The film has some nice technical elements to it, especially the set decoration and the very catchy music. The leading performance grabs all the attention, but the film has its flaws: the screenplay is terribly misogynistic, to a point that it just seems absurd to a modern audience.
Janet Gaynor as Angela
Janet plays Angela, a naive woman in desperate need for money, who tries to steal and sell her body, but gets caught by a police officer. She somehow escapes, joins a circus band and falls in love with a painter. But her troubled past catches up, and threatens to destroy her newly found happiness. Oh, yes: and it all happens in Italy.
There’s a lot going on with the character and it’s refreshing to see that the film is focused on her. It’s not a complex role on page, but considering the events that are happening in the character’s life, we get to see a wider variety of emotions. However, like for most of the films from the silent era, there’s a problem with the screenplay: this one’s not bad as a whole, but there are elements that put limitations on the character.
For the most part, there’s the general misogynistic tone of the story. While I was watching it, I felt like I was reading Tom Hardy’s Tess, because there’s definitely a bit of a similarity in the way the female character is treated. Does this actually reflect on the performance? Probably not as much, but it’s annoying to see the woman, so humble in front of the forgiving man, when she’d have nothing to be sorry about… Anyway, me and modern mentality. :)
But as I said: the film is lucky to have Janet Gaynor as the leading actress. There are a lot of scenes where she’s just left alone to act to the camera and her tearful eyes always do the job in creating just the right emotion for a scene.
Her reaction to seeing the beautiful portrait of hers, the emotion of being asked to marry him, all these are played wonderfully. She brings a certain vulnerability and an air of innocence that the character seems to need to be believable, girlie yet mature when it comes to life’s hardships. But the killer scene is of course the one where she has to pretend everything is ok in front of her fiancé, yet knowing she’ll have to go to jail. She doesn’t dare to tell him, she struggles with it, and she looks at him with so much love as if trying to capture the last moment of happiness.
For what she’s given to do, it’s a very good performance. Just like in the case of Sunrise, the eyes do all the work. As soon as those eyes go teary, you are definitely touched by the personal drama of the character or at least impressed with how efficiently Janet is using her emotional charms. It’s a very strong from me, but I can’t go for more, given the nature of the role.