The Blue Angel (1930)

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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.

Emil Jannings as Professor Rath and Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel (1930).

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.  

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13 thoughts on “The Blue Angel (1930)”

    1. Ain’t that the truth! So many things yet to discover, this is why movies are the best, we’ll never be “done” or know everything. Glad I got to it finally. Thanks!

  1. “I need to learn more about and see more by Josef von Sternberg…”

    You have a good start with the Dietrich films, and your reviews I’ve read (this one and “Shanghai Express”) show an affinity for him and some good perceptions, so I’m certain you would find this rewarding.

    I’ve seen all of his surviving movies (there are 20) and like them all except for the two for RKO and Howard Hughes (“Jet Pilot” and “Macao” on which Hughes as was his custom interfered considerably, with parts of both reshot by others, and the first of the two not released for six years). The ones without Dietrich run about even with the ones with her. Marlene Dietrich was an ideal Sternberg intepreter and he took an intense, sustained interest in her for that period, but she’s not the only one, and his highly individual vision, style and sensibility are consistent through his movies.

    After your “Shanghai Express” review you asked for suggestions, and I wrote to suggest “The Shanghai Gesture” because it’s one of the best of his non-Dietrich ones and I do believe that would capture your interest. You also might think about the Criterion Silent collection (“Underworld” “The Last Command” and “The Docks of New York”), beautifully presented and they are all great too. That’s especially so of “The Docks of New York” which I’d rate as his greatest next to “Morocco.”

    1. Hi Blake, for some reason Sternberg is a huge blind spot for me, have seen Macao and Jet Pilot but none of his other non-Dietrich moves. I’ll be making a big effort to read up and get to the ones you suggest here (and before re Shanghai Gesture–haven’t found a copy yet, so I might go to YT for that one soon). The more films I see, the less I feel I know and the more I see I need to learn! 🙂 Thanks for reading and for the tips.

  2. I’m glad you finally got a chance to watch this — I’m going to try my best to join you, because other than clips from the film, I’ve never seen it either! You certainly make me want to bump it up on my list!

    1. I’m trying to remember if this was maybe NOT available on video in the 90s because why would we (and so many others) not been able to see it? If you like Marlene it’s worth the look, as her first big talkie. I was fascinated by her as a gateway into old movies, she just seemed so cool and modern, so that’s why I watched all her movies. It’s fun to do these lists too, to make sure you see those elusive “great” films.

  3. The Immanuel Rath character sounds so sad, but I bet Emil Jannings is utterly perfect in this role. I loved your descriptions of Jannings’ and Dietrch’s characters. This is one I need to see, too!

    1. He’s great, I know he might be fated to be forgotten next to Marlene’s big breakthrough, but he shouldn’t be. He went gaga for the showgirl and paid for it big time. Very good pre-Code, look for it and marvel at the style and Dietrich’s star-making performance.

  4. The Blue Angel is one of my favorite Pre-Code films. Very fascinating with the German expressionist style and the story of a respectable (if somewhat slimy and abusive) professor’s love for a stripper leading to his destruction is riveting. It was Marlene Dietrich’s breakout role and she is excellent in it.

    Tam

    1. I really enjoyed it, completed my Marlene run finally, she was excellent and it’s about time I check out some of the Dietrich-Sternberg movies again now that I’m a (relative) grown up who will get more out of them than when I first watched. Thanks!

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