Hooray, my first Borzage movie, and certainly not my last thanks to the giant Box o’ Borzage that Katy gave me.
Camera glides around a giant street set of Naples, while inside her room Janet Gaynor is being told by the doctor that she needs expensive medicine for her dying mother. Janet goes outside to imitate the local prostitute, gives up in about one minute and steals some money, is immediately caught and sent to the workhouse. What crappy luck.
Escapes just in time to watch her mother die, then evades the cops by hiding in a drum owned by the travelling circus.
Works at the circus for a while, meets a handsome painter (dark, curly-haired Charles Farrell of City Girl and Seventh Heaven)
Still thinking about her secret fugitive life, Janet falls when she sees a cop talking to Charles and breaks her leg.
They return to her home, he gets a huge contract and proposes to her. The night before the wedding she’s caught by the cop.
Cop incredibly gives her one last hour with her man before getting arrested (this hour feels like an hour, though it’s Janet’s big oscar-winning chance to get emotional).
Dark days follow… our painter, abandoned, can’t work so gets fired from the mural job, while a painting he sold for very little is manipulated by an art fraud group and sold for a fortune, and of course Janet’s slaving away in prison.
The day she’s out, Janet wanders the streets ashamed, while upstairs the neighborhood prostitute tells Charles his fiancee is a dirty streetwalker arrested for stealing. Charles finds Janet, chases her around, is about to strangle her when he looks up and sees his painting of her transformed into an angel – he repents, they have happy ending.
I know when they say Borzage was heavily influenced by Sunrise I’m supposed to look at mood and style, but the whole almost-killing-your-wife thing was similar as well. Good story (I thought), not overburdened with intertitles. Favorite bits were the wild street set, the drum escape, the strangulation rage scene (very dark) and the leg-breaking bit (excellent editing there mounts tension from both the cop questioning Charles and Janet’s balancing on stilts).
The movie likes to show us FEET:
Katy seemed underwhelmed but probably didn’t want to disparage the mighty Borzage. Not having watched the documentary on his career yet (or knowing a damned thing about him), I expect the thing is that he was creating artistic features at a time when few others were. This fact doesn’t hit me as hard because I didn’t go to the pictures in ’28, watching a steady stream of whatever crappy, gimmicky dramas were in theaters at that time… I’ve been seeking out the artistic ones all along. So films I’ve seen from the year Street Angel came out include great comedy like Speedy, Steamboat Bill Jr. and The Circus, thrillers Spies and West of Zanzibar, early avant-shorts like Überfall and The Life and Death of 9413, and all-time great The Passion of Joan of Arc – not exactly a representative selection.
Our introduction to Janet’s circus life:
Janet Gaynor won the first best-actress oscar for this (in conjunction with Seventh Heaven and Sunrise).
Janet with monkey:
Director of photography Ernest Palmer shot a pile of Borzage pictures, also Michael Powell’s Lazybones (not to be confused with Borzage’s Lazybones), later won an oscar for Blood and Sand.
According to IMDB, the director of All The President’s Men was born the week this came out – neat.