Street Angel

Street Angel


Reviewed by: Adam Micklethwaite

Though arbitrarily set in “laughter-loving, careless, sordid Naples”, Street Angel is a universal tale of “human souls made great by love and adversity” - exactly the subject matter which earned Borzage his reputation as a poet of the working class.

The start of the film presents us with the predicament of our beautiful young heroine, Angela (Janet Gaynor, fresh from box office success in Borzage’s 7th Heaven and FW Murnau’s Sunrise), whose mother is dying from a terrible illness. In the opening moments of the film, we see Angela in consultation with the doctor, who emphasises the gravity of her mother’s condition; but we also see, from the extreme poverty of the sparse apartment, that Angela has no money for the cure.

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In desperation, she turns to the oldest profession in the world, unsuccessfully trying to solicit the attentions of prospective male clients, as the street angel of the title. Having no immediate success, she turns instead to petty theft, but is immediately caught red-handed by the police, who have no sympathy for her predicament and sentence her to a year in the workhouse. Somehow, Angela escapes before she can be taken to prison, and she returns home, only to find that her mother has died in her absence. In a tragic sequence, Angela tries to wrap her mother’s lifeless arm around her, reflecting both the extent of her grief and her need for shelter and companionship.

On the run from the law, she is saved and protected by a group of circus-folk who happen to be in town. The next time we see Angela, she is a different woman from the one in the opening scene; now a tightrope walker for that same circus, she is proud, headstrong, independent, and, above all, determined not to fall in love.

You don’t need an inside-line to the writer’s subconscious to see where this one’s going and, sure enough, along comes the talented, happy-go-lucky painter, Gino, a romantic soul who falls in love with Angela the moment he lays eyes on her. Cue a few romantic clichés: girl pretends to be indifferent to boy, boy continues to stare longingly and spout romantic nonsense (my favourite line is: “love is like the measles – when it comes, you can’t stop it” – way to go, Romeo!), and then comes the turning point, as boy paints a beautiful portrait of girl, “as she truly is”. The rest, as they say, is history…

Or is it? An accident at the circus lands Angela with a broken ankle and the young lovers are forced to return to Naples, where Gino believes he can find work, but where Angela is haunted by her past – a past which she hides desperately from Gino, but which threatens to tear the lovers, and their dreams, apart forever.

Quite different in style from Borzage’s previous film, 7th Heaven, released to much critical acclaim and box office success in the previous year, Street Angel is influenced, in no small part, by Sunrise and by early German Expressionist cinema. Thus, Borzage makes extensive use of shadow, to emphasise menace and threat – particularly in the scenes involving the police, where their huge, imposing shadows dwarf the helpless Angela.

The final 15 minutes of the film are a masterful piece of experimental cinema, taking place within the swirling mists and deceptive shadows of the docks – a world conjured up by cinematographer, Ernest Palmer. The mists reflect both the inner turmoil of the characters, and the uncertainty of the narrative situation, as both protagonists wander aimlessly through the docks, unaware that, although walking in opposite directions, they are actually walking towards each other for a final meeting which will determine their fates.

Reviewed on: 01 Dec 2009
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An impoverished woman turns to prostitution before, while trying to escape the law, she goes on the run with a circus.
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Director: Frank Borzage

Writer: Philip Klein and Henry Robert Symonds, based on a play by Monckton Hoffe

Starring: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Alberto Rabagliati, Cino Conti, Guido Trento, Henry Armetta, Louis Liggett, Milton Dickinson, Helena Herman, Natalie Kingston, Dave Kashner, Jennie Bruno, Italia Frandi, Venezia Frandi

Year: 1928

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US


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If you like this, try:

7th Heaven