Street Angel (Borzage, 1929): Going Beneath the Surface.

Street Angel 1Director Frank Borzage is largely forgotten now. Even among film scholars F.W. Murnau is better remembered for the success of his film Sunrise at the first Oscar ceremony in 1929. But in fact it was Frank Borzage who won the first Best Director Oscar for Seventh Heaven, a melodrama set in France during the First World War. The first Best Actress Oscar went to Janet Gaynor, who starred in both Sunrise and Seventh Heaven as well as in Street Angel – also directed by Frank Borzage. What is more, Street Angel received more Oscar nominations than the other two films combined (being nominated also in 1930 for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction; the only non-foreign language film ever to receive nominations in two different years).

I first saw Street Angel in the early 1990s while researching for an MA. I was in New York City and the Museum of Modern Art screened it for me on request while I sat alone in the auditorium feeling important. I mention this because a lot of us complain today about the lack of silent films on TV but, considering the trouble I had to go to back then, not to say the trouble MOMA’s projectionist went to changing the reels of film, things are not so bad these days thanks to the convenience of new technology!

Duchamp_-_Nude_Descending_a_StaircaseWhat struck me then was how reverential the film was towards its subject – the artist character (George Farrell) was given a kind of heroic status that seemed cliched. Further research helped to put this into context. First time viewers of Chaplin’s The Immigrant (1917) may be similarly struck by how seriously we are supposed to take the successful painter who, as a member of the bourgeoisie, is able to save the newly arrived tramp and his sweet-heart. It’s a comedy so we don’t look too closely, but what I came to understand was that such representations had to be seen in the context of an on-going moral panic; since the 1913 Armory Show in New York (an exhibition of European art), Americans had viewed European art with deep suspicion  – especially if it showed nudes and/or was modern. 

The most ridiculed painting of the Armory show was probably Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase [right] – which itself acknowledged a debt to an 1887 study of movement by Eadweard Muybridge: Woman Walking Downstairs [below]. Muybridge had used a bank of separate cameras and trip-wires to freeze movement for analysis. A painter, Thomas Aikens, suggested he put them together to give an impression of movement. The result was possibly the first exhibition of moving pictures to scientists in San Francisco about a decade before the Lumiéres patented their cinematograph.

Film-makers meanwhile were busy trying to make respectable what, before 1910, had been considered low class entertainment. The nickelodeon was giving way to purpose built theatres and these movie palaces needed to exhibit subject matter which lived up to the decor of their new surroundings. After 1912, films in the USA saw an influx of theatre ‘stars’ from the stage (i.e. the Barrymores), from opera (i.e. Geraldine Farrar) and from the art world (i.e. Evelyn Nesbit, Audrey Munson). It was hoped that these (now mainly forgotten) well known figures from traditional arts would bring a sense of class to the screen.

paintingThe belief was that, not only could employing these people bring kudos, but in showing dramas about artists, art and the art world (chiefly painting and sculpture) and also imitating art through their framing and sets, films could appropriate the look and values of a traditional art. Inevitably such representation inscribed a prejudice that favoured the American over the ‘Old World’ artist. This perspective goes some way towards explaining the well-fed, urbane artist of The Immigrant, while the Old World painter of Street Angel is unappreciated – despite (or perhaps because of) his safely conservative, old fashioned canvasses, which are also associated with religion.

Another influence on this representation is Trilby, a popular late nineteenth century novel set in the bohemian quarter of Paris – from the pages of which Street Angel ‘s artist might have stepped. The novel was given two film adaptations in the silent period and the sound era would see 3 or 4 more under the title Svengali – the name of the Jewish villain of the piece who hypnotizes a young female singer. Thankfully there is no such racism in Street Angel, although the struggling painter is still made to suffer. Despite this apparently negative attitude to the Old World, studio strategies through the 1920s – as is well known – sought to bring prestige into Hollywood product by employing educated European directors like Ernst Lubitch, Victor Sjostrom and F.W. Murnau (the latter was an art historian).

In contrast, Frank Borzage, the director of Street Angel was self-taught; a home-grown American talent – albeit a first generation child of immigrants from Italy and Switzerland – many of whose films display a European aesthetic in framing and camera movement reminiscent of Murnau, who worked for the same studio (Fox). The story goes that Borzage took time out to watch Murnau at work on the expensive set he had built on the studio lot for Sunrise and this had a profound effect on his style.

