Street Angel (1928)

The 1930 Production Code listed prostitution as one of those things that should only be dealt with in representations of “good taste”. Since no one could agree on what that actually meant, a later revision of same just banned it as a subject entirely. Which is why it’s interesting to see a Hollywood film of this vintage being quite so blunt on the matter (7th Heaven is comparatively reticent about it); no bones made about what our heroine tries to do, and no real apologies made for it either. Gaynor and Farrell as young lovers again, but this film’s narrative kind of inverts 7th Heaven. She’s still the poor beset waif, but—after her cackhanded attempt at soliciting and then robbery (you can’t believe little Janet as a would-be hooker, but that’s the point)—she kind of rises above by her own power, escaping and then literally running away to join the circus. He, meanwhile, is a painter who joins the circus too, and here it’s she who resists his romantic ministrations before fate does its dirty work. Also, where the war calls him away in the other film, here the law calls here away… and, ultimately, it’s his eventual hatred for her that drives him back to her rather than love, which is perhaps this film’s most crucial inversion of the other. Tim Brayton looks at the film here, and I think he hits on why the film isn’t quite as good as 7th Heaven; for him it comes down to a certain lack of stylistic coherence (which is certainly fair enough), though for me there’s also the way in which it doesn’t quite have the same sort of emotional grandeur, while our lovers are appealing enough it’s all somehow not quite as involving, and Borzage doesn’t avoid sentiment in quite the way he managed earlier. Still, the good things in it are very good, and I’m starting to think I was a bit hasty in dismissing Borzage on such little evidence now that I’ve seen at least a couple more of his films and done a bit more reading which suggests Strange Cargo (which I didn’t like much) may not have been a good place to effectively start…

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