Charles Farrell is Chico, an athiest who works in the Paris sewers (I’m not sure what he does down there – looks like he’s doing his laundry, or fishing rags from the water) and dreams of being a mighty street washer up on the surface. Janet Gaynor lives with her abusive sister, possibly both as prostitutes. As usual for the beginning of a Borzage movie, Something Good happens to the guy (he’s given a better job) while Something Bad happens to the girl (a rich uncle comes to take them in, asks if they’ve been “clean” and Janet answers no, so relatives leave and Janet’s sister tries to kill her). Chico saves her but gets himself in a pickle with a cop… he says she’s his wife, so now the cop will come by Chico’s house tomorrow to verify the story.
Standing in the gutter, looking at the stars:
What to do!? If you said “why doesn’t Janet stay at his house for a day” then you’re as smart as the screenwriter. Chico lives on the seventh floor, whose set is actually seven stories high, as noted by the outrageous vertical tracking shot following the pair up the stairs. There’s some business about who’s sleeping where and some talk about God, work, fear of heights and whether Chico is a very remarkable man (he is), and the next day he buys her a wedding dress.
A very remarkable man:
I don’t know how long afterwards (a day? a year?), war breaks out, and it breaks out in a hurry – Chico has about an hour to report to duty. The war lasts a few years, he and his street-washin’ buddy flamethrow some dudes, the local cabbie is roped into a huge cab-driven troop movement (which actually happened, and which Borzage recreated with either an awful lot of cars or a clever model).
Papa Boul and what’s left of his cab:
Chico is feared dead, so Janet’s admirer back home (not a slimy villain or anything, just a suave dude who likes her) is making his move when Chico bursts in, alive but blind and believing in God, for a happy-ish ending (he’s still blind).
Chuck on the stairwell:
The story doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a gorgeous movie. The street set (which looks familiarly like the one from Street Angel) and the apartment are wonderful, and the war is remarkably shot (dig the silhouette-soldier who attacks Chico).
Farrell and Gaynor are as good as in their other movies (well, maybe Gaynor has less to do here), and Gladys Brockwell (dead two years later after a car crash) shines as Gaynor’s whip-bearing sister. Simone Simon and James Stewart starred in a sound remake ten years later, which is not quite as highly regarded.