Angel, released by Paramount in 1937, brings together two of the great talents of 1930s Hollywood, director Ernst Lubitsch and star Marlene Dietrich. The coming together of these two outsiders, both having to adapt to living and working in a foreign country and both having done so with spectacular success in the early 30s, promises movie magic. Whether Angel delivers on this promise or not depends very much on what you’re expecting.
If you’re anticipating a typical Lubitsch light romantic comedy then you’re certainly going to be disappointed. This isn’t a comedy at all. Most of the negative reviews of this movie seem to assume that it is a failed romantic comedy but it’s actually quite obvious that it was not intended as such. Both Lubitsch and Dietrich could handle comedy (although Dietrich had not yet had an opportunity to display that talent) and both male leads, Herbert Marshall and Melvyn Douglas, were certainly adept at comedy. And yet the movie is undeniably lacking in laughs, which leads to the fairly obvious conclusion that comedy was not really what Lubitsch had in mind. That’s not to say that the movie is entirely humourless, but the humour is provided by the supporting players while the three leads play out the central plot in an entirely straight manner.
In fact it’s an attempt to apply the famous Lubitsch touch to a relatively straight romantic drama, to deal fairly seriously with adultery rather than treating it in the carefree amoral way in which the director had approached such subjects in the pre-code era, but to do so with the lightness of touch for which Lubitsch was renowned. There are situations in this movie that could have been played as comedy, but they’re played straight.
Lubitsch’s problem was how to adapt his style to the demands of the Production Code. Angel appears to be in the nature of an experiment, and it has to be admitted that it does not entirely succeed.
Diplomat Tony Halton (Melvyn Douglas) meets a woman in Paris. They have a harmless romantic adventure, an adventure that Tony takes rather more seriously. The woman refuses to tell him her name - he is simply to call her Angel. The adventure, however brief and harmless it may have been, leaves Tony obsessed by this woman. He is determined to meet her again. But how is he to find her? It will prove easier than he expects, but the results will be rather more complicated.
The scene then switches to the life of another diplomat, Sir Fredrick Barker (Herbert Marshall). He and his wife Maria (Marlene Dietrich) have what everybody assumes to be the perfect marriage. As Sir Frederick points out, their marriage is so perfect that they could not find anything to quarrel about even if they tried. The audience however knows that appearances can be deceptive, since Maria and Angel are in fact the same woman.
As luck would have it, Sir Frederick and Tony run into each other and start reminiscing about the war. Actually not so much the war itself as the leaves they both spent in Paris during the war, where they shared the affections of a woman. One assumes that these affections were the sort of affections for which a gentleman expects to pay in hard currency. In any case the two men strike up a friendship and Sir Frederick invites Tony to dine with him. And with his wife as well, of course. This is clearly going to be a slightly awkward situation.
We have here a classic romantic triangle that could lend itself to either comedy or drama and the movie elects to go for the drama rather than the comedy as Maria must choose between the two men. There will be many who will wish that Lubitsch had gone for the comedy instead but any movie has to be judged on its own terms and if you’re prepared to accept this one as a romantic drama rather than a romantic comedy you’ll find that it’s enjoyable enough.
Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson also faced the challenge of providing an ending that would satisfy the demands of the Production Code without seeming contrived or sentimental or moralistic, and in this endeavour they are entirely successful.
In the 1930s Marlene Dietrich was only truly comfortable when Josef von Sternberg was directing her, although she did give an impressive performance in the very underrated 1937 British film Knight Without Armour. In other movies not directed by von Sternberg she tends to appear rather uncertain. This was due not to a lack of talent but to the fact that her talent was an unusual one and most directors were unable to make the best use of it and she was frequently miscast. Lubitsch is more successful than most and her performance is generally successful. And of course she looks superb.
Melvyn Douglas is as charming as ever. Herbert Marshall approaches his role in a somewhat dour manner, his performance lacking the kind of zest that would explain why Maria married her, unless we assume (and it’s certainly a plausible interpretation) that she was attracted by his money and his social position. But that explanation won’t quite do - Maria is clearly in love with her husband and Marshall needed to play the role in a slightly more sympathetic manner. Edward Everett Horton provides the main comic relief as Sir Frederick’s opera-obsessed valet Graham.
Universal’s Region 2 and 4 DVD release is barebones but the transfer is a good one.
Visually the Lubitsch touch is certainly in fine form. This is not a movie that will please everyone but it’s worth giving it a chance. Perhaps it’s lesser Lubitsch, but it’s still Lubitsch, and Dietrich is always worth watching. Recommended.