- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2001

The American Film Institute Theater will host a one-week revival of "The Blue Angel," beginning Monday, to pay tribute to Marlene Dietrich as the actress's Dec. 27 centennial approaches.The pioneering German talkie of 1930 catapulted Miss Dietrich to international stardom
Beginning Oct. 6, the Goethe-Institut will present an exhibit devoted to the Dietrich career. Many of the actress's other movies will be shown at the Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art and the AFI Theater during a cooperative retrospective that starts Nov. 9.
A restored print, augmented by Miss Dietrich's alternately playful and volcanic screen test for director Josef von Sternberg, distinguishes this particular revival of "The Blue Angel." In addition to improved image quality, this newly subtitled presentation translates most of the German dialogue.
The lyrics of the Friedrich Hollander-Robert Liebmann song that later became a standard in English as "Falling in Love Again" are a very conspicuous exception. For some reason, demure English lyrics are substituted for the carnal refrain of the original, in which the seductive cabaret singer Lola-Lola summarizes herself as follows: "From head to foot I'm made for love; that's my world, and nothing else at all." Lola's songs are memorable in part because they're about 99 percent innuendo.
Paramount had been astute enough to sign Miss Dietrich to a contract before the premiere of "The Blue Angel." The studio was strategically positioned to take advantage of the impact she was destined to make as Lola-Lola, evidently a baby-talk homage to Frank Wedekind's notorious "Lulu" on the part of Sternberg (an Austrian by birth but the "von" was strictly an affectation). Shortly before she supplanted German actress Lucie Mannheim as the director's choice for Lola, Miss Dietrich had lost the Lulu role to an American, Louise Brooks, in a famous German silent, "Pandora's Box."
Underestimated once too often, Miss Dietrich sailed for America on the very night of the Berlin premiere. She rejoined Sternberg in Hollywood. Their star-crossed collaboration resulted from his having accepted an offer from the German company UFA to supervise its first "all-talking" production. Having completed "The Blue Angel," he was eager to get his new leading lady onto Paramount soundstages in order to burnish her provocative potential.
Two follow-up vehicles were promptly directed by Sternberg: "Morocco" (with Gary Cooper as the leading man) and "Dishonored" (with Miss Dietrich as a Mata Hari figure, beating Garbo to the role by a full year). The timing was so snappy that Miss Dietrich's American debut became a three-stage launch: She appeared in "Morocco" in November 1930, an English-language version of "The Blue Angel" at Christmas and "Dishonored" in March 1931.
The Dietrich phenomenon had not been envisioned when Sternberg went to Germany. Producer Erich Pommer and UFA executives had made Sternberg a sufficiently lucrative offer to reunite with the prestigious German actor Emil Jannings. They had been associated on a great silent tearjerker, "The Last Command," made at Paramount in 1927.
Evidently, Sternberg had no project in mind when he arrived in Berlin in August 1929. The burly and skillful Mr. Jannings wanted to play Rasputin. When Sternberg rejected the idea, other suggestions came into play, resulting in mutual agreement to condense and update a 1905 novel, "Professor Unrath," by Heinrich Mann, brother of the celebrated Thomas. Instead of playing a famous despot, Mr. Jannings would revert to another one of his specialties: pitiable men who experience a severe loss of status and self-esteem. The example in this case is Immanuel Rath, a solitary, prudish, blustering teacher of English at a boarding school in an unspecified seaport town. He discovers that his most unruly and contemptuous students have been frequenting a tawdry nightclub called the Blue Angel. Rath investigates and falls under the shabby but irresistible spell of its headliner, Miss Dietrich's Lola-Lola.
Her entrance is anticipated in establishing shots by a very clever poster, displaying a scantily clad Lola with a Cupid figure clutching her ankle. The standing Lola appears as though she might also be lying down, or preparing to do so, on an invisible bed. Presumably, the same illustrator is responsible for the mocking caricatures supposedly scribbled on the blackboards by Rath's young tormentors after he becomes Lola's improbable consort and invites disgrace and dismissal from the teaching profession.
It would be easy to mistake the first 75 or 80 minutes of "The Blue Angel" for an unfolding sex farce in which nothing terribly drastic seems likely to happen. The somber expressionistic decor and lighting schemes contradict this impression to some extent, but the nature of the character interplay is more comic than ominous.
Rath creates uproarious scenes while barging around backstage seeking his hedonistic pupils. He slaps a potential rival, a hulking old sea captain who arrives hoping to impress Lola with a gift from the tropics, a pineapple. The idea of having a champion seems to appeal to Lola during this whirlwind courtship. The whole mismatch seems so wacky yet beguiling 70 years after the movie was made that I'd be rather more content to see it end at the wedding party, with Miss Dietrich doing her imitation of a hen in order to provoke Mr. Jannings' rooster crow.
Of course, "The Blue Angel" does not end on that absurdly happy note. An epilogue, advancing the time frame from 1925 to 1929, depicts Rath in a state of abject degradation and Lola as a fed-up spouse. At this point, the movie becomes a study in masochistic pathos, a Jannings strong suit but weakened here if you've seen "The Last Command," where the fall from the heights of self-confidence is dramatized more extensively and effectively.
The film's legend owes a great deal to a reversal of fortunes: A project originally intended to enlarge the reputation of its leading man became a more effective showcase for the leading lady. Mr. Jannings had jealous portents during the rehearsals. After hearing Miss Dietrich sing the "Falling in Love Again" number, he reportedly said: "If you sing that, my girl, I'll be finished. Nobody will ever see me on the screen." He exaggerated, but the intuition was sound..
In retrospect, one is not all that certain that this outcome was a foregone conclusion. It had a lot to do with Miss Dietrich's spontaneous impact on film audiences at the time. Modern audiences aren't electrified by Lola; they're a little incredulous at her pudgy presumption and vulgar wardrobe and downright astonished at the awesome obesity of the other chorines on display at the Blue Angel. Miss Dietrich thought it a sign of Sternberg's genius that he insisted on a supporting chorus line that appears to outweigh her by a ton.
Lola seems less a heartless femme fatale than an amiable tart, a precursor of Miss Dietrich's most winning shady lady roles in Hollywood, from "Shanghai Express" to "Seven Sinners." Joe Pastenak, who later rescued Miss Dietrich's Hollywood career by casting her opposite James Stewart in "Destry Rides Again," was working in the Berlin offices of Universal at the time of "The Blue Angel." Asked to scout Miss Dietrich for the company, he encountered a fabulous creature.
"She was the sexiest woman I had ever seen," he recalled.


* * * 1/2
TITLE:
"The Blue Angel"
RATING:
No MPAA Rating (originally released in 1930, years before the advent of the rating system)
CREDITS:
Directed by Josef von Sternberg. Screenplay by Robert Liebmann, Karl Vollmoeller and Carl Zuckmayer, based on the novel "Professor Unrath" by Heinrich Mann. In German with English subtitles
RUNNING TIME:
106 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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