Borzage was born in Salt Lake City, one of fourteen children, and had been a labourer before finding work as an actor in mid-west stock acting companies. After washing up in Hollywood in 1912, his good looks were spotted by Thomas Ince as being ideal for westerns. It is unclear exactly how many films he acted in, but we know he began directing in 1915 and made a splash with Humoresque, a 1920 drama that holds artists (in this case a musician) in high regard. Its plot illustrates Borzage’s taste for a sort of aesthetic spiritualism long before he met Murnau.

220px-1920_TremontTemple_BostonGlobe_Oct13Humoresque tells the story of Leon Kantor, a young man who dreams of being a concert violinist. His parents scrape together the money for lessons and Leon rewards them by becoming a successful musician, enabling him to move them from the Jewish ghetto to an uptown apartment. Now at the pinnacle of his concert career, he proposes to childhood sweetheart, Gina, but then war breaks out and he enlists. Returning from France some time later with a serious injury to his right arm, he believes he will never play the violin again and breaks off the engagement with Gina because he cannot support her. But Gina faints at this and, rushing to catch her from falling, Leon realises his arm is not as bad as he thought. He reaches for his violin and starts to play again.

Clearly to pull off a story as unashamed sentimental as this you need a rapport with actors – but also a command of the film maker’s craft (which Borzage clearly had). In a 1920 essay about Borzage called “The Photoplay of the Proletar­iat” the director says this: “the folk who go to motion pictures are interested most in the problems, joys and sorrows of daily life … the photoplay has been too far from these realities … film ex­periences have been false and artificial adventures. I want to go beneath the surface of things. I think the photoplay of tomorrow lies in that direction.’ [Motion Picture Classic, Vol. XI, # 1, Sep­tember 1920, pp.18, 88.]

Borzage success in going beneath the surface of things and articulating the problems, joys and sorrows of daily life can be measured by the popularity of the more than 110 films he directed. And certainly his silent film output shows him connecting with the public. Although there is a generally held opinion that Borzage was heavily influenced by Murnau, we don’t know how much he learned from the German – whether he was not looking at the art historian to confirm what he already knew about the visual poetry of the moving image.

He was certainly more productive than Murnau. Seventh Heaven (made just before Street Angel) with its impressively fluid camera moves,  artistic sets and visual panache was his 63rd film – and a bigger out and out smash hit than Sunrise. It was another tale involving a romance interrupted by war, this time set in Paris. But what distinguished this film for audiences was the pairing of Janet Gaynor and George Farrell – who would go on to star together in 12 films, both of them making a successful transition to sound.

Janet GaynorGeorge Farrell had started in 1923 as an extra (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Ten Commandments, The Cheat) and he remained a popular actor well into the sound era – he even had a TV show in the 1950s. Janet Gaynor [right] had worked in a Los Angeles shoe shop, then tried her hand in the movies, landing a part in The Johnstown Flood (1926) aged 20 with George O’Brien (with whom she would co-star in Sunrise the following year). After playing a simpering homebody in both Sunrise and Seventh Heaven, she got the chance in Street Angel to demonstrate a range to her acting talents. She would appear in some 24 more films and, although the last was in 1938, she returned only to TV in the 1950s and her last screen performances were in 3 episodes of the Love Boat in 1981. [There are some very sweet pictures of her at the 1978 Oscars – incongruously with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton: see Imdb]

So… Street Angel … sentimental yes, but also stylish, lyrical and life affirming. “In the view of film historian, John Belton, Street Angel is ‘perhaps’ Borzage’s ‘greatest silent film.’ In it Borzage uses the ‘traditional melodramatic form’ and displays his spirituality through his particular style. According to Belton, the film’s first sequences ‘describe this spirituality — the es­sences behind things — far better than words ever could.’ Mordaunt Hall too (of the New York Times) liked the first part of the film (and, indeed, the whole film) and called Street Angel ‘a picture of wonderful beauty.’ He goes on to say that ‘never has the camera been used quite so effectively and artistically as it is in this subject. … The excellence of this feature does not depend on trick photography, but upon genuinely expert composition of the scenes and careful atmospheric effects. … ‘” [From: Davide Turconi, “The Silent Films of Frank Borzage”. Griffithiana, December, 1992]

Such comments testify to Borzage’s success in going beneath the surface of things.

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