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In Naples, where prostitutes can pay their rent, Angela is sentenced to a year in the workhouse when she tries to steal(while streetwalking) to pay for medicine for her dying mother. She escapes and is hidden by a circus, where she's a natural talent and meets Gino, a painter. When she breaks her ankle in a fall, her career ends. What can she and Gino do? He wants to go to Naples, but the law may still be looking for her, and Gino doesn't know about her past. Starving artist and a beauty with a secret: is there room in this world for them? Written by
STREET ANGEL (Fox, 1928), directed by Frank Borzage, from the play "Cristilinda" by Monckton Hoffe, reunites Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, the popular young pair from the highly successful SEVENTH HEAVEN (1927), in another dramatic love story. For her performance in STREET ANGEL, Gaynor, along with both SUNRISE (1927) and SEVENTH HEAVEN, earned her the Academy Award as Best Actress during its initial ceremony. This was the only time an actress was honored for three motion pictures. While SUNRISE and SEVENTH HEAVEN remains relatively known and important in cinema history, STREET ANGEL continues to be the least known and discussed of Gaynor's award winners. Following the pattern from SEVENTH HEAVEN with the Borzage style of sentimental delight, its use of dark images and interesting camera angles obviously borrows from the F.W. Murnau style of SUNRISE. It also provides its two leads, Gaynor especially, a wider range of showcasing their ability as a fine romantic couple, with Gaynor's fragile appearance of charm and sincerity.
Opening title: "Everywhere-in every town, in every street, we pass, unknowingly, human souls made great by love and adversity." The setting is Italy in the city of Naples, "under the smoking menace of Vesunius ... laughter-loving, careless sordid Naples." After the introduction of a circus troupe coming to town, the camera pans over towards the apartment where a doctor, having examining a very sick woman, informs her daughter, Angela (Janet Gaynor), to have his prescription filled immediately. Unable to obtain the 20 lire for the medicine, Angela, in desperation, goes out into the public streets where she imitates a common streetwalker to sell herself for money. The scheme fails when she's caught picking a man's pocket by a observant policeman (Alberto Rabagliati) who arrests her on robbery charges while soliciting in the streets. Sentenced to a year at the workhouse by the judge, Angela escapes to return home and find her mother has died. When she sees the policeman approaching her apartment door to take her in, she eludes him once again by hiding inside a broken musical drum belonging to Mashetto (Henry Armetta), leader of a visiting circus. Feeling pity for the young girl, the kind-hearted Mashetto takes Angela on as one of the circus acts. Outside of Naples, Angela encounters Gino (Charles Farrell), a young artist known as "The Vagabond Painter". Unaware of her past, and envisioning her as an angel pure in heart, he has her pose for him. After capturing her portrait on canvas, the couple fall in love with plans to marry. Following her accident leading to a sprained ankle, Gino takes Angela back to Naples for proper medical treatment. While there, they take up residence in an apartment where they live in separate sleeping quarters. After selling the painting, Gino is offered a job to paint the great Miro for the Teatro San Carlo church, which is just cause for celebration and he placing an engagement ring on Angela's finger. On the eve of their marriage, the policeman unexpectedly comes to arrest her. Through her pleas, he agrees to give her one final hour with Gino before going with him. The next morning, Gino discovers Angela has disappeared without a trace. Her loss brings forth depression, his loss of artistic creativity, and a destitute life regardless of his renowned portrait of Angela displayed inside a stately church.
Released with synchronized musical score, occasional sound effects, whistling and off screen singing of "O Sole Mio," STREET ANGEL is typical good girl gone wrong story. While actually an ordinary motion picture, Gaynor's tender celebration dinner sequence with the man she loves, knowing full well she'll be arrested once her hour is over, along with her having Gino believing her tears of sadness as tears of joy, is well handled. Gaynor's Best Actress win for this production was obviously on the basis of this scene alone. Farrell, who rarely gets any honorable mention for his work, should be given homage for his performance such as this one. Although not very convincing as an curly haired Italian, he gets by dramatically during its second half where his character literally goes on a brink of insanity after learning from Lisetta (Natalie Kingston), a former neighbor just released from prison for prostitution, that Angela had also served time on those very same charges. The scene where Gino attempts to strangle Angela for deceiving him after their paths meet again through the use of dark photography or "film noir" style is quite effective.
While STREET ANGEL is a rarely seen item, with no known local of cable television broadcasts to date, it did get distributed onto video cassette in 1998 with limited release through Critic's Choice Video Masterpiece Collection from the Killiam Library. Although some may rank STREET ANGEL better than SEVENTH HEAVEN, or visa versa, each is worthy of rediscovery, especially silent film enthusiasts or anyone who's pure in heart for sentimental love stories featuring the frequently teamed pair of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. (***)
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