 1919, the time the film is set.
It's clear that Farrell's gallant Tim Osborne isn't sweetheart material for Gaynor's impoverished Mary Tucker, eldest of the Widow Tucker's family of five, because he's come back from France in a wheelchair. Never mind that it's a bentwood wheelchair in which he does terrific wheelies, or that he's the perfect Pygmalion for her backwoods Galatea; the chair is a symbol of Tim's new neuter status. Mary may love the man within, but the film's only solution to the lovers' dilemma is an almost-laughable miracle, not a shift in compassion or understanding.
Well, "Lucky Star" is what it is, and it is an exquisite mirror. It's interesting, sometimes, to see the play of such out-of-date attitudes, if only as a measure of how much they've changed. One hopes. So, while enjoying all the other riches of Borzage's fairy tale, be warned: You may squirm a little too.
* Information on the 8 p.m. Nov. 13 benefit screening of "Lucky Star" at Melnitz Theater, UCLA : (310) 206-8013. Tickets are available in advance. Tickets for the Nov. 14 screening at 8 p.m. will be available one hour before show time at the Melnitz Theater box office. On-campus parking is available for $5.