Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Janet Gaynor Triple Feature Part 1: Street Angel

"Naturally, I was thrilled but being the first year, the Academy Awards had no background or tradition, and it naturally didn't mean what it does now. Had I known then what it would come to mean in the next few years, I'm sure I'd have been overwhelmed. At the time, I think I was more thrilled over meeting Douglas Fairbanks."
-Janet Gaynor

As I've gone throughout the nominees and winners of the first Academy Awards, I haven't made a big deal about "firsts." In this context, being first doesn't mean anything. Had the awards been given out a year earlier or a year later, the "firsts" would be different but the movies and performances would have been the same.

However, there was one unique aspect to the first Academy Awards. Actors were nominated not for one specific role, but for their entire output during a certain period of time, in this case 1927 through 1928. Emil Jannings did not just win for one role that year, in The Last Command, he also won for The Way of the Flesh. It makes the award itself feel more special

This special feeling seems to have come back for a one-time-only reunion tour, as Kate Winslet has been getting bunches and bunches of awards for her entire 2008 output. Regardless of what you (and I) actually think about the actual films, Revolutionary Road or The Reader, it's hard to think of another time an actress as pulled such a one-two punch.

Janet Gaynor pulled a one-two-three punch. She's half-Goro.

Janet Gaynor released three huge successful films in that 27/28 time period, and was awarded for all three of them. Were they deserved? Was the award really given for the combined output of her films, or was it given for one performance and the rest just added to the nomination for technical reasons? The only way to really tell is to watch all three.

Street Angel (1928)
Frank Borzage
STARRING: Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Guido Trento
WON: Best Actress in a Leading Role (Janet Gaynor) (1st Academy Awards)
NOMINATED FOR: Best Cinematography (Ernest Palmer) (2nd Academy Awards)
Best Art Direction (Harry Oliver) (2nd Academy Awards)

Yeah, you read that right. For some technical reason I haven't been able to pinpoint yet, Street Angel was nominated in two different Academy Awards. There isn't much to say beyond that.

Our film opens in 19th century Naples, though we spend very little time focusing on it, or anywhere else for that matter. Spending hardly three minutes to set up setting and mood, we go straight to our main character, Angela (which is kind of a groaner of a name-title connection).

Angela's mother is deathly sick and Angela can't afford medicine. Gaynor plays Angela with the right amount of youthful confusion and worry. In fact, I'll say this right out, Gaynor plays all of her roles in this film with the right amount of ingredients without doing the whole "this is a silent film so I have to do greater gestures and exaggerate expressions" style of acting. It's pretty rare to find pitch-perfect acting without either dialogue or wide gestures.

I say "all her roles" because even though Gaynor technically plays the same character throughout the film, there are large leaps in time and the audience is not allowed to see any real character growth. So every time we come back to Angela, she's a completely different character. I'll explain more as we go along.

So Angela, desperate for money, becomes a "street angel," a prostitute. A really bad one, too. Inexperienced at just about everything, Angela fails several times, and after trying to steal some food, she's captured by the police and sent to court.

I want to point out this shot in the court scene, in which all the men in the room dwarf little Angela. The camera remains at eye level to the men in the court, so the only thing we can see of Angela is from the eyes up. It's a kind of cleverness you don't see too often these days.

So, Angela is sentenced to a year in the workhouse, but manages to escape. Returning to her home to find her mother dead, she ends up fleeing to a circus that's passing through, and convinced the ringleader to allow her to join.

Time passes, and we meet Angela again, doing balancing tricks for the traveling performers, stunts with stilts and all that. We're not told how much time as passed, but Angela is completely different now, with loads of confidence and a bratty attitude. Remember, all we know is that her mother died and she joined the circus, we are never given any clues as to why Angela ended up like this. It's a completely different character.

Which, again, Gaynor plays perfectly, and she isn't to blame for these clunky character transitions at all.

Angela meets starving artist Gino (played by Charles Farrell), who falls in love with her and pleads that he paint a portrait of her. Angela grudgingly agrees. Gino paints, and Angela is impressed, but not smitten.

A few weeks later, Angela takes a fall and breaks her ankle, forcing her to leave the show. She and Gino leave for Naples, and the two fall in love.

Again, we have a really dramatic shift in character. By a mere broken ankle, Angela is transformed into a snot-nosed brat into a loving, playful partner.

This transition is even worse. At least last time there was a significant amount of off-screen time for Angela to change. Here, one broken ankle and she's a completely different person. AGAIN, no fault to Gaynor, she keeps playing the role pitch perfect.

Finally, a third into the movie, we have a characterization of Angela that sticks. The rest of the movie is her spending her days with Gino, both madly in love with each other, trying to make the rent.

I kind of wished we started the film at this point, since all the circuses and dead mothers amounted to almost nothing. It's OK to make a movie about two people in love, you don't always need Giant Dramatic Events.

The final half of the film is great, if a bit out-of-date in this post-PC world. Angela's past finally catches up to her and the police officer that originally arrested her catches up with her. Gees, it's been years and her crime wasn't that serious to begin with, that's dedication to his work.

The officer does allow Angela one more hour with Gino though. This is the best part of the film, as Angela tries to come up with a way to tell Gino, but they both just end up drunk and goof off for an hour.

So, Angela goes to jail and Gino wanders around aimlessly, not knowing where's she's gone, assuming she's run off. Time passes. A woman shares a cell with Angela, and when this woman's time is up, she finds Gino and tells him that his girl is locked up and was once a former prostitute. Oh sure, a prostitute for only about twenty minutes, and just to save her mother when all other options had run out, but still, former prostitute. And then we learn that Gino HATES prostitutes.

Eventually, Angela and Gino cross paths again, but it's not a happy reunion, but a violent one.

Again, the film suffers from some poor characterizations in the first half, but Janet Gaynor did the best with what she was given. Let's see if she can keep it up for part two of our triple feature.

No comments: