Street Angel (1928)
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Frank Borzage's Street Angel (1928) represents a high point of late silent cinema alongside other Fox productions such as Borzage's 7th Heaven (1927) and F. W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927). It stands out not only for its meticulously crafted, atmospheric sets and cinematography, but also for the freshness of the lead performances by Janet Gaynor as "Angela" and Charles Farrell as "Gino." Watching Gaynor and Farrell today, it's not difficult to see why they were for a time the leading screen couple in Hollywood.
The film's working title was Lady Cristilinda, the same as the 1922 Monckton Hoffe play from which it was adapted. In the play, the setting was originally London. (For the film Borzage and the screenwriters switched the location to Naples.) Cristilinda was a circus rider and the daughter of Christopherson, the circus owner. Martini, the portrait painter, was the sole Italian among the characters. The plot mainly concerned Cristilinda's portrait getting passed off as a fake Lippo Lippi; the climax was a scene with Cristilinda and Martini admiring the portrait together in a church. The play opened in New York in December 1922, with Fay Bainter in the title role and a young Leslie Howard as Martini. The Irish-born playwright Hoffe (1880-1951) started out as an actor and stage manager in London before writing a highly successful run of plays starting after the turn of the century. Other well-known works by Hoffe include Improper Peter (1912), Panthea (1914) and the highly successful comedy The Faithful Heart (1921); the latter was adapted for the screen twice, in 1922 and 1932. Hoffe became a screenwriter for MGM in 1932 and returned to England in 1939. Preston Sturges used one of Hoffe's stories as the basis for The Lady Eve (1941).
Borzage filmed Street Angel in the fall and winter of 1927, shortly after the nationwide release of 7th Heaven. Earlier (September 1926) he had spent long hours on the set of Murnau's Sunrise watching the great director at work; no doubt Murnau's penchant for fluid camerawork and Expressionistic lighting effects had a profound impact on Borzage's subsequent films and on the studio aesthetic at Fox as a whole. The Naples street scenes in Street Angel used a specially built round set with a moving floor that enabled 360-degree coverage. In a Los Angeles Times article on the film's production, one reporter visiting from Germany supposedly called the film's Naples settings "the most authentic she has ever seen in a motion-picture studio." The cinematographers Ernest Palmer and Paul Ivano took full advantage of the possibilities this opened up for them, resulting in many striking camera movements. A good example of this appears in the opening of the film, when we see an argument on the street--a vendor accusing Mascetto of stealing a sausage. After the police break up the fight, the camera tracks laterally to follow Mascetto as he walks down the street. It then cranes up to reveal a seaside street with laundry hanging overhead, then pans left across the vast set to reveal other groups of characters before craning down and tracking in toward the street corner near where Angela and her ailing mother live.
One can also see the influence of Murnau and German Expressionism generally in Borzage and Palmer's lighting decisions; the extensive use of fog in the Naples street scenes creates a haunting atmosphere; another aspect of the film's German influence is its use of deliberately exaggerated shadows during the episode of Angela in jail. This is not to say that Borzage slavishly imitated the German style, but rather that he incorporated elements of it while retaining his own, distinctive approach to the romantic melodrama. In an interview for the Los Angeles Times, Gaynor contrasted Borzage with Murnau as follows: "Borzage builds as he goes alone. What may be one of the greatest highlights in the finished production in all probability was not in the script at all. Murnau is exactly opposite. I believe in Sunrise he had visualized every scene before we ever started work."
Although not listed in the film's credits, Street Angel uses a Movietone score recorded specifically for the film at that time, as did a number of other Fox films such as Sunrise. Fox's Movietone (sound-on-film) and Warner's Vitaphone (sound-on-disc) soundtracks were less expensive for theaters to use than live orchestra accompaniment and also offered greater uniformity of product. The original program notes for Street Angel list the theater chain mogul and radio personality Samuel L. "Roxy" Rothafel as the composer along with Ernö Rapée. According to film historian Ross Melnick, Rothafel began his partnership with Fox in 1925 when the studio purchased a controlling share of his Roxy Theatre in New York and agreed to let Rothafel to remain the theater's musical director. Together with his longtime collaborators Rapée and Hugo Riesenfeld, Rothafel created orchestral arrangements (with some newly composed themes) for many of the early Movietone scores. While such soundtracks may not have used synchronized dialogue yet, they did frequently include sound effects; in the case of Street Angel, we hear Gino and Angela whistling the tune "O sole mio" as an expression of their love, and the whistling is loosely synchronized with the action onscreen."
Fox released Street Angel in the spring of 1928 to largely enthusiastic notices. Comparing the film to an "operatic romance," Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times declared, "Few pictorial efforts have revealed the sterling artistic quality possessed by Frank Bor[z]age's production Street Angel." In particular, Hall praised the film's painterly imagery, the "earnestness" and "appealing beauty" of Gaynor, and the "naturalness" of Charles Farrell. The following year, Janet Gaynor won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performances in this film, 7th Heaven, and Sunrise. The film also received nominations for Best Art Direction (Harry Oliver) and Best Cinematography (Ernest Palmer).
Producer: William Fox
Director: Frank Borzage
Script: Philip Klein and Henry Roberts Symonds, adapted from the play by Monckton Hoffe.
Director of Photography: Ernest Palmer and Paul Ivano
Film Editor: Barney Wolf
Art Director: Harry Oliver
Costumes: Kathleen Kay
Cast: Janet Gaynor (Angela), Charles Farrell (Gino), Alberto Rabagliati (Policeman), Cino Conti (Policeman), Guido Trento (Neri, police sergeant), Henry Armetta (Mascetto), Louis Liggett (Beppo), Milton Dickinson (Bimbo); Helena Herman (Andrea), Natalie Kingston (Lisetta), David Kashner (The Strong Man), Jennie Bruno (Landlady).
by James Steffen
"Monckton Hoffe, 70, British Playwright." (Obituary) New York Times, November 5, 1951, p.31.
"Cinematic Fare." Los Angeles Times, January 1, 1928, p.C14.
Busby, Marquis. "Janet Looks to future" Los Angeles Times, December 11, 1927, p.C19.
Dumont, Herve. Frank Borzage: the life and films of a Hollywood romantic. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006.
Hall, Mordaunt. "Inspiring artistry: 'Street Angel' a charming picture." New York Times, April 15, 1928, p.119.