Street Angel (1928, Frank Borzage)
The adolescent throes of young love might have never found a stronger, more understanding voice in American cinema than Frank Borzage, at least during his tenure at Fox. With the exception of the naturalistic, touching Lazybones, Borzage’s best silent films owe a good deal to F.W. Murnau, whose Sunrise had changed the way movies were thought of at the studio and arguably shepherded in a brief golden era of Hollywood films that were consciously imagined and presented as Art. In this case, Art comes at no price of dispassionate pretension or a strain for legitimacy; for Borzage and others like him in the U.S., King Vidor and Josef von Sternberg perhaps chiefly, the wild, limitless dreamscapes of German Expressionism provided an opportunity to think of a celluloid frame as an empty canvas, but all while using a new visual medium to move ever more closely to an undiluted expression of emotion. In The Crowd, Vidor presented characters that felt real without any hindrance as they encountered strife and tragedy; for Borzage, love itself was the thing. 7th Heaven, Street Angel, Liliom and Lucky Star feel like they’re witnessed through a drunken haze, gripped — as though the films themselves were human — by the lustful drug of blooming romance.
This comes out of the films’ willingness to take the emotions they document very seriously, never flinching before the hugeness of what feels momentous to a young couple but may indeed be trivial in the larger world. Such context is unnecessary because what matters to Borzage, nearly invariably, is the feeling, the manner in which the world looks different to someone consumed by a new or burning passion. In 7th Heaven, the entirety of Diane’s experience looks and feels unreal; the railing of a stairway and the ticking of a clock become massive, important signifiers. In this way, Borzage harnesses the oblique, lopsided point of view of Murnau, Lang and Wiene in service of exploring the hearts of (seemingly) real human beings, and he does so with such conviction and honesty that you can forgive most of his syrupy indulgences. Like a great Shangri-Las record, the hopeful finale of 7th Heaven transcends its schlockiness and comes off as exhilarating.
Shot and released only a year after 7th Heaven but still identifiably resting in the shadow of Sunrise, Street Angel is a different experience from its predecessors but is obviously — and pleasingly — cut from the same cloth. Like the earlier films, it’s capable of magic, and its virtues are nearly uncountable. The camerawork is astounding, moving in three dimensions with grace and agility. The surreal sets that owe so much to Ufa are spectacular; if none are as singularly remarkable as the staircase in Heaven, these inhabit and infect even more of the narrative: bending passageways, houses and buildings that look just off-kilter enough to feel like relics from a dream, impossibly foggy piers and alleys, uneven fences and eerie shadows whose sizes match the larger-than-life stakes of the Gothic-leaning tale being told.
Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell essentially reprise their roles from 7th Heaven here (as they would again for Borzage, and in numerous other films). Gaynor plays Angela, a girl living in a slum who briefly resigns herself to prostitution to secure medicine for her ailing mother; when she’s caught and arrested, she manages to escape by joining up with a traveling circus, where she falls in love with an ambitious painter (Farrell). Despite financial struggles, they try to make a life for themselves after Angela suffers an injury and has to return to her hometown. She tries to conceal her run-in with the law from her beau, but just after he proposes to her and secures an important contract to paint a mural, the dreaded knock comes at the door, throwing her world into bleak disarray. Borzage’s method of using the camera to fully articulate the hopes, dreams, dread and fears of his characters — he only uses titles when absolutely necessary — is perfectly exemplified by the way he plays this moment. The door knocker is seen in close-up as a larger-than-life specter of death, like Nosferatu’s coffin, and without violating the film’s connection to the real world we are persuaded by nothing more than angle and the appearance of the prop used that this is a turning point in both of the young lives occupying the picture.
A similar sense of bent, vaguely manic intoxication is evident throughout the film; it seems almost inevitable that Borzage and Oscar-winning cinematographer Ernest Palmer’s camera would love the weird, outside-of-society hustle and bustle of the circus. The strongest moments after the stunningly beautiful first act owe a considerable debt to Sunrise, which doesn’t take away from their technical perfection and emotional resonance. There are the scenes in which Angela is at her wit’s end by the pier and her hopelessness seems almost tangible, even as she is surrounded by the most completely crafted world constructed on a set since the moonlit marshes in Murnau’s film. And even more potent — and darkly ironic — is a lengthy take just after Farrell’s Gino has discovered his lover is missing and the camera follows him unbroken through a crowd of disparate strangers, remaining on him steadily as he realizes with increasing panic that he is alone. Again, the camera itself seems swept up in the distress of the moment, with absolutely nothing to separate us from the character’s agony. It sets up a neat if troubling rhyme with one of the most important shots in Sunrise, when the lovers played by Gaynor and George O’Brien cross a street seeing only each other, unaware that they are causing traffic to stop. Like Vidor in The Crowd, Borzage uses a landscape of human faces to make a central character’s isolation and fright our own. The effect is unforgettable.
The entire tale told by Street Angel, copping a bit from Les Miserables, has a sweep, scope and progressive streak that occasionally put it in the neighborhood less of Borzage’s other silent films than something like G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, pretty impressive company for a Hollywood studio picture. That film as well as the same director’s Diary of a Lost Girl share with Street Angel a strong identification with a woman who must fend for herself. This theme of the put-upon heroine, forced to contend not just with grave injustice but also with the betrayal of men and the lopsided sexism of society, is shared among many other key films of the silent period — Victor Sjöström’s major Hollywood milestone The Wind starring Lillian Gish, and Alfred Hitchcock’s visually sumptuous if narratively hollow Easy Virtue, for example — but such brazen proto-feminism, conscious or not, was rare to come from all-American directors like Borzage. The story doesn’t wallow in the kind of straight-ahead, soapy victim narrative later so popular in Hollywood, especially in films whose leading ladies would become recipients of Academy Awards (from The Sin of Madelon Claudet to Room), in large part because of the director’s engaging, artful construction but just as importantly because of Gaynor herself.
