Film Title: Street Angel
Studio: Fox Film Corporation
Silent or Talkie: Silent
- Janet Gaynor
- Charles Farrell
- Natalie Kingston
- Henry Armetta
In a ceremony attended by 270 people in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on May 16, 1929, Janet Gaynor was the recipient of the first Academy Award for Best Actress. But it was the only time this award would be presented for multiple performances. Miss Gaynor’s award honored her performances in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), 7th Heaven (1927) and Street Angel (1928). Although Warner Brothers also received an award “for producing The Jazz Singer, the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry”, there would still be a number of high profile studio releases of silent films latter that same year. Yet the beginning of the Oscars also marked the end of silent films. Today Sunrise is considered to be an undisputed classic. 7th Heaven is remembered as the initial pairing of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell (one of the most popular film couples of all time—from 1927 – 1934 they made 12 films together), it contained the hugely popular song “Diane” (the film was released with recorded synchronized music and effects) and also spawned a popular 1937 remake staring James Stewart and Simone Simon. Street Angel, the second pairing of Gaynor and Farrell along with their 7th Heaven director Frank Borzage, is perhaps the least remembered of the three. That is a pity, as it is an outstanding example of the artistry of the silent cinema.
“Everywhere . . . . in every town, in every street . . . . we pass, unknowing, human souls made great by love and adversity.” And this ladies and gentlemen is the theme of our story as stated in the film’s first title card. 7th Heaven found Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell on the streets of Paris; Street Angel finds them on the streets of Naples. Angela (Janet Gaynor) listens to the doctor’s assessment of her mother’s condition: without the medicine that he has prescribed, she will die. Angela does not have the 20 lire needed to procure the medicine, but she spies a prostitute earning seemingly easy money on the street below. She attempts to earn money in a similar fashion but with no luck. Desperate for money, she seizes some cash from the counter of a spaghetti shop and is caught and sentenced “For robbery, while soliciting on the streets . . . . a year in the workhouse!” Desperate to return to her dying mother, Angela escapes from her guards, but finds her mother dead and the guards in hot pursuit. She is hidden from the guards and ultimately taken in by Mascetto (Henry Armetta) the proprietor of Circo Neapolitiano a street circus that whisks her out of town and away from the authorities who are still looking for her. All is fine until one day a stranger appears, “A vagabond painter down the road is stealing the crowd from us!” And Angela and Gino (Charles Farrell) are fated to meet, and two human souls are destined to be made great by love and adversity.
Like 7th Heaven, Street Angel is an unabashedly romantic, sentimental melodrama. But is it ever gorgeous. Gaynor and Farrell demonstrate an almost palpable screen chemistry that is so engaging to watch. And each delivers a fine performance. Especially memorable are: Gaynor crying “tears of joy” as she tries to keep from Farrell the knowledge that this last supper is only a stolen hour they have together before she must go away; and Farrell’s face as Borzage places him against a wall, the shadows of passers-by flowing over his form, when he finally comes to realize that Angela will not be found. Borzage is an amazing visual stylist. This is amply demonstrated in Street Angel. Near the beginning of the film, he uses an intricate continuous tracking shot to introduce us to the streets of Naples and ultimately to Angela and her plight. He establishes a plot point and then leaves an altercation between Mascetto with his broken drum and a sausage vendor, follows a laundry line from one building across the street to another, picks up a woman in that building going downstairs, exiting the building, encountering a beggar, then the camera decides to follow a walking couple going the opposite direction until we are at the entrance to Angela’s building where it pushes in on a group of gossiping neighbors establishing a sense of menace about what is going to happen. Also striking are two point of view shots Borzage composes. The first is at Angela’s sentencing where the camera assumes the point of view of the judges and Gaynor is almost lost behind a barrier, and all we see of her face is from the eyes upward. The other is near the end of the film when briefly the camera assumes the point of view of a painting looking down on Angela and Gino at the alter of a church. Borzage also employs shadows and fog to obscure his actors and establish menace. Street Angel is a truly cinematic visual experience.
As was standard for films of the time produced by the Fox Film Corporation, Street Angel is accompanied by Movietone recorded synchronized music and effects. The score is by Erno Rapee and the hit song with lyrics by Lew Pollack “Angela Mia (My Angel)” can be heard. This song was still being covered by the likes of Vic Damone and Perry Como more than a half a century later. Cinematography is by Ernest Palmer who also collaborated with Borzage on 7th Heaven (1927) and The River (1929) and with F.W. Murnau on 4 Devils (1928) and City Girl (1930). All of these films were produced for the Fox Film Corporation by William Fox.
The original negative for this film was presumably lost in the 1937 vault fire at the Fox facility in Little Ferry, New Jersey. What has survived is a 35mm release print, which evidences some wear, but accurately preserves the visual and audio integrity of the film. It does not look as good as the DVD for Sunrise, but it looks significantly better than what has survived for 7th Heaven. The only legitimate DVD release of Street Angel in the U.S. is the one included in the mammoth 12-disc box set Murnau, Borzage and Fox released in 2008. There also appear to have been releases of this title on various budget DVD labels. I’d be leery of those releases. A favorably reviewed pairing of Street Angel and 7th Heaven has been released in the U.K. Unfortunately it is a Region 2 locked release and will only play on region free DVD players in the U.S.
Street Angel is one of the most significant films to have survived from the silent era. It is a stunning representation of the craft and artistry possible of its era. It is also highly entertaining. It does turn up from time to time on Turner Classic Movies and is available for rental and purchase through numerous venues. If you are a fan of silent film, this is a must-see on home depot coupons.
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