Street Angel

Street Angel ★★★

Of the three movies for which Janet Gaynor collectively won the inaugural Best Actress Oscar, Street Angel is the easiest to forget. Even the Academy sort of forgot: a year after granting that prize, they considered Street Angel again, this time for Cinematography and Art Direction. I can see why they would. Ernest Palmer's camera executes some very tricky and sometimes grand-scale movements around Harry Oliver's ambitious and intricate faux-Neapolitan set, which is about the size of Vesuvius. Speaking of faux-Neapolitan, I am not sure Janet Gaynor ever clears the bar for even suspended-disbelief credibility as a poor Italian waif. Bless her avoiding the usual choice of over-indicating "ethnicity," but through the first half of Street Angel, including her slightly embarrassed take on what she and the crew and the arbiters of taste imagine a "prostitute" might be, she might have offered more of something.

The movie functions just fine as a kind of opera libretto played straight about star-crossed love and dogged policemen and tragic sacrifice and coerced sex work and circus injuries and hard-won moments of sublimity in a poor neighborhood (and, briefly, on the road). Fox clearly committed substantial resources, as witness the magnitude of the visual conception. Still, it's hard to fight the impression that Gaynor and director Frank Borzage are just seizing (or, more likely, being assigned) the closest script at hand that might catch some of the rapturous emotional lightning of 7th Heaven, their massive hit from the year before. Street Angel ticks a lot of similar boxes, including another magnificent set by Oliver, a hunky male lead with great hair, and an unironic conviction in its own melodrama. But this is 2nd Heaven at best…

…at least until a climactic passage about two-thirds of the way through when Gaynor's character has turned herself into those indefatigable cops for a long-ago crime that her husband knows nothing about (long story). She stipulates only, as you do, that the arresting officer give her one more hour alone with her unsuspecting beau. Gaynor and Palmer are finally in their shared wheelhouse here. Her lunar and luminous face under his shimmering light yield the silent-closeup version of a complex and moving aria, fighting back tears, wordlessly saying goodbye, possibly forever, to a man who thinks they're just sitting down to dinner, and whose disdain she has reason to expect should he ever glean her shameful secret. Reader, tears were jerked. The movie achieves the plane of feeling for which it has been nobly designed.

I'd be amazed if even the makers thought Street Angel's closing chapters measured up to this transporting culmination. Nothing important is "wrong" with them, but we move fairly quickly through a notable pileup of incidents spread across years, instigating and soon enough resolving an inevitable fallout between our lover protagonists. A prop painting meant to convey the male lead's artistic genius is increasingly showcased for plot reasons, which only gives us more chances to note the discrepancy between what this image means to evoke and what it plainly is. Street Angel resides within its own version of that discrepancy, which I think is why it avoids prolonging its return to terra firma after briefly accessing such affective heights. Sometimes you sense that a movie knows it's just shown you the best it's got and wisely wants to hustle you out with that defining memory still in place.


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