Transcending the Virgin-Whore Complex in Borzage’s “Street Angel”

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Many thanks to Girls Do Film for a recent and inspiring post on Street Angel.

Full of tragic coincidences and lavish miracles, Street Angel, is a gorgeous melodrama of the late silent era. It stars Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor as star-crossed lovers. This is my first Janet Gaynor film and clearly I’ve waited too long. She is a revelation here. In still photographs, her image seemed merely sentimental and cute, but, here, in motion, she is luminous and vital. Just watching her face in small moments is riveting. Charles Farrell, gangly and boyishly handsome, is splendid too. His unexpected transformation from sweet-natured lover to devastated brute is affecting and eerie.

The film begins in a synthetic and expressionistic Naples. It’s a visually oppressive city — narrow streets, twisting stairways, high walls. There is no sense of space or sky. And human behavior is no less bleak– people on the street are disaffected: we see stealing, petty revenge, dour-faced cops. Indoors, life is even worse. Pretty young Angela and her mother live tenement-style. The mother lies ill and suffering on a cot in a barren room. A stern-faced doctor prescribes a medicine they cannot afford. Angela, an affectionate and devoted daughter, is devastated. She would do anything to save her mother’s life, but there is no money. She looks out the window and witnesses a familiar sight: a prostitute is soliciting on the street below. In her desperation, Angela derives an idea.

An amusing and moving sequence follows. Leaving her apartment, Angela walks down to the street and tries to learn solicitation on the fly. She observes the posture and garb of other streetwalkers and does her best to imitate them, pushing her shawl down, tipping her hat low and jauntily placing hand on hip with elbow out. Gaynor is wonderful to watch here. Like Chaplin, she brings empathy and elegance to the urchin. Borzage uses Gaynor’s fragility and sweetness to direct our sympathy away from institutionalized morality. He wants us to feel for the lawbreakers, the tramps and urchins trapped between unyielding law and unrelenting need, to understand that Angela tries whoring precisely because her heart is gold.

But Angela’s crash course in solicitation is unsuccessful. Her shy but brave attempts to gain a client fail and , impetuously, she tries stealing some cash from a tavern customer. But she is caught. And sentenced to a year in the workhouse for thievery and solicitation. Frantic and resourceful, she manages an escape on the way to the prison and is rescued from pursuing policemen by a traveling circus crew. They hide the petite fugitive in a broken base drum. So she joins up with the wild circus folk, leaving the insensible city for more hopeful environs.

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Circus life is a welcome respite. There is room to breathe. The troupe travels through sunlit pastoral villages. No police or prostitution here. Instead we see artists and performers living by their own rules, entertaining curious crowds under wide open skies. Angela has found a home and family outside the city. She is safe, but she doesn’t flourish. Not yet. Not until love arrives in the form of a handsome young painter, Gino. Angela, jaded and untrusting, resists him at first. But eventually Gino’s art jolts her into love. He reveals the portrait he’s been working on, and Angela is shocked and moved to discover he has painted her as a classic lady; a lovely, glowing woman for the ages. She’d seen herself only from the cramped, rigid perspective of the city and its laws: as a derelict, an outcast, a tramp. But the painting ! It captures her tenderness, her elegance, her great loveliness: things she’s never seen in herself. It’s a gorgeous moment, rich with the poignant, transformative power of both love and art.

Gino and Angela’s shared happiness and affection is irresistible and transmuting. We see the change visually manifested in Angela’s costume. Up to now, her circus garb has been a plain black ballerina dress and black stockings, but soon we see her sparkling in white tulle and spangles. Angela has become ebullient, angelic. And then, for the first time, we see her circus act: She climbs high above the audience on daring stilts. Gazing passionately at her beloved in the audience below, she is a woman in flight, a woman experiencing the miracle of love. But her flight is swiftly interrupted. Two policemen have wandered into the audience. They are standing near her lover. Fear creeps in. Will they know her? Will they tear her from her lover? Will they tell Gino she is a “fallen woman” ? It turns out they don’t know her, but the fear is enough. She crashes back to earth. And breaks bones. Gino and Angela must return to Naples, to the city, where she can procure medical care.

