…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
Oscar’s very first Best Actress in 1927-28 was none other than the diminutive silent star, Janet Gaynor in, not one, but three performances – for Seventh Heaven, Street Angel, and the remarkable fable Sunrise (which I have already seen). I love Gaynor’s performance in Sunrise – she lights up the screen as the sweet, simple wife who is left behind while her awkward farmer husband is seduced by a flashy, dangerous city woman from out of town. It’s a touching story and definitely one of the great silents of the 1920s.
The other two performances of the year for which Gaynor won the Oscar were directed by Frank Borzage, who would win the first Directing Oscar for one of them – Seventh Heaven. In Street Angel, Borzage pairs Janet Gaynor with handsome (and tall!) leading man Charles Farrell, and would, in fact, pair these two (perhaps because they worked so beautifully together) again in several other lush, romantic silent films.
The story of Street Angel begins in Naples, where poor, destitute Angela (Gaynor) is faced with the impending death of her mother. To purchase medicine to save her mother’s life, Angela takes desperate measures by soliciting men on the street (prostitution). When her initial attempts to garner male attention fail, she steals money from a man at a spaghetti cart. She is arrested and sentenced to one year in the prison workhouse for robbery and solicitation. En route to prison, she flees the police and joins a traveling troupe of carnival performers, who willingly provide shelter for her. On the road, Angela meets and subsequently falls in love with vagabond artist Gino (Farrell). Gino paints Angela’s portrait, and shortly afterwards, Angela hurts her ankle in performance. She leaves the troupe to return to Naples – against her wishes, for she knows she is a wanted woman – to have her ankle fixed and eventually marry Gino. Their happiness together is sadly short-lived, for on the night Gino proposes and the two are celebrating, the police arrive to arrest Angela, for they have seen her roaming surreptitiously around the streets of Naples. After her arrest – without Gino’s knowing it – both of their lives are plunged into despair and heartbreak as the lovers make attempts over the next year to reunite.
I enjoyed watching this silent classic – and frankly didn’t know if I would. If anything, I love to see movies from a simpler time in cinema, and you realize while watching films from back then that directors relied on so many atmospheric elements to convey mood. Borzage and his camera crew capture the darkness of the streets and the moodiness of this overall piece remarkably well, and a colorful slice of Naples life is brilliantly depicted and relayed to the audience straight away in the opening scenes. Gaynor is a marvel. At the beginning of the film, we see Angela as a young innocent, barely scraping by and doing everything she can to save her mother. Having failed that, she is forced to take her life down a completely different, unpredictable path – and she grows into a woman in the process. The Angela Gaynor conveys who is passionately in love with Gino during their last dinner together is more mature and world-weary than the Angela who awkwardly tries to pick up men on the street at the start of the film. Our hearts go out to her as she vainly tries to stay with the man she loves, tenuously holding onto him as the law once more intrudes and tears them apart. She knows she is powerless against her ultimate fate. Though she fights it, she eventually needs to let go and trust that she will find him again. It’s a powerfully bittersweet performance.
Next up – Seventh Heaven, which I will be watching and reviewing shortly. It is interesting to note that in the early days of the Oscars, actors were awarded for their body of work during that particular year, which is why Gaynor won for 3 films. 1927-28 certainly proved to be a strong year for this young actress, and I’m glad she was justly awarded for some very good work indeed.