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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
Sad, beautiful, fast paced, brilliantly made Borzage late silent
Street Angel (1928)
What a great surprise!
Just as sound was all the talk and all the necessity of Hollywood, and just as Fox Studios has released a quasi-sound masterpiece in the fall of 1927 called "Sunrise," a few months later comes "Street Angel" continuing in a silent mode from Fox's great director Frank Borzage. And it's lively, fast, well acted, and frankly terrific.
Janet Gaynor above all, like Lilian Gish in her films, lifts this story through sheer acting and screen presence. She's a live wire and a tender victim, a fun and emotional and interesting person. This comes across without the supposed exaggerations of silent cinema, and is enough to make you forget the silence completely. Her partner in all this, Charles Farrell, is also good, though a bit stiff and pretty like Gary Cooper would be a decade later.
Equally terrific is the filming--the photography and editing, and the necessary set design and atmospheric effects (night, fog, great heights, tiny rooms). Photographer Ernest Palmer had already made a slew of films at Fox and was at the top of his game, and he had just worked with Borzage (and Gaynor and Farrell) in the equally well made "7th Heaven" the year before. It's beautiful, glowing, subtle stuff.
The plot? More interesting that you'd expect at first, and more complex, though with a strand of inevitable sweetness, too. The title refers to a prostitute, and streetwalking girls are a recurring part of the film, from the fringes. The place is Italy in the 1920s, and Gaynor plays Angela who turns to the street to try to get enough money to save her mother's life. Things quickly spin out of control from there, with jail and a small time circus and a life of impoverishment in Naples for our two leads. Temporarily. Farrell plays a painter with some talent but imperfect ambition and no business sense, so promise turns to heartache. And then things shift again.
If there is anything constant in this movie it is the good inner souls of the main characters, and so you suspect they will at least have a chance of surviving the hardship that seems to never quite be their own fault. I'm sure most of the audience identified with that then, just as I could now. The scenes are really dramatic, the interactions between the actors completely fresh and honest, and the photography fluid and modern. Yes, it's a sentimental "old" movie, still, of course, but with so much going on so well, you'll be glad.
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