Combustible Celluloid
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With: Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, Melvyn Douglas, Edward Everett Horton, Ernest Cossart, Laura Hope Crews, Herbert Mundin, Dennie Moore
Written by: Samson Raphaelson, Frederick Lonsdale, Guy Bolton, Russell G. Medcraft, based on a play by Melchior Lengyel
Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 91
Date: 10/29/1937

Angel (1937)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

A Cute Triangle

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This Ernst Lubitsch movie isn't ranked among his great works, mainly because of stories of Lubitsch and star Marlene Dietrich fighting during production, because of its poor box-office performance, and because it's not particularly funny. But it turns out that Angel (1937) isn't really supposed to be funny, and as a drama with some subtle humorous