Friday, May 01, 2009


This silent romantic melodrama set in Paris before and during WWI is clichéd and occasionally over-the-top, but worth watching for the lead performances. Charles Farrell is a handsome, hearty sewer worker with dreams of becoming a street cleaner. He’s an atheist who says that God owes his him 10 francs for lighting candles in a church, but when a priest offers him a street cleaning job, he becomes a tentative believer. Janet Gaynor is a beautiful young woman who lives on the edge of poverty with her horrifyingly cruel sister, a thief and a hooker who gives Gaynor fierce whippings whenever she pleases. During a particularly brutal beating which spills out into the streets, Farrell saves Gaynor. When a cop wants to arrest Gaynor for being a homeless undesirable, Farrell pretends she's his wife, even taking her back to his seventh-floor garret to stay the night. (His philosophy is that, though he works in the sewers, he lives near the stars, and is always looking up.) Though their first night together is chaste, soon they're in love and they hold their own private wedding ceremony to cement their bond. When Farrell goes off to war, the two make a promise to commune spiritually every day at 11:00, the hour when they exchanged vows. Eventually Farrell is blinded on the battlefield, though Gaynor gets word that he has been killed in action, and a tearjerking climax is in store.

Gaynor and Farrell were Hollywood's top drawing couple for a few years, but I've never all that impressed by them in sound films (Change of Heart, Delicious). Here, however, I can see their appeal. Farrell's handsome and a bit luggish in that pleasant Hollywood way, and Gaynor (who won the very first Best Actress Oscar that year) is luminously beautiful and quiet believable as a waif with resources of toughness inside. She underacts a bit, which makes up for Farrell's occasional overacting. The scenes in and outside the rooftop apartment are lovely, but the kinky whipping scenes between Gaynor and her sister (Gladys Brockwell) are simply astonishing. Brockwell whips and whips, almost dancing herself into a frenzy, but watch for the even more surprising scene in the second half when Gaynor finally gains control and gives Brockwell a taste of her own medicine. This won't be the movie that will turn you into a silent movie fan, but if you already have a tolerance for them, this is worth seeing. [DVD]

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