Recently recovered and restored, this third panel in the Borzage-Janet Gaynor-Charles Farrell triptych is an unblushing tribute to the miracles that love can bring. (“Oh, it was wonderful!” said an old lady as I left the theater. “Yeah,” said her friend, “But it was awful corny.” The old romantic was undeterred: “But it was wonderful!”) The film’s opening scenes are dimly lit, which creates the air of a grim (if not Grimm) fairy tale. Gaynor plays Mary, a young girl whose poverty-stricken life has made her into a dirty-haired little crook. When Farrell’s Tim realizes she’s cheated a man out of money, he grabs her and gives her a good sexy spanking. His character installs power lines; he’s way up in the air giving light and warmth, while Mary is stuck in the lowly dirt, her big eyes avid for money and little else.
Tim is crippled in the war (which is handled swiftly, for Borzage abhors depictions of physical violence on screen). Confined to a wheelchair but free of self-pity, he takes Mary in hand and polishes this diamond in the rough, quite literally: in a long, extremely sensual scene, he washes her hair with eggs, his hands running roughly all over her head as he gets the dirt out. He starts to unbutton her dress, then asks her age (she’s 18). He’s scared by how mature she is, but love grows between them inexorably in the special space of his cabin. When Mary embraces Tim for the first time, Borzage frames the shot so that half of her face is blended right into his curly-haired head: they become one unit, indivisible. Tim hardly knows what to do with himself when she breaks the embrace—he wants Mary so badly that he can barely move a muscle. It’s clear that he’s tormented by the idea that the rest of him might be as non-operational as his legs, and the sexual frustration is intense.
Mary’s mother, who wants her to marry a rich bounder and “forget that cripple,” is presented as a not-unkind woman whose best instincts have been worn down by lack of money (interestingly, in the lost part-talkie version of Lucky Star, Mary’s mother is depicted much less sympathetically). We see Tim try to walk without his crutches, over and over again, and our heart’s sink every time he crashes to the floor. Then, during a purifying Borzage snowstorm, Tim heads out to save Mary from her bad marriage, pulling his way through fearsome snow banks on his crutches, and when he needs to protect his girl, his legs find the strength they’ve lost. It sounds, well, awfully corny. But it isn’t. Why? Because the miracle of Farrell and Gaynor on screen together, visually, is matched by the miracle at the end of the story. Borzage can create the happiest endings so vividly that he makes them come alive with his camera. His imaginative power here is singular, fantastic, and inimitable, even God-like.