The urban zone hasn’t changed. It remains cramped and impassive. And the couple is poor and hungry, but their togetherness is a a comfort and a boon. And eventually, Gino finds a lucrative position painting theatrical murals. So it seems fortune is smiling on them, even in this callous, authoritarian city. In a buoyant, poignant scene, he returns home as lord bountiful: along with his wonderful news, he brings baskets of wine, wheels of cheese, strings of salami. Personifying nourishment, he’s an emblem of the sustenance young lovers provide one another. They share rapturous moments celebrating the food, his new suit, their love. Then he lifts the diminutive Angela so that she stands on a chair, looking down on her tall lover. He proposes and she accepts, of course. But as charming as this moment is, it is also darkly foreshadowing. The last time she stood above Gino, she toppled. Being high above, being worshipped, isn’t a sustainable position for anyone who isn’t actually an angel or a goddess. But Gino hasn’t learned how to love her on any other terms. He’s been schooled in the classic narratives of good and bad, pure and sullied, virgin and whore.

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Soon she is recognized and caught by a local policeman. Saying nothing to Gino, knowing he’d be devastated by the charges against her, she disappears in the night . She serves hard time. But buoyed by her love, she is strong and hopeful. Meanwhile, Gino is lost. Abjectly depressed at her mysterious disappearance, he is lonely, abandoned. He’s gives up painting and wanders the dark city, friendless, hopeless. Things go from terrible to abysmal when Gino learns about Angela’s “crimes” from a bitter fellow streetwalker. Gino is absolutely destroyed by the revelation that his girl had been a whore. The news transforms him. He goes from lost and depressed to monstrous. He lives in shadows, wears dark clothes and a large ominous hat. Even his posture changes: he is bent, distorted, grotesque. It’s clear he wants something ugly. Stalking the docks, he seeks Angela the whore, wanting to punish, wanting revenge. When he finally uncovers her, huddling and alone, her face lights with pleasure, until she perceives the darkness in his face.

The virgin-whore dichotomy, so central to western culture, here proves as destructive to the male as to the female. It makes him a blind monster. In one prescient shot, the dark shadows of night on the docks actually blot out his eyes. A man with no eyes, no vision. It’s a marvelously spooky and symbolic image. He grabs her, threatening violence. She attempts escape, running into a nearby church. He chases her, captures her, tries to strangle her. Their story is about to end in utter, useless tragedy. But the transformative power of art intervenes. Murder is interrupted by the shock of vision. A bible falls, startling him, and his gaze is drawn upward, where he sees something wholly unexpected. The painting he made of her– the one he courted her with, the one that helped her see herself with eyes of love– is here in this church. Another painter has altered it. Added white robes and a halo. In the painting, Angela appears as The Virgin.(The film contains a brief side plot explaining how this occurred, but the details don’t matter. It functions as a miracle). Gino is paralyzed, confused, undone. How can this worthless whore appear before him as the great virgin? He says, “To think that I painted you…like that!” Coming to him on her knees she replies “But I am like that still. You must believe me, Gino. Look in my eyes”

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It takes him some moments, but eventually he accepts what she says. And embraces her. And falls to his knees and begs her forgiveness (their positions reversing yet again). His vision was blighted by that pernicious ideology, that deeply false notion that whores and virgins, sexuality and innocence must exist separately. The painting, appearing with precise and perfect timing, undermines that false dichotomy. If a whore can appear sanctified in church as the great virgin, perhaps the two types of woman can exist as one. It was a painting that allowed Angela to see herself anew, to become transformed, to participate in the world of love. It is the same painting that restores and reintegrates Gino’s damaged vision.

Street Angel is a dynamic and glorious story of love, art and transcendence. And I’m taken with it’s powerful central symbol, an ever-evolving painting, urging us to embrace expansive perception and imagination, if we’d transcend whatever small, bleak vision society provides us.

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