The so-called “silent era” of Hollywood cinematography lasted for nearly thirty-five years (1894-1929) before it was replaced by “talkies”. Silent movie did not give the audience opportunity to hear the characters and their dialogues. It made stress on the visualization of emotions and general effect produced by the brilliant actor play, and efficient usage of lighting created fascinating magic of silent cinema.
Despite the “lack” of sound, silent movies have successfully conveyed the depth and the drama of the events described. There are many masterpieces of the silent movie era. One of them is a brilliant example of silent melodrama directed by Frank Borzage in 1928 – “Street Angel”. It is a love story about a girl, who has become a victim of circumstances, a vagabond painter, and their love that has overcome everything.
The outset of the story is presented in the very beginning, in the scene where the heroine is near her dying mother, listening to the doctor’s verdict. The scene reveals Angela’s true nature and immediately interests the audiences in her favour. This is achieved with the help of her play, facial expressions, movements, and the lightning. After the doctor has examined mother, he concluded: “As I feared. Your mother has a dangerous temperature. Get that prescription immediately”, and later added: “It will cost you twenty lire”. Angela’s response to his words exposes the tragedy of the situation - she does not have money; there is despair in her eyes and in her gestures. Throughout the scene, the light falls directly on her face, contrasting with the darkness of the room and the darkness coming from the street. Here is the turning point of the story. Being in despair because of the lack of money, Angela comes to the window and sees a real “street angel”, a woman who earns her living on the streets. While watching this scene, she hesitates. Soft light falls on her face expressing her inner state of innocence and disparity with the image of the woman in the street. Nevertheless, forced by the illness of her mother, she makes a decision: “Si, si Mama! I will be back soon with the medicine”. During this scene, the usage of light and darkness makes a contrast between the circumstances and the true nature of the character. The scene provides necessary background information and gives the audience insight into the inner state of Angela. It is accompanied by the dramatic music score.
The next scene that reveals the nature of Angela’s character is when she sees her portrait painted by Gino for the first time. The scene is very romantic and is characterized by the externalized emotions shown in the physical actions. Now, she is a star of the circus, self-confident and unapproachable. However, Gino who felt in love with her discerned her under the masks that she wears. When Angela first sees the portrait, all her feelings are written on her face – admiration, tenderness, and delight. The gesture that betrays her is that the apple falls out of her hand. Her first exclamation is: “She is lovely, Gino. But I’m not like that”. “You are to me”, Gino responses. “I wish I could be always”. The lovers are supposed to kiss, but the outer world interrupts them; Angela is called to perform her number. The scene is one of the most romantic in the movie, and the atmosphere is conveyed by means of the soft light that shimmers on the faces of the lovers; it seems that they are shining.
The most dramatic scene of the whole movie is the final scene in the church, where the dénouement takes place. Gino, furious and disappointed in the whole world and especially in women, wants to smother Angela, but the sight of the Bible prompts him to stop and raise his eyes. He sees the portrait of Angela that he painted being an image of Mother Mary. He steps back, telling: “To think that I painted you like that!” Here takes place the most dramatic scene. Angela falls at his feet saying: “But I am like that still! You must believe me Gino! Look into my eyes”. The light falls on her face revealing her innocence and virtue. At this moment, Gino understands everything and falls at her feet asking for forgiveness. The embrace strengthens their union. He carries her out of the church on his arms, and they walk through the fog, which symbolizes cruel outer world that has once separated them.
“Street Angel” is an outstanding example of the brilliant silent melodrama. It has all the distinctive features of the silent movies the main of which is visualization of emotions. Silent movies are more concerned with the transmission of emotional tension and drama by means of the visual effects. These include lighting that plays very important role and is very strong director’s instrument. The second key feature of a successful silent film is, of course, the play of the actors. They do not use their voice to talk; they use their gestures and facial expressions to talk with the audience. The profound depth of the silent movies does not cede to the sound movies and sometimes is even more powerful.