STREET ANGEL directed by Frank Borzage (USA, 1928)

street-angel-borzageThis week I began a 5 week MOOC in film history at Coursera run by Scott Higgins of Wesleyan University called ‘The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound, and Color’.  Street Angel is the first of ten movies on the syllabus and will be a hard act to follow.

What a great film this is!

It was chosen because it was made at a time when silent movies were about to be replaced by talkies and shows how directors with visual style didn’t really need dialogue to tell a rich and emotionally powerful story.

Prof Higgins says, rightly, that “it contains all that is great and weird about silent films”.

Actually, it’s quite a relief that we don’t get to hear any cod Neapolitan accents which would probably have been  fairly embarrassing.  As it is we can fool ourselves into imagining  Gino (Charles Farrell) speaking suave Italianate English. Gino is a travelling painter who wins the heart of Angela played by the incomparable Janet Gaynor.

The love story is unashamedly melodramatic but all the more effective for its simplicity. Borzage’s stated aim was “to make the audience sentimental and not the players”; in other words he engineered the action so that viewers wanted the story of the star-crossed lovers to end happily even though this involves a major suspension of disbelief.

What struck me was how modern and affirmative the role of Angela is – Gino is physically strong and classically handsome but looks pretty dumb too. Gaynor is tiny by his side but it is her vitality and emotional strength that grabs the attention and it is her energy that drives the movie.

Higgins points out that the movies is prime example of “bad drama and good poetry”. The tracking shots of the streets of Naples are brilliantly realised even though they always look theatrical and the final redemptive embrace in the fog is guaranteed to ensure that, by the end, there is not a dry eye in the house.