Janet Gaynor in "Street Angel"
Won the 1927-28 Best Actress Oscar (Also for "Seventh Heaven" and "Sunrise")
Firstly I have to confess to being inexperienced with regard to silent films. The vast majority of those that I have seen were forced upon me as part of university modules, and subsequent attempts to watch renowned classics (Battleship Potemkin, Broken Blossoms etc.) have resulted in abandonment. For some reason it requires more effort for me to watch a film without audible dialogue than it does for, say, a film in which the dialogue is spoken in Greek or Russian. After watching “Street Angel” I feel even more bashful about my behaviour, since it exhibits many of the most appealing features of silent cinema; foremost, the wonder of visual storytelling, and also the way in which it manages to create a score that reflects the emotive shifts of the action on screen.
Janet Gaynor is most famously the Actress to win for not one, not two, but three performances in films made between 1927 and 1928 – one of the early anomalies that make Oscar statistics a pest to compile. While lovely in “Sunrise” the film and performance failed to bowl me over, but the situation is somewhat different with Frank Borzage’s “Street Angel,” a social commentary involving a woman driven to commit a crime through desperation, and blighted by that crime later in life. Borzage and Gaynor had a healthy relationship (he made two of the three films which garnered her triple Oscar win) and her presence on-camera is one that shows complete faith between director and performer.
While the film moves at such a rapid pace in the first twenty minutes this is mainly in order to outline the predicaments of Gaynor’s Angela, who deals with familial strife and a run-in with the law. Her brush with criminality forces a shift from the unassuming, loving daughter to a more hardened, downbeat view of the world, exacerbated when she runs off with a circus troupe and becomes a star there. Gaynor reveals Angela’s attitude towards men as distrusting and contemptuous through brazen dismissal of anything mushy and sentimental, and even if Borzage is far too eager to race to Angela’s romance with incoming vagabond painter Gino then Gaynor at least bridges the gap between the reserved contentment that dominates her character.
As a victim of poverty and what’s perceived to be society’s neglect of the working classes, Gaynor sustains a level of grace which gives the internal conflicts of Angela all the more eminence. In the film’s most testing plot device she escapes from her imprisonment at a workhouse in an unlikely reversal of fortune, the moment at which she is provided with a path to freedom handled with disbelieving trepidation. In theory this is as much of a moral decision for Angela than the act which initially landed her in hot water, and Gaynor palpably details the confluence of ethical and physical necessities in her character. This whole sequences takes up less than five minutes of “Street Angel,” but you somehow feel like Angela has been without her civil liberties for far longer.
Occasionally Gaynor may too adamantly telegraph emotional pining by exerting gestures of physical pain, and for substantial periods she’s re-iterating Angela’s heartache and shame when confronting men who expect better of her. But Gaynor does this with such operatic verve and introspective worth that “Street Angel” constantly flourishes under her careful guidance as a lost yet fascinatingly self-aware protagonist whose motivations derive from passion and love. A hard-hitting, perfectly pitched scene in which she finally addresses the implications of her actions lend Gaynor the opportunity to be particularly devastating in reaction to the reality of losing what’s close to her, and she certainly does not disappoint.
By all accounts, word seems to suggest that Gaynor was one of those actresses who somewhat lost out as a result of the advent of talkies, despite a 1937 nomination for the William Wellman-directed “A Star is Born.” She’s fine as Vicki Lester, but less impacting than in “Sunrise” and especially lacks the depth of feeling of this performance, which permeates so well as an embodiment of the social victim. Having seen two of Gaynor’s ’27-’28 triple-threat of pictures the jury’s still out as to whether her and Borzage are a marriage made in (Seventh) Heaven, but based on the resounding success of their partnership here, I wouldn’t bet against it. Keep an eye on the sidebar this coming week for a peek at whether she can make it 2 for 2.