Women are meant to be loved, not to be understood.
– Oscar Wilde1

The term “sophisticated comedy” has become a lazy critical shorthand for any film in which the characters sip champagne from crystal goblets and swank about in white ties and long satin gowns. Throughout his career in Hollywood, Ernst Lubitsch was seen as the maestro of “sophisticated comedy”; and his 1937 film Angel, as one of his less successful forays into that rarefied and not-always-popular genre. Yet this standard notion overlooks the fact that true sophistication lies elsewhere – in a recognition that life is a messy and distinctly complicated business, one that is not easily reducible to simple and clear-cut moral clichés. Angel stars Marlene Dietrich as an aristocratic wife who was once a high-class call-girl – and who indulges, quite knowingly, in a forbidden extramarital affair – but is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Bad Woman. “Without ever using the word or showing any overt act of prostitution,” writes Gerald Mast, “Lubitsch constructs a film about one man who is willing to admit that a whore can be an angel and a second who must deal with the fact that his apparently angelic wife is a former whore.”2

This very premise was enough to guarantee the film’s critical and commercial failure in the puritanical New Deal America of the ’30s. As much as any of her films, Angel was instrumental in placing Dietrich on the list of stars who were labelled Box-Office Poison in 1938. (Like her fellow sophisticate Katharine Hepburn, Dietrich took this as a badge of honour; allegedly, the two stars once spent a long and uneventful train journey arguing over which of them could boast the most disastrous box-office returns.) As much as any film made under the Production Code, Angel dares to challenge the ready-made conventions of vice and virtue, good and evil, light and dark on which mainstream Hollywood entertainment has traditionally been based. It is subversive cinema of the most glittering and highly polished order – and all the more radical for being produced on a lavish Paramount budget. As Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans have observed, “it is the most disquieting, the most ‘Pirandellian’ of Lubitsch’s films, the material of melodrama refined into the coolest comedy (too cool, in fact, for 1930s popular taste).”3

It opens – as any would-be sophisticated film of the ’30s invariably must – in that nerve centre of dissolute glamour and sophisticated sin, Paris. The camera crawls, like an especially eager and voyeuristically inclined member of the movie-going public, along the outside walls of a high-toned bordello de luxe. Through the windows, we see the aristocratic White Russian madam (Laura Hope Crews) greeting a wealthy gentleman caller, appraising a ring for a noble lady in distress and ushering a young woman into a private assignation with a young man in evening dress. It is a sequence that anticipates the more famous opening of the ‘Maison Tellier’ episode in Max Ophüls’ Le plaisir (1952). What is astounding is that – even though this place is obviously a whorehouse – nothing about it is the least bit sordid, sleazy or vulgar. It is a world of sheer Art Deco enchantment, with white divans stood on white carpets against walls hung in white watered silk. It is illuminated, even in the afternoon, by glistening crystal chandeliers. Even the roses and the lilies that spill out of crystal vases are of a dazzling and uniform shade of white – emblematic of purity, refinement and consummate good taste.

One might imagine, from the setting, that swapping sexual favours for cash was an entirely normal way for well-bred ladies to while away an otherwise tedious afternoon. (In this way, Angel anticipates another canonical work of European art cinema, Luis Buñuel’s 1967 erotic drama Belle de jour.) To this place comes Maria (Dietrich), a one-time protégée of the madam who has married out of the business and now basks in the title of Lady Barker. Her old boss wonders aloud what on earth possessed her to come back – and not once in the entire movie does Maria see fit to explain it. In lieu of an explanation, Dietrich (whose real name, in fact, was Maria) simply ratchets up her trademark opacity to 11 and allows the audience to assume whatever it pleases. “Most of her strength,” wrote Quentin Crisp, “seemed to go into the raising and lowering of her eyelashes. No wonder. They were at least an inch long.”4 The fact is that Dietrich was far too consummate a star ever to knowingly be caught acting. She gives a hypnotic and heart-rending portrayal of a mature, intelligent woman who has been driven to distraction by the sheer tedium of domestic bliss.

Once she is away from her husband – a workaholic British diplomat played with just the right touch of pathos by Herbert Marshall – Maria proves all too vulnerable to the lure of a one-night stand with a handsome stranger (Melvyn Douglas). Said stranger, in the time-honoured manner of movie lovers, is unable to leave well enough alone and pursues Maria (whom he knows only as “Angel”) back to England and the stultifying stately home that she inhabits. There he comes up against the one thing that nobody in this movie ever quite bargained for. Maria may loathe her life and the empty and ornamental role she is forced to play in it – but she does genuinely and incontrovertibly love her husband. That is the dilemma the characters in Angel are faced with, and one that requires the utmost tact and sophistication from all concerned. Once the story returns to the brothel in Paris, Maria challenges her husband to walk through a door into the next room and learn “the truth” about the life she has kept hidden. It goes without saying that the room next door is empty. To put anyone inside it would be a truly unpardonable lapse of taste.

• • •

Angel (1937 USA 88 mins)

Prod. Co: Paramount Pictures Prod: Ernst Lubitsch Dir: Ernst Lubitsch Scr: Samson Raphaelson Phot: Charles Lang Mus: Friedrich Hollaender Ed: William Shea Art Dir: Hans Dreier, Robert Usher

Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, Melvyn Douglas, Laura Hope Crews, Edward Everett Horton, Ernest Cossart, Dennie Moore

Endnotes:

  1. Oscar Wilde, ‘The Sphinx without a Secret’ in Complete Works (London: Magpie Books, 1993), p. 215.
  2. Gerald Mast, The Comic Mind – Comedy and the Movies, 2nd edn (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1979 (1973)), p. 223.
  3. Bruce Babington & Peter William Evans, Affairs to Remember – The Hollywood Comedy of the Sexes (Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 1989), p. 66.
  4. Quentin Crisp, quoted in The Wit and Wisdom of Quentin Crisp, Guy Kettelhack, ed. (London: Arena Books, 1986), p. 78.

About The Author

David Melville is a Teaching Fellow in Film Studies and Literature for the Centre for Open Learning at the University of Edinburgh. His efforts to lead a life of glamorous depravity are constantly interrupted by his need to write about it.

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