Heavily influenced by F.W Murnau’s most Expressionist visuals (he filmed Sunrise at the same time Frank Borzage was filming Seventh Heaven at Fox), Street Angel is often a case of style over substance. Janet Gaynor’s Italian waif Angela is faced with a dying mother and nothing to eat. She tries her hand at streetwalking (a near-comic sequence), gets arrested for stealing some spaghetti, and faces imprisonment. As she makes a getaway from police, Borzage menaces her with plenty of Germanic shadows that look like they’re chasing her and spurring her on. Angela runs away with the circus, and seems fairly happy without a love interest, but a fortune-teller warns her, “Love will come to you. No woman escapes.” Naturally, she meets up with Charles Farrell’s painter Gino, and soon they are constantly whistling “O Sole Mio!” at each other. Constantly. I mean, over and over again (the film has a recorded score and overzealous sound effects).
As the tale unfolds, it would seem that Angela’s single failed attempt at prostitution and spaghetti-snatching will completely ruin her life. But Street Angel builds toward an unexpected, intense ending. Gino paints a portrait of his beloved as the Madonna, and he is horrified when he finds out why Angela was arrested (she doesn’t clear things up for him). The point of the film, a highly original one for the time and even today, is that Gino has to learn to love and accept Angela no matter what. Street Angel rises above its plot when Gino rises above his standard-issue Madonna/whore complex and grants the woman he loves a pardon and a renewal of faith, even if he thinks she has been a “street angel.” Imagine a film about Jesus where his mother Mary and Mary Magdalene were played by the same actress. Such a bold frisson will give you an idea of the film’s final, transcendent effect, which washes away the sometimes saccharine repetitions of its early and middle sections.