on 19 December 2009
Wonderful to have these two great classics of the late silent era (1927-28) on Region 2 DVD at last. Director Frank Borzage was known for his emotional melodramas in which romantic love surmounted all obstacles. Janet Gaynor - small and delicate in appearance, wonderfully expressive in performance - was paired with tall, handsome, wavy-haired Charles Farrell twelve times between 1927 and 1934; they were the most famous romantic couple of the period, and these films are the first and second they made together.
In Seventh Heaven, Gaynor plays a Parisian waif, beaten by her sister and taking refuge with street cleaner Chico (Farrell). They live together in his top floor apartment (the `Seventh Heaven' of the title), and gradually he falls in love with her as she has been with him all along. Separated by the First World War, they promise to think of one another at eleven o'clock every day; but can their love survive?
Street Angel, the 1928 follow up, is set in Naples. Angela's (Gaynor's) mother is very ill; without money for medicine, she tries to become a streetwalker. Arrested for stealing money whilst soliciting, she escapes the police and runs home. The scene in which she finds her mother dead and lies down beside her and puts her arms around her is heartbreaking! Running away with a circus, Gaynor meets itinerant artist Gino (Farrell) - they fall in love, she at first reluctantly, but the police are closing in. Will Gino continue to love her once he knows of her past?
These two films are thoroughly recommended - they truly are beautiful works of art, heartfelt and sincere, gorgeously designed and photographed, and wonderfully acted. Many thanks to the British Film Institute for making them available!
I hesitated before buying these films, but I'm so glad I did - they've gone straight on to my list of all-time favourites. The pairing of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell is totally inspired, with a slight difference of characterisation in the two films, more marked in the case of Farrell, perhaps. Both are radiant and expressive, and form an ideal love-match, aided by the superb score in both films. The camera really lingers in the poetic moments, so that everything is fully lived, and climactic moments are also paced with extreme skill so that they acquire the right weight - the endings, for example, have time to really register like ink on blotting paper. Of the two Seventh Heaven is probably even finer, with a pay-off set in the context of the First World War that is totally transcendent and miraculous, and ineffably moving. The slowness with which Farrell's street cleaner responds to Diane's feeling for him allows for a good bit of humour which makes the romance all the more powerful when it does take off. Street Angel is slightly marred by a plot weakness about two thirds of the way through, but it isn't really that important as the symbolic weight of love and trust under strain is what shines through even if there is some contrivance at a superficial level. And this film in its earlier stages boasts a magnificent array of circus animals including a pelican and a very affectionate bear ... and a strongman in a rather camp outfit a bit like Eugene Sandow, complete with mustache and bulging biceps ... However it is Farrell who steals the show with his wonderful face, curly hair and superb clowning manner, and the exquisite, delicate Gaynor, whose candour and sweetness on screen have surely never been surpassed - this is really what cinema is all about, raised to this level of perfection back in the 1920s.