Prod Co: Fox Film Corporation Prod: William Fox Dir: Frank Borzage Scr: Marion Orth, from the novel Cistilinda by Monckton Hoffe, with titles by H. H. Caldwell and Catherine Halker Phot: Ernest Palmer Ed: Marney Wolf Art Dir: Harry Oliver
Cast: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Alberto Rabagliati, Gino Conti, Guido Trento, Henry Armetta
Commentaries on Frank Borzage’s long and substantial career have for the most part taken on a kind of ritualised dimension, acknowledging his penchant for romanticism and lush pictorialism almost as regularly as his protagonists end up in a swooning embrace in the final reel. Perhaps that is due to the recurrence of what comes across as the rudimentary, sometimes almost fairy tale-like dimensions of many, if not most of his films, however much Borzage might embed these larger-than-life emotions in down-to-earth environments. Perhaps it is because most film analysts find a more ready discourse to account for exaggerated actions and overheated emotions than one of the most elemental forms of human behaviour: the affective chemistry that compels two individuals to form a couple. As simple, even formulaic as the components of Borzage’s narratives might appear, they can confound audiences and commentators alike by being simultaneously transparent and opaque. You would think that speaking of them requires the most untheorised, almost monosyllabic vocabulary: boy meets girl; boy loses girl; love conquers all. However, if one wishes to convey the depth of expression Borzage generates with only a group of human beings, and the expressive capabilities of their bodies and voices, then one also recognises how ineffectual language itself can be.
Street Angel is endowed with all the requisite elements of Borzage’s master narrative. An indigent young woman, Angela (Janet Gaynor), finds herself in trouble with the law when she attempts to raise funds for her ailing mother’s medicine by selling her body, becoming yet another of Naples’ street angels. Arrested, she escapes custody and hides out with an itinerant circus. Inoculated, she believes, against the impulse to fall in love, she initially recoils from the sentiments of a struggling painter, Gino (Charles Farrell), who encounters the troupe. When she is injured during a performance, Gino volunteers to see to Angela’s recovery. During the course of that rehabilitation, she succumbs to his adoration, and Gino codifies their involvement with a stunning portrait of his beloved. In need of funds, he sells the piece, and before the couple can celebrate their good fortune, a policeman recognises Angela and re-arrests her for the crime of solicitation. During the course of her incarceration, Gino becomes dissolute and loses his commission to decorate a local church. His portrait of Angela is transformed by another individual and marketed as a long lost work of art. The painting finds itself in the very church where Gino was to work. Following Angela’s release, the two lovers unexpectedly re-locate another, but their emotions fail to achieve any harmony until they find themselves before the portrait and re-inaugurate their passion.
A brief synopsis of Street Angel’s plot necessarily reduces the material to little more than an anecdote, for what imbues the film with its genuine resonance arises not so much out of the actions as the manner in which Borzage visualises them. What took me by surprise when rewatching Street Angel is how little overt romanticising occurs in the film; how much Borzage maintains a compassionate but nonetheless reserved distance from his characters. Attention-grabbing close-ups are few and far between, as Ernest Palmer’s camera, more often than not, situates itself at a middle distance from its subjects. Also, those individuals or subjects are rarely separated from their immediate environment. In fact, the film’s most impressive sequences show these characters moving within their neighbourhood during the course of long, lateral tracking shots that incorporate all the details of the studio reconfiguration of the impoverished backstreets of Naples. Such attention to specifics reinforces Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Pierre Sauvage’s observation that, ironically, “an infinite attention to detail can go hand in hand, in [Borzage’s] films, with a blithe disregard for verisimilitude” (1). This intermingling of the factual and the fabricated brings to mind the poet Marianne Moore’s celebrated metaphor of “real toads in imaginary gardens”. As much as we may feel that we inhabit the other-worldly, circumstantially detached perspective of the protagonists, Street Angel is situated in an everyday universe where women are forced to make a living by selling their bodies; overweight landladies haggle with tenants for the rent; regulation-driven policemen attempt to keep the streets free of riff-raff; and unscrupulous art dealers buy immaculate canvases at rock bottom prices only to doctor them in order to mark up their value and attract unknowing customers. As Andrew Sarris remarked, “Borzage never needed dream worlds for his suspensions of disbelief” (2). The impact of that ineradicable reality comes crashing in on Gino when Angela is picked up by the policeman. The camera trails behind him as he searches for her amongst the city’s inhabitants. Eventually, the sequence places him literally with his back to a wall as the shadows of passers-by cross back and forth over his features. Borzage is said to have believed that melodrama is no laughing matter. Street Angel reinforces this belief by allowing the lovers to remain entranced by their vision of one another while their feet continue to tread the filthy backstreets of the urban wilderness.