Hollywood storytelling at the end of the silent movie era

I recently signed on for a 5 week course on Coursera.org, titled The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound and Color. It is being conducted by Scott Higgins, who is Associate Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University. The first week of lectures has just finished, which focused on films from Hollywood’s silent era. As part of the lecture, the students were required to watch two movies this week, both from 1928, the same year that the first all-talking feature film Lights of New York was released. I guess the 2 films – Frank Borzage’s Street Angel and Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York  – could be said to represent the apogee of silent film-making, a craft honed in Hollywood over the preceding 15-20 years.

Street Angel was one of 3 films Borzage released during the years 1927-29 featuring the romantic pairing of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The first of them, 7th Heaven is perhaps the best known and it won him the Oscar for Best Director. Certainly it is on my watchlist now, after the experience of Street Angel. which to me showcases Borzage as a complete director. The film is a veritable encyclopedia of visual storytelling. The elaborately orchestrated opening scene features a full 360 set, complete with staircases, street furniture, moving clotheslines, animals and a number of extras…accompanied by an amazing combination of tracking, panning, crane and zoom shots. There are also scenes in the film, where Borzage uses expressionist motifs like enlarged shadows on walls, fog, forced perspectives and even a Nosferatu-like pose by Charles Farrell towards the end of the movie. But what Borzage was really skilled at was in celebrating romance, using lighting, soft focus and framing to create melodramatic scenes…his pairing of Gaynor and Farrell worked particularly well for him, given the significant difference in their heights and build. For all his skill at melodrama, there are also a couple of moments of great tenderness. The first happens when their two characters ride on a carriage early on in their relationship; she is trying to be rude to him, but he responds by putting his coat around her. During the silence that follows, their feelings for each other are clearly written on their faces and we know that Cupid’s arrow has struck. The other happens much later in their relationship, when Farrell’s character sells his only painting and instead of using the money to buy food, brings home a flower for her (the rest of the money having been collected by local tradespeople on the way home)…she throws the flower aside in frustration and we can see his heart broken; she then steps out to buy the food herself, but not before doubling back to surreptitiously pick up the discarded flower through the open window. There is a desperate degree of coincidence, contrivance, symbolism and melodrama at the end which reunites the lovers and gives the audience the happy ending which we were all rooting for.

The Docks of New York is a very different film, the chalk to Street Angel’s cheese. The story takes place over a 24 hour period at the docks of NYC. While Street Angel can be likened to a romantic opera, The Docks of New York is a grounded depiction of the seedy, raucous life of sailors and barmaids. The one aspect of the film that is similar to Street Angel is the elaborate set-pieces featuring large number of extras and long tracking shots (some of which must have required quick placement or removal of dolly tracks). Needless to say, in the silent movie era, directors relied completely on the power of visuals to make an emotional impact. The one that stood out for me early on is the scene where a group of coal stokers line up in the engine room of a ship and take a look at the bawdy graffiti on one of the walls just as they are pulling into New York; we are made aware of two worlds – the hot, dirty and sweaty world of the stokers and the ‘women and beer’ world that awaits them on the shore. This film is about how one of the stokers crosses this physical and emotional boundary – first accidentally and in the end, willingly. The stoker played by George Bancroft is a strong, silent Charles Bronson type, used to having his way with his fellow men and women. He rescues a young woman, played by the beautiful Betty Compson and this act perhaps changes the course of his life forever. At 75 minutes, this is a relatively short film; one which ends on an unexpected note, poignant but also optimistic in a matter-of-fact kind of way. It leaves the audience hoping that these two can overcome the harsh realities of their surroundings and go on to have a happy life in the future. Comedian Clyde Cook has a good supporting role as the stoker’s pal and seems to get all the best lines in the movie (delivered via intertitle cards, of course). Director von Sternberg went on to great fame directing Marlene Dietrich in the early talkie classic The Blue Angel.

I am very much looking forward to my 2nd week of lectures, which will move to the early sound era. We will watch Ruben Mamoulian’s Applause (1929) and the Marx Brothers’ hilarious Monkey Business (1931), which I have seen before but of course am happy to watch again and again.

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