Gaynor was twenty-one years old when she made this film, and within an eighteen-month period she made three films at Fox — Sunrise, 7th Heaven and Street Angel — for which she received a joint Oscar. She has a terrifically evocative face but is capable of a subtlety only sporadically seen in Hollywood silent films. To be sure, she also solicits ample sympathy; nearly without exception, the audience’s heart goes out to her in her most troubled moments, but such character empathy is deeply felt and fully earned. Gaynor never got the chance to show more strength and confidence than in Street Angel (except perhaps in portions of the Selznick A Star Is Born a decade down the line); wizened and mature, but not hardened, as a result of her experience when trying to save her mother, she takes on a cooler, controlled exterior for the first act, rolling her eyes at the lovers Maria and Beppo with whom she works in the circus and resisting her attraction to Gino due to her understandable cynicism. When she truly falls for him it’s with the full-hearted conviction of an adult in love as opposed to the put-upon, ever-virginal waifs of 7th Heaven and Sunrise, profoundly touching as those performances were. And all the while, behind her eyes you can see that she knows her happiness cannot last. These multifaceted moods and mindsets all played out in full narrative on Gaynor’s face are eclipsed by the way the same eyes are set alight when she sees Gino from afar, giving herself momentary permission to revel in love, lust, bliss.
Unfortunately, the final half hour sours the film a bit. Gino’s reaction to learning of a minor “shame” (which she shouldn’t be ashamed of) from his fiancee’s past is to drink himself half to death and stumble around cursing Angela’s name and gender. The film doesn’t necessarily side with his slut-shaming, pseudo-moral righteousness, nor does it expect the audience to be entirely in his corner, so the issue is not that he casts her off and destroys himself for wholly misguided reasons. If anything, that’s in keeping with the film’s tone and sad realism. The problem is the sudden come-to-Jesus turnaround that leads him to inexplicably accept her despite everything for the sake of a happy ending, spurred in part by a strange subplot about a painting of Angela he’s sold that’s now been used as an Old Master forgery. It wasn’t unusual for Borzage’s male heroes to initially betray unhealthy attitudes toward women, only to be brought into unconditional love and enlightenment on a gradual, believable basis; both Chico in 7th Heaven and Eddie in the marvelous Bad Girl undergo such a transformation without ever seeming artificial or telegraphed. Gino is closer to Farrell’s violent title role in Liliom: an asshole who’s shown his true colors at last and is only likely to get worse. Borzage isn’t to be faulted for tackling the issues of everyday people, some of whom naturally are violent assholes. The problem here is that Gino is never fully developed enough to justify his emotional loop-de-loop in the final seconds, so his (and therefore Angela’s) redemption becomes unbelievable as anything except a gross bit of studio copout. The film would be stronger had it gone all the way with its cynicism (as does Pandora’s Box); instead, the hollow closing moments resemble the improbable cheeriness that fades out The Wind.
Still, Gino might be a cipher, but he and Angela are adorable together. There’s a reason Gaynor and Farrell were cast together so often: they make quite a couple. He engulfs her when they embrace, and they hang onto one another like life depends on it. In film fan magazines of the time, letters and editorials indicate just how much of a frenzied impression they made on viewers in 7th Heaven. More than once it’s alleged that it doesn’t matter what characters they subsequently play because they’ll always be Chico and Diane to their massive base of fans. Perhaps this is the reason for the sudden, unreliable twist in Gino’s thinking: keep the lovers apart and, commitment to cinematic artistry or no, the crowd riots. Even divorced from such a cultural context — not that we don’t have plenty of analogues — your desire to root for these two to make it is born of the pair’s incredible chemistry but also of director Borzage’s endlessly striking ability to capture odd, beautiful little moments between couples that seem eerily real. Gaynor and Farrell’s hug after Gino’s marriage proposal is so intense you can feel its squeeze. When he comes home with an armload of food and they take it out and smell it joyously, it feels like the small, limited triumphs of millions of working class couples are being projected. At the terrible moment when Angela’s identity has been discovered by the police, her tearful urging that he wait an hour to arrest her and the subsequent breathless time they get to spend will sting for anybody who’s ever had to leave someone before they were ready. But seen today, perhaps no moment in Street Angel resonates like that shared between the pair whose constant making out and sensual cavorting in the caravan is driving Angela up the wall early in the picture.
History doesn’t seem to record the name of the actress who plays Maria (it may be Helena Herman); she’s chubby, big-haired, romantic, unmistakably not a movie star, unmistakably beautiful. Her man Beppo is portrayed by Louis Liggett, who died in a car wreck soon after the film was released. In our few moments with them we see him spank her playfully then watch as they absolutely fold into one another on a sofa and kiss in an unforced, undiluted way that simultaneously recalls every tender moment you’ve shared with a lover and the cinema-defining moment that was the Edison kiss. The difference is that Maria and Beppo are not shy about their affection for one another or the primal but warm, humane nature of it. Somehow Borzage captured what real love feels like in just a few moments. He spends the rest of film valiantly attempting to recapture that carefree joy, but it’s something that can’t be forced. And from 1928 onward, every other director who’s ever made a romantic picture has been trying for the same thing. But Street Angel has the truth in it, and the truth is that love doesn’t need a good paying gig or moral superiority. It grows from anything. Its purity and grace are what make everything else worthwhile, both within and outside of the movies. And you know it when you see it.