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Film / Street Angel

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Everywhere... in every town, in every street... we pass, unknowing, human souls made great by love and adversity.

Street Angel is a 1928 silent melodrama directed by Frank Borzage, starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. It tells the story of Angela (Janet Gaynor), a poor young girl from Naples whose mother is ill, and to pay for the medicine she decides to resort to prostitution. Before she actually gets a client, police catches her. She is sentenced to a year in prison, but flees with a traveling circus.

In circus she meets a young painter Gino (Charles Farrell) and falls in love. He paints Angela's portrait that captures her inner beauty and purity. After she injures her leg during a show, they leave circus and decide to settle down back in Naples.

Short on money, they sell the portrait to crooks who re-paint it into an icon of a saint, and sell it as a work by an Old Master. Meanwhile, Gino gets a big job to paint a mural for a theater, but at the same time a policeman recognizes Angela's face and comes to get her to prison, the very evening Gino asked her to marry him. Fearing that if Gino found out about her past, it would devastate him, and he wouldn't be able to paint anymore, Angela disappears without a word. It devastates Gino, and he can't paint anymore, so he loses the job and sinks into a depression, while Angela in jail is happy, believing her beloved is making great art.

Finally, Angela leaves the prison together with a prostitute Lisetta. Going to the theater, she learns what happened to Gino, finds their house empty and understands she has nowhere to go. Meanwhile, Lisetta meets Gino and tells him the truth about Angela, which makes him furious. Late at night, they both wander the docks and run into each other. Gino attacks Angela and chases her to a church where they see the painting of Angela as a saint. It helps Gino realize that Angela's inner beauty and purity are still with her. They reconcile, forgive each other and leave the church together.

Second of twelve films co-starring Gaynor and Farrell.

Street Angel provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Almost Kiss: After Angela sees her portrait, she and Gino lean to each other... But Mascetto appears to interrupt them.
  • Break the Cutie: Happens to both Angela and Gino.
  • Chekhov's Gun
    • The circus drum that gets broken in the very first scene is later used to hide Angela from the police.
    • Gino's painting, making a full circle and returning to save the couple in the end.
  • Chekhov's Gunman
    • Mascetto, the circus entrepreneur. We see him in the beginning, quarreling with a merchant over a stolen sausage. Later he saves Angela from the police and she joins his circus.
    • Lisetta is playing a pivotal role in the story, accidentally meeting the main characters at crucial points. Angela gets the idea to sell her body when she sees Lisetta from her window in the beginning. When Angela returns to Naples, Lisetta is her neighbor. In jail, both women end up in the same cell, leaving the jail at the same moment. After that Lisetta stumbles upon Gino in the bar, suggesting to look for Angela in the docks.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Gino and Angela running into the church where Angela's portrait is hanging.
  • Conveniently an Orphan: The beloved mother Angela tries to get the money for, who acts as a prop to kickstart the whole plot, promptly dies between when she's arrested and able to get back to their home, allowing Angela to be free of any obligations to make the rest of the film happen.
  • Cry Laughing: Gino, during his breakdown, after Lisetta told him why Angela disappeared.
  • Cynicism Catalyst: For Angela, her mother's death. For Gino, Angela's disappearance.
  • Dark Is Evil: Gino is dressed all in black when the movie timeskips ahead to when Angela gets out of prison, showing how dark and angry he's become.
  • Dramatic Irony: Tons of this at the halfway point, after Gino finally sells a picture for big money, and keeps saying stuff like "Drink to the future, Angela!", while the cop waits outside to take Angela away.
  • Epic Tracking Shot: Borzage's trademark. Seen here in a shot that starts with Mascetto arguing about a sausage. The camera pulls back, then over two minutes completes a 360-degree turn around the set.
  • Healthcare Motivation: Angela's mother's illness makes her resort to prostitution.
  • He Went That Way: Mascetto does this, sending the police away, while hiding Angela in a drum.
  • Hollywood Darkness: Whenever it becomes dark. Especially apparent in the last scene, where Gino lights a match to see Angela's face, entirely visible to the viewers.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Averted. Lisetta is shown as a depraved, cynical woman, a complete opposite to Angela's purity.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: Gino and Angela. There was a whole foot difference between Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor.
  • Hypocrite: Gino dismisses any woman whose not pure and virginal as a slut and whore. Yet Angela never dares question if he's had many sexual partners or not while she was supposed to remain this Incorruptible Pure Pureness simply waiting for the day he'd show up.
  • Idiot Ball: Yes, Angela, the man who loves you would be devastated if he finds out that you're going to jail for robbery. So just disappear without a word, and he would be absolutely fine.
  • Inspector Javert: Neri, sergeant of police, who chases Angela and later comes for her after she returns to Naples.
  • In-Universe Catharsis - At the end of the movie, Angela and Gino's terrible meeting when he chases and almost strangles her ends in a massive catharsis for both of them, restoring their ruined love.
  • Jade-Colored Glasses - Angela wears these after fleeing Naples before falling in love with Gino. Gino, in turn, puts them on after she disappears, and only The Power of Love helps him overcome the trauma.
  • Leg Focus: A close-up of Angela's stocking-clad legs sticking up into the air, as she relaxes with the circus troupe while in costume.
  • Leitmotif - "O Sole Mio" is the song Gino constantly whistles. It becomes the music theme for their love with Angela.
  • Love Redeems - Love makes Gino recover from what he became after Angela disappeared. It also made Angela literally a saint in his eyes.
  • Loving a Shadow: Deconstructed. Both Angela and Gino have this type of love to a degree and it's shown to be unhealthy. Angela warns Gino he only sees in her what he wants to see as he paints her portrait. Indeed, when he finds out she has very human flaws she was arrested for, he rages about she was a liar, a whore, and sent from Satan the whole time. It's shown Angela also doesn't seem to know the mind of her fiance that well and sees him as a far more ideal man then he actually is if she thinks disappearing without a trace will somehow still give him motivation to paint.
  • Madonna-Whore Complex - Gino surely thinks this way: he has no problem with hitting a prostitute and almost strangles Angela before realizing she's still a saintly, pure woman after all.
  • Meaningful Name - Angela.
  • Melodrama
  • Mood Dissonance - The scene where Angela tries to sell her body to buy medicine for her dying mother is surprisingly lighthearted and funny.
  • Mood Whiplash - One of Borzage's favorite tropes. We get lots of these, every new scene abruptly changing mood, going from tragic to funny to romantic to dramatic to heartwarming to heartbreaking.
  • The Muse - Angela to Gino.
  • Parental Abandonment - Gino's parents and Angela's father are never seen or mentioned. Angela's mother dies in the very beginning of the movie.
  • Poirot Speak - The story takes place in Italy, and there's a healthy dose of lines like "Si, si, Mama! I will be back soon with the medicine.".
  • Poor Communication Kills: Angela somehow thinks that Gino will somehow get over her sudden disappearance when she's taken to prison rather then just tell him what's going on. He becomes so enraged when he finds out the real reason that he almost strangles her. Even then, she still doesn't simply TELL HIM the whole reason she was arrested as a prostitute was because she was trying to get money for medicine for her dying mother.
  • The Power of Love - Movie's main theme.
  • Reaction Shot - Before we see the portrait, we watch for almost half a minute Angela's reaction to it.
  • Second-Face Smoke - Gino lovingly puffs smoke into Angela's face.
  • Silly Rabbit, Romance Is for Kids! - Angela's attitude while she's traveling with the circus, before falling in love with Gino.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance
    • While Gino is running the streets looking for disappeared Angela, he passes a street orchestra playing a joyful song.
    • In-universe: when Angela is already going away with the policeman, Gino, not seeing her happily whistles "O Sole Mio". With tears in her eyes, Angela whistles along before disappearing.
  • Spiritual Successor - To Borzage's 7th Heaven (1927), also starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.
  • Streetwalker - Lisetta. Angela tries to become one, and fails miserably.
  • Tearful Smile - Before going to prison, Angela spend her last hour with Gino, celebrating and faking a smile with tears in her eyes.
  • Title Drop - Lisetta calls Angela a street angel when they met in jail.
  • Tsundere - while traveling with the circus, Angela becomes cynical and behaves like this, mocking Gino and even destroying his painting. However, after she falls in love in him, she permanently returns to her real sweetheart self.
  • Watch Out for That Tree! - Downplayed. Angela is so captivated by looking at a rich couple on the streets that she bumps into a wall.
  • Would Hit a Girl - Gino can hit Lisetta and still be a romantic hero.