“Everywhere… in every town in every street… we pass unknowing human souls made great by love and diversity.”
There are a few actors and actresses from Old Hollywood that made the same types of films over and over again. Sometimes I do not mind because I love the actors or actresses in them that I am willing to overlook the overused plot. In the few silent films I have seen starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell they have the same plot: a down and out girl meets a man who gives her a good life but she has to overcome an old demon to finally and fully be with him. And so goes the plot of the pair’s film Street Angel from 1928.
Angela (Gaynor) lives with her mother in Naples, Italy. Her mother is dying from a fever and needs medicine to bring it down. Angela and her mother are poor and cannot afford the medicine. Looking out her window Angela sees a man negotiating with a prostitute. Angela gets the idea to try to get money like the prostitute she is so desperate. Out on the street no one notices Angela. One man just eats his food and ignores her. She comes to a food stand and tries to steal someone’s money. Angela gets caught and brought to the police. The person tells the police officer that Angela stole while soliciting and she gets sentenced to a workhouse for a year. Angela manages to runaway home but her mother has died. The police are after her. She manages to run away into town where a circus is performing in the streets. The circus people help her hide from the police by sticking her in their broken drum.
Angela is now part of the circus. A fortune teller predicts to Angela that love will come to her soon. Angela laughs the prediction off she does not want to be in love at all. A painter named Gino (Farrell) down the road from their circus is taking all their audience away. Angela goes to tell him to leave and his goat butts her and rips her dress. She is furious with Gino but he stays calm and leads the crowd to the circus. The fortune teller says to Angela that her love is there Gino the painter is her lover. To be close to Angela Gino joins the show. He tells her he wants to be near her and to paint her. Gino paints Angela but she is hard to paint because she hides her soul behind a mask.
At a show Angela is performing on stilts. She sees Gino and he whistles. As she whistles back she sees two policemen come over. Angela panics with nervousness and loses her balance and falls breaking her ankle. Gino wants to take her away. He wants to take her Naples. Even though Naples is where she got into trouble Angela goes back to the town with Gino.
In Naples they are living in a studio where Gino paints. They barely have enough money to live and cannot pay the rent. One day Gino sells a painting and instead of going out to get food he buys a flower. What little money they have Angela takes and goes out herself to get food. A police officer recognizes Angela and follows her to the apartment. He tells another officer he should remember Angela’s face and that it will come to him in time. With Gino back inside the apartment Angela watches a group singing outside. She also sees a prostitute get arrested and she becomes scared. She tells Gino she feels bad for the woman. Gino tells her not to worry about those kinds of people they only have themselves to blame.
Gino eventually gets a commission to paint a mural in an opera house. He comes home with an arm load of food as well as a ring. He asks Angela to marry him. Just at that moment the police officer knocks on the door. Angela answers it. He has come to take her away. He wants to take her away right then and there but she pleads with him to let her say goodbye so Gino’s heart will not be broken leaving him unable to paint. The officer allows her one hour to say goodbye.
Gino goes on and on about how happy he is and how happy their life will be together. Every mention of their future happiness tortures Angela. Finally Angela makes Gino go to bed by telling him the sooner he goes to bed the sooner tomorrow comes and the sooner they will be married. When Gino is in his room Angela leaves with the police officer. The following morning Gino cannot find Angela. He goes outside looking for her. A prostitute named Lissette tries to comfort him but he does not pay attention to her advances. Lissette lets Gino know that Angela is no better than she is.
In the workhouse Angela stays happy believing that Gino is doing great things. In reality Gino’s heart is broken and is therefore not in making the mural. His fired from his job by the men who hired him. They tell him they have gotten another painter. After a few months Lissette is put in the same cell as Angela and laughs at her.
When Angela is released she goes to the opera house to see Gino’s mural. She sees another artist’s signature in the corner. She is surprised and sad. Lissette has also been released and lets Gino know about Angela. Angela goes back to the apartment. She finds that Gino has gone away. Gino has decided to paint women with black souls and at Lissette’s suggestion he goes down by the wharves. Angela is down there. They wind up finding each other. Gino is furious with Angela and goes after her. She runs into a chapel. Gino backs Angela into the altar. He realizes where they are and he looks up to see his painting of Angela above the altar. He lets go of her. Angela calmly tells Gino that she is still like the painting he just has to look into her eyes.
Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell are wonderful together. I like how their characters not only in this film but their others I have seen are nice and innocent but there is a toughness in both of them. Gaynor was adorable in the scene at the beginning when she first meets Farrell. I was laughing at how this small person was packing so much attitude and yelling at this big man. Gaynor and Farrell need to be recognized more as one of the best screen couples they were perfect.
The more I see of Frank Borzage’s films the more I like him. There is always happiness and light and hope in his dramas. His direction is great especially in the opening scene. The opening scene pans the circus that is walking through the town. The camera comes to the drum and we that it was broken but someone being pushed into it. At first I was like why is this important to the story then you see later that the broken drum is what allowed Angela to escape the police.
Street Angel is a great silent film. As I mentioned at the beginning the story and the characters in this are pretty much the same as the characters and stories that Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell had made before. But the acting and the direction are so good I am more than willing to overlook this oft used plot. Street Angel is definitely worth seeing. It is available to view in full on Youtube.