Some thoughts about Frank Borzage, Street Angel and Janet Gaynor, inspired by The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound and Colour.
Released in 1928, Borzage’s Street Angel was one of the last great silent films. By the late 1920s, Borzage had enjoyed considerable commercial success and was one of the most powerful directors at Fox, able to choose his own cinematographer and cast. In Street Angel he repeated one of his favourite actor pairings, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell – he was exceptionally tall, she was particularly petite. This set-up was particularly effective in this film as the physical differences emphasized and subverted particular character traits.
Like many of Borzage’s films, Street Angel is light on plot: a fractured relationship is made whole by the redemptive power of love. The film is set in Naples, although all the scenes were shot on set. This is Naples, but it’s a city designed to Borzage’s specification; although very detailed it feels artificial – the set is an abstraction of the ‘real world’. This abstraction enables the plot (which relies on a series of quite improbable coincidences) to seem more believable – of course love can prevail in a world that already seems slightly unreal.
The Naples Borzage depicts is charged with emotion and melodrama – but these are narrative devices, designed by the director to avoid over-reliance on inner dialogue. Some critics disliked this, claiming that the tactic short-changed the audience, that the actors (and the film) didn’t work hard enough for the emotional reaction they demanded. Borzage was unrepentant, and played by a particular rule: make the audience sentimental, not the players.
There are several motifs, all classic Borzage techniques, woven throughout Street Angel. The use of artifice plays out against a backdrop of abstraction. During an early scene, the use of light and shadow reiterates Angela’s (Gaynor) choice between good and evil. Later, when she’s imprisoned upon her return to the city, she appears as a tiny figure, seen through a group of guards, in the prison, on the wall, the larger-than-life shadow of the warden looms. The final scene, at the docks and in the church, is different again – it’s very soft, almost ethereal and the director makes use of myriad tomes of grey with white highlights.
The last scene also utilises another visual motif that runs throughout the film: Gino’s (Farrell) painting of Angela. The painting is not just a symbol of the couple’s love; it visually represents their union and their ability to keep their romance alive despite a world that tries to tear them apart. When the audience (and Angela) sees the painting for the first time, Borzage focuses the scene on her emotions, which evolve for disbelief to joy. This is mirrored in the final scene – when Gino realises that the painting in the church is the one he painted of Angela Borzage frames Angela, first from Gino’s viewpoint and then that of the painting. The audience already understands the painting, and what it represents.
Of course, the audience had believed in Angela’s virtue from the very beginning. My contemporary standards the ending feels contrived but it’s impossible not to feel empathy and believe in the story, so successfully (and seductively) does Borzage invite you to enter his ‘world’. The audience believes and is moved because they want to be, overlooks logic because they are swept up in a story with a happy ending. And it’s not just happy for the hero and heroine, their actions and love make their own lives, and the lives of those around them, better.