The Wedding March is, like its “creator,” uncompromising. Full of cruelty and perversion, this is not the vision of the world that the Hollywood of the 1920s projected. (Ironically, it certainly was the preferred off-screen lifestyle of the Hollywood of the 1920s.) Naivety is an alien concept, and innocence long since abandoned. And the token “happy ending”? Nowhere to be found. If this doesn’t sound like the Hollywood that you’re used to seeing, then Erich von Stroheim achieved his goal.
“Everywhere… in every town, in every street… we pass, unknowing, human souls made great by love and adversity.” Street Angel is not just the story of a gutter waif (Janet Gaynor) and an itinerant painter (Charles Farrell) who fall in love and must persevere against all the obstacles the world throws at them. Instead, Borzage elevates them to the level of gods. The streets they walk are not those of Naples, but of a mythological space akin to Mount Olympus. Everything, and everybody, is the absolute embodiment of an ideal: life is hardship, love is divine, fate is always against us, and people are either saints or devils. Or, as the title suggests, angels—fallen from the heavens, and left to battle here on earth.
Everything is different in hindsight. Time heals certain wounds, while others fester and deepen with the passing days. Memories go in and out of focus. Problems either work themselves out, or else new dilemmas arise and take precedent, the old ones fading into the past. When the end is in sight, things just don’t look as bad as they once did. Perspective allows us to see things more clearly. And this is precisely what is missing in Morgan Dews’ piercing documentary Must Read After My Death, and also what makes the film so singular, so touching and traumatic to watch.
The addition of “talking” sequences are not the only sign that the silent age was almost over. In one scene, a character listens to a record alone in their room. Next door, someone else listens intently to the song. Sound traverses space to briefly unite them. Even though they are separate, they share in the experience together. Without the aid of a soundtrack, such a bond can only be intimated and not actualized. Lonesome was released twice—first as the silent picture it was intended to be, and later with a synchronized soundtrack with music, sound effects, and the few dialogue scenes. Fejos fully realizes the potential of the silent screen—but I think he also hints (perhaps unintentionally) at the future possibilities to come with the arrival of sound.
"The switchover from silent to sound in the American film industry, which began in late 1927, was primarily complete by 1929 — all of which begs to ask, what happened on American screens in 1928? It was a pivotal year in the transition, an entire year in which silent and sound pictures shared theater marquees, and when both were viable commercial artforms. Though silents would still exist in 1929, their era was not just numbered – it was practically over."
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.