Every month I join blog friend Karen at Shadows & Satin in featuring a Pre-Code movie.
Early in my classic movie discovery I rented and recorded everything I could find with Marlene Dietrich, but somehow missed The Blue Angel (1930) all these years. I put it on my 10 Classics to watch in 2015/Blind Spot list, and since it was the first movie reviewed by the Hays office, it’s a nice fit for this month’s Pre-Code.
In this Josef von Sternberg film Dietrich plays popular music hall performer Lola Lola. When strict and stuffy Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) finds her souvenir postcards in the textbook of his brightest pupil, he goes to her club to find out how many of his students are taking in her show. Little does the inexperienced Rath know that once he gets an eyeful of sultry Lola Lola, he’ll crush harder than any teenager.
Rath’s students already think he’s a pretentious buffoon and delight in mocking him with pranks and brilliant caricatures, but when word spreads of his infatuation with Lola Lola, he loses control, credibility and composure and gets fired. That disrespect pales compared to the withering guffaw Lola Lola lets out when Rath proposes to her. The spirited showgirl is no housewife type but she marries him, and despite his protests and refusals, he’s sucked into joining this travelling circus, peddling his wife’s postcards and eventually replacing the forlorn clown whose ominous stares suggest he’s taken a similar spin around the wheel of fortune.
After years of touring the cabaret returns to the Professor’s hometown, where Rath gives one last humiliating and horrifying performance, and Jannings gets an operatic mad scene. The image of Rath is one of shame, degradation and failure: a clown getup with slave collar, a noisy mocking crowd of familiar faces and a magician who once admired him now breaking eggs over his head. When Rath spies Lola kissing the troupe’s handsome new strongman, he snaps and screams his rooster’s crow, a wailing, demented version of the “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” that was such a cute schtick at his wedding party. His descent from ambitious intellectual to freakish, imprisoned stage attraction and laughing stock is very much like Stanton Carlisle’s downfall in Nightmare Alley (1947) and just as memorable.
Jannings had just won a Best Actor Oscar for von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928) and though he worried that Dietrich would steal the film, he gives an excellent, intense and highly sympathetic performance that holds up over time and against her star power. Dietrich is effortlessly electric and playful, amused by her power to tease and seduce. Here is that iconic image of her in top hat, flashing bare thighs and lingerie, and here in the first German talkie was the first mating of her exotic look with her husky voice and magnetic stage presence. “Like moths around a flame,” go the lyrics to Lola’s/Dietrich’s signature song “Falling in Love Again,” “What am I to do? I can’t help it.” She’s unsentimental and cruel, but not entirely without feeling for Rath; as much as she delights in watching him make a fool of himself, she also shows affection and sympathy for his devotion and decline.
I need to learn more about and see more by Josef von Sternberg, but now I’ve seen all seven movies he made with Dietrich, and this first one shows much of the style, substance and sharp edge that made theirs such a remarkable collaboration. I watched the English version, the one that ends with Rath slumped over on the desk in his old classroom (the film was recut in the US to end on Lola Lola’s performance).
The Blue Angel was based on the Heinrich Mann novel Professor Unrat (1905), literally, “Professor Garbage.”
Thanks to Karen for letting me deviate from a TCM choice this month to finally watch this classic, now go see her December Pre-Code Crazy pick.