"Love makes people unhappy. Why should I seek trouble?"
The exotic opening shot shows two uniformed Italian cops conversing in the foreground of a terrace with the foggy Naples evening entrenching them in the far off distance as the camera slowly dollies backward up a steeply inclined pathway.
As the dark tone is set it builds quickly to unbearably grim. Angela (Janet Gaynor) must devise a way to come up with 20 lire to fill a prescription or her mother dies. Her only options are prostitution or robbery.
Plot summary: A travelling circus star specializing in high-rise acrobatics meets a vagabond painter. The two fall in love until secrets from her past threaten the happiness they have found with each other.
As the story begins in Naples the ominous tone of tragedy is complemented by elaborately staged sets photographed using various crane and dolly shots, augmented by deep expressionist shadows. This familiar Borzage territory of poverty and famine is only temporary however. The narrative soon reveals a bright segue into the countryside where the Circo Napolitano has stopped to perform.
When the painter Gino Roberti (Charles Farrell) meets Angela, he is working on a portrait of a young woman posing with a goat. Around this part of the film one is able to appreciate how well the comedy works. (Earlier there is a trained monkey who makes a vulgar gesture at a cop.) When Angela confronts Gino for drawing away her crowd, she provokes the onslaught of the violent goat (the attack from the trained goat kills me every time) and is left on the ground with a torn dress.
But the animals are not only empolyed as gags. (Well, the bear cub is.) Elsewhere throughout the film one notices numerous occurences of wildlife: the doves outside Gino's flat in Naples, and later a cat there for instance. This may not be worth bringing up, but it is a subtle touch that I strongly appreciate towards kindness and the pleasant qualities these moments evoke.
Toward the end of the film, Gino and Angela are both in Naples and the ominous mood returns. The film presents a dichotomy of women as either saints or sluts. And Gino will eventually be driven to the brink of madness trying to figure this dilemma out.
The Bohemian lifestyle shared by Gino and Angela before they meet is a refreshing variant in Borzage's late silent period and allows the film to breath during the open aired circus interlude--the perspective background sets are a feat to behold. "O sole mio" becomes the refrain that haunts each of the fleeting moments when one senses that life can never be that easy and complications are imminent for the two lovers.
There's a sequence late in the film that occurs at the wharves where the music cue that underscores the boiled clam/soup line montage is so wrenching; and I think it is the only place in the film where the piece is used. So Borzage again won me over with his majestic sympathy toward bums (and I can't think of any other instances where Borzage's used montage either?).
Are these films overly sentimental? Of course! A point I've been struggling to articulate for a while now has been how I am biased toward a certain type of film that meets my highest standards of enjoyment and rewatchability. Here with the late Borzage silents I must admit I have become smitten with their artifice and over the top melodramatic shmaltz because of the eye candy and decor of lighting and the way that I am so moved emotionally by all of it; and the themes just happen to coincide with my own worldview: life is tough at times but there's always the fluttering moment when you realize it's all worth it; the fun of creation in Street Angel is hard to pin down, but it delights where many other movies fail--it doesn't take itself too seriously, but there are serious feelings at stake.
Angela's cynicism is quickly abandoned. From the beginning she claims that lovers disgust her. But her saintliness is on the line for Gino, which brings me to a curious point: the more I think about it the more I realize Angela practically ruins this dude's life and lies to him, then leaves him in the lurch; but in the end she proves her virtue how exactly? Well I'll also add that Angela's life is going well until she falls in love with Gino. So I guess my point is that these two pay a price for their love, and Borzage's again developed a maudlin Love Story which is nuanced and complicated in ways that are interesting and ring true for me.
If you think too much about details like these they don't hold up necessarily--the point is not whether they hold any veracity for real people, but that they can move us with real emotions while we watch a movie with constructed characters viewed as works of art created through the artifice of projected light and nothing more.