A few weeks ago I went on a Frank Borzage binge, a deep dive into 7 films of his that I’ve never seen before. In fact, until that week, somehow I had managed to never see a Frank Borzage film…..ever. This was the list of films I watched: 7th Heaven, Street Angel, Lucky Star, Bad Girl, After Tomorrow, and The Shining Hour. Borzage represents a style of filmmaking that would seem to me to have almost been completely eliminated from our consciousness. Here we have a director who pulls together some fantastically staged visual themes of love and sexuality, complete with some wonderfully expressive use of atmosphere: streets, apartments, rooftops. Yet he throws in heavy doses of wild melodrama. Now melodrama, in the hands of Sirk, tends to be something that modern audiences have received well. There’s something about Sirk’s use of color and tone that adds a layer of subversion to his melodrama. But Borzage tells his stories with a straight face, in black and white. There’s really nothing inherently funny or campy per se lurking beneath the surface. Borzage’s version of melodrama is irony free, and I don’t think today’s viewers know what to do with that.
Although 7th Heaven gets most of the attention, and Lucky Star is a hidden gem, Street Angel is Borzage’s best film of the bunch that I’ve seen and is a romantic masterpiece, standing with the greatest love stories of all time. It is the story of a woman named Angela (Janet Gaynor), who in need of some money to purchase medicine for her mother, attempts to prostitute herself on the street, and winds up getting arrested for robbery and sentenced to a year in a work house. She runs off before being imprisoned, and escapes to find her mother dead at home. She avoids the cops and runs off to join the circus, where she meets a painter named Gino. They strike up an awkward friendship, but soon bond and fall in love. Their blossoming love, and impending marriage is threatened when the police find her again. She is taken to prison while Gino is unaware. He thinks she is lost forever, and things get really interesting when she is released a year later.
Janet Gaynor won the first Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayals in three films: Sunrise (1927), 7th Heaven (1927), and Street Angel (1928). AMPAS first designed these awards to be based upon an actor’s body of work for that entire year. If you had to ask me, I think her performance in Street Angel is the best of the three. I don’t think Sunrise capitalizes on her sincere and varied emotional qualities as well as the Borzage films, and in fact Borzage makes far greater use of melodramatic elements than Murnau ever did. She has a girl next-door quality about her and also a burgeoning sexuality that was not an easy combination to pull off for other actresses in this era like Garbo, Brooks, or Gish (all of whom were either too beautiful or too saintly for those descriptors to match up). She has great chemistry with her leading man, Charles Ferrell, whom she appeared with in a total of 12 films together! His performance here is very solid, and much more understated than in 7th Heaven. Her character hovers in the realm of the Madonna/Whore complex, which is used here to illicit some specific choices that Ferrell’s character must make regarding his view of her. She is in fact, neither all good nor all bad, but in fact, a real woman whom he must decide if he can love her the way she is.
Borzage’s use of wildly ridiculous melodramatic elements is to my mind, highly entertaining and emotionally satisfying, and part of what Borzage is all about: the obstacles thrown in love’s way forces us to sacrifice, make tough choices, and is a true test of how devoted one really is to one's lover. Love is not proven true, until it perseveres beyond adversity, and this is most apparent in his silent films especially: 7th Heaven, Street Angel, and Lucky Star. His emphasis on depth of field, set design, and lighting were also great choices. Street Angel includes some fantastic tracking shots and pans, use of silhouette and shadow, and of particular note, the intense scene among the thick fog along the docks at the end of the film. This is a spectacular shot, filled with suspense and romantic desperation that then culminates in a perversely emotional climax that finishes in a church. It is one of the greatest romantic endings to any film I’ve seen and caps the film with a feverish pitch. I wish that audiences of today could appreciate this stuff more, but we’ve been so trained to snicker and doubt the sanity of films like this. Street Angel is too well made, and too spectacular to be left by the wayside though. It’s a masterpiece to my mind.