From the opening shot of Street Angel (1928), it is evident that Frank Borzage (1893–1962) had been enraptured by watching F. W. Murnau shoot Sunrise the preceding year at the Fox studio. Through atmospheric light and shadow, the camera prowls around elaborate Neapolitan sets in long, complicated takes. Borzage had won the first Oscar for best director for Seventh Heaven in 1927, but he evidently realized that Murnau and his team had brought something new to Hollywood, and his career over the next thirty years never cast off Murnau’s spell.
Less explicitly but undeniably, Moonrise (1948), for example, contained many of the lessons learned at Murnau’s knee. Borzage developed his own team of technicians, of course, but they also wound up working for Murnau in his brief subsequent career. Cinematographer Ernest Palmer worked on several Borzage films, from Seventh Heaven into the talkies, but he also photographed Murnau’s Four Devils and City Girl. Set designer Harry Oliver, similarly, was Borzage’s man, but he also designed City Girl. It was almost as though this was Borzage’s gift to a former mentor now bereft of his German Ufa support staff.
Although Street Angel’s canvas is smaller than that of Sunrise, its tale of a fractured relationship made whole by the redemptive power of love rivals that of its predecessor, and is helped enormously by an emotional impetus soon to be made far more difficult by the coming of the spoken word. Here we have only a music (and effects) track with endless variations on “O Sole Mio,” which became a huge pop hit in America in 1950, rendered in English as “There’s No Tomorrow” by Tony Martin (who’s still performing to this day). (“There’s no tomorrow, when love is new/There’s no tomorrow, when love is true/So kiss me, and hold me tight/There’s no tomorrow, there’s just tonight.”) It was left to Josef von Sternberg to find a way—shooting many scenes relying more on gesture than dialogue—to restore “feeling” to the American talking cinema in Morocco (1930). Murnau never made a sound film, and Charles Chaplin avoided the new technology for over a decade.
The team of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell stayed together after Seventh Heaven for several more Borzages—and films by other directors. She, of course, won the first Oscar for an actress for her combined efforts on Seventh Heaven, Sunrise, and Street Angel. Farrell, surely one of the best-looking actors of the period, like Gaynor, remained popular in talkies, even after Sunnyside Up (1929) betrayed his high, squeaky voice. Borzage, a former actor himself, set great store in “naturalism” and “simplicity.”
In a sense, Street Angel raises interesting questions about the very integrity of art itself. Is the virginal portrait Farrell paints of Gaynor made any less authentic when he temporarily sees her as less virginal? Does art lie, and does that matter? When Gaynor asks Farrell at the end of the film to look into her eyes in the hope of reestablishing the ethereal bond of faith between them, it highlights one the cinema’s transcendent gifts. The great Danish director Carl Dreyer believed that “the eyes are the mirrors of the soul.” In his La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (next week’s film in this series), Dreyer establishes the sincerity and conviction of Joan’ s beliefs (a different kind of faith) through the exquisite luminosity of Maria Falconetti’s eyes. In Street Angel (unlike the witch-burners in Dreyer’s film), Farrell echoes George O’Brien in Sunrise in begging for forgiveness.
Frank Borzage was Hollywood’s most unabashed Romantic. The opening titles of Street Angel even make reference to “souls made great by love.” His whole career (to which we will return) can be summed up in the lyrics sung by the crooner in Moonrise: “Let’s give love a chance.”