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The Lubitsch touch is omnipresent in this relatively unknown but extraordinary romantic comedy. The theme of a potential marital infidelity of a disaffected upper class wife (a gleaming Marlene Dietrich) is dealt with unusual sophistication and insight, building up slowly to a brilliant denouement, while the core dilemmas and the predicament of the main character are continuously and subtly underscored. The confrontations between the characters are a delight of restrained pathos, whereas Lubitsch, unsurprisingly, perfectly recreates a confined world of rigid social norms that suppresses any emotional profusion. All the performances are top notch, the secondary characters are equally memorable and the whole film is pervaded by the genius of one of cinemas most charismatic directors, Ernst Lubitsch. One wishes that modern romantic comedies had only maintained even a fraction of the wit and incisiveness that Lubitsch established as a norm in the 30s.
Wonderful Lubitsch comedy about a distracted husband, a neglected wife and an ardent suitor that has all the magic, humor, romance of the directors previous work. Dazzling camera work by Charles Lang make Deitrich look positively luminous. All the cast are perfect. The audience I saw this with at the LACMA Museum screening were utterly entranced by this neglected masterwork. Kudos to UCLA for restoring this treasure to its original splendor and to LACMA programer Ian Birnie for giving us the opportunity to see this little gem in all its glory. A 10 out of 10.........
Lubitsch is recognized as one of the great directors of the 30s, and
yet this wonderful film is not on any of the usual critical lists of
notable films. Perhaps it was too modern for its time. It is perhaps
Dietrich's best English performance (though even here she could be a
bit more subtle), but the real star is the director, shining in the
shots he composes and performances he coaxes from his actors. Lubitsch
is a master of subtlety, and when he places important moments
off-screen, it is in such a way as to heighten their impact. Since the
censorship code is in effect, the sexual elements are cleverly
concealed. For example, Halton and Barker discover that in Paris they
both visited the same... seamstress. The naive Hays Office must have
thought that was the joke, but the real joke is on them for it is
clear--at least today--that the two did not visit her to get their
sewing done. The sophistication of the film is unusual for its time.
Pages could be written about this film. Suffice it to say that if you like 30s film at all, see this. In certain moments, it feels perfect. Probably one of the top 25 of the decade.
ANGEL (Paramount, 1937), produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch,
returns Marlene Dietrich to sophisticated comedy following her amusing
role in DESIRE (1936) as a continental jewel thief. As much as this
production could very well have been a cute romantic fantasy of an
angel assigned from Heaven out to guide a troubled individual on Earth,
what resulted was a domestic story about a bored wife who acquires the
pet name of "Angel" from a complete stranger while her husband is away.
While Dietrich's DESIRE proved favorable, ANGEL did not.
The story begins on an airplane bound for France where Lady Maria Barker (Marlene Dietrich) registers at the Hotel Imperial. Coming to the Club De La Russia, 314 Rue De La Tour, to visit with an old friend, The Grand Duchess Anna Dmitrievna (Laura Hope Crews), the club's owner steps away to take care of matters, leaving Maria to step into a private sitting room where she encounters Anthony Halton (Melvyn Douglas), an American looking to meet someone for an amusing time in Paris. Mistaken for the Duchess, Maria agrees to show the gentleman around. After dinner, the couple rest on a park bench where Maria, refusing to give her name, finds herself embraced and kissed by a man who not only expresses his true love for her after only a short time, but dubs her "Angel." As breaking away to buy her a bouquet of violets, Halton returns to find his "Angel" gone. Sir Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall), a British nobleman and delegate to the League of Nations, returns from Geneva to his British home and his wife, Maria. Unaware of her unhappiness and their dull existence together, things begin to change upon the visitation of her husband's wartime friend, a man wanting to meet his "Angel."
Taken from the play by Melchor Lengyel, ANGEL contains some variations lifted from Lubitsch's own 1932 musical, ONE HOUR WITH YOU, where a doctor (Maurice Chevalier) innocently encounters a flirtatious married woman (Genevieve Tobin), who turns out to be the best friend of his wife (Jeanette MacDonald) whom she invited to their home. As with the husband and guest pretending to not to lead on their previous encounter to his spouse, Dietrich's Maria and Douglas' Halton do the same, but on more on a serious nature. Containing less wit than Lubitsch's previous efforts, the supporting cast contains some of the best known "comedy relief" types on screen, ranging from Edward Everett Horton and Ernest Cossart as the household servants, to the daffy Dennie Moore playing Cossart's fiancée, Emma McGillicutty. Interestingly all their roles, which might have given the story some life during some dull stretches, are sadly limited. For one of the film's better assets, there's that fine "Angel" theme score composed by Frederick Hollander.
According to Robert Osborne, host on Turner Classic Movies where ANGEL premiered in January 17, 2002 during its tribute to Marlene Dietrich, Lubitsch and Dietrich both had high expectations for this film. In spite of Samson Raphaelson's promising screenplay, the film's box office failure lead to Dietrich's termination from her home studio. Fortunately the label of Dietrich as "box office poison" didn't last long with her reinvention screen persona in the hit western of DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (Universal, 1939) opposite James Stewart.
Virtually unknown and/or forgotten among the film credits of either Dietrich or Lubitsch, ANGEL did get some exposure through its 1990s distribution on home video through MCA/Universal. Possibly viewing ANGEL more as a drama than a comedy might help accept the film for what it is rather than what it's expected to be. (**1/2)
Imagine a movie set in Paris directed by Ernst Lubitsch, the masterful
director of such Parisian sexual innuendo comedies as Ninotchka, The
Love Parade, The Merry Widow (1934 version), One Hour with You, and
Design for Living. Imagine as the male lead Melvyn Douglas, who was so
great in Ninotchka. Imagine as the female lead one of the great
European stars of the cinema, a magnificent beauty like Garbo or
Dietrich. Imagine that it concerns a Russian countess living in exile
But don't imagine that it's another Ninotchka. Far from it. It's Angel, in which all those ingredients that two years later would go to make one of the great Hollywood comedies, with Garbo and Douglas directed by Lubitsch, instead made for one very dull semi-comedy.
Where to put the blame?
The script, certainly, which isn't funny and never seems to know where it's going. Are we supposed to sympathize with Dietrich's character because she's abandoned by her husband, or condemn her for considering infidelity?
The men at Paramount who approved it, and who should have spotted a bomb in the making. It is seldom funny. We seldom care about the characters. (Why did Paramount keep starring Herbert Marshall in pictures? He is just not interesting.) One or two scenes are mildly clever, which was probably Lubitch's doing. The rest verges on stale melodrama. The end isn't convincing.
Taken all together, I'd say forget it. This is one Angel that never takes flight.
Looking at the criticisms so far voiced about Angel, the majority seems
to feel it's a neglected Lubitsch masterpiece. Yet this was the film
that caused Paramount and Marlene Dietrich to come to a parting of the
ways. Marlene would not be back on the screen until she signed a new
contract with Universal and made a comeback of sorts in something that
would have been unthinkable for her in 1937. That film was a western,
but the western was Destry Rides Again.
Ernest Lubitsch and Marlene Dietrich hit a double dry spell in Angel. The sum and substance of it is that up and coming young British diplomat Melvyn Douglas meets a mysterious and alluring woman at Laura Hope Crews's palace in Paris who he falls hopelessly for. But the alluring as ever Marlene is merely the very bored wife of a senior diplomat who is a member of the nobility, Herbert Marshall. It also turns out that Douglas and Marshall are old army buddies.
Somehow Lubitsch could not work his usual magic with Marlene. Her scenes with the two men seem to have no spark to them. In fact the ending is a bit of a shock, personally I think she made the wrong choice.
Where Lubitsch did well in Angel was with the supporting players. Laura Hope Crews is quite a bit different as the worldly countess than as that pillar of southern society Aunt Pittypat Hamilton from Gone With The Wind. Some of the back and forth commentary between Marshall's butler Ernest Cossart and his valet Edward Everett Horton are also quite droll. What snobs those servants can be, much worse than the people who employ them.
Sad to say Angel is a film with a lot of gloss, but no real substance behind it.
Given the talent involved -- Dietrich at the height of her allure, Melvyn
Douglas (who proved such a wonderful foil to Garbo just two years later in
"Ninotchka"), support from such able troupers as Edward Everett Horton and
Laura Hope Crews, and above all the famed "touch" of Lubitsch -- "Angel"
should be a sparkling romp, a melancholy romance of renunuciation, a worldly
social comedy, or better yet, all three.
Instead it's a mostly tiresome slog through familiar territory, as if all involved were inspired not by Dietrich or Lubitsch but by the stolid Herbert Marshall as Marlene's aristo-Brit husband.
While several recent writers on both Dietrich and Lubitsch have tried to tout this as an undeservingly overlooked film, it's really most worth watching for Crew's pre-Pittypat turn as a Russian emigre-turned-nightclub-hostess, and her few brief scenes can hardly save the picture.
Dietrich fans are better off hunting up stills -- she does look terrific in the wardrobe of English Gentlewoman tweeds and furs, and her legendary collection of emeralds were rarely shown to better advantage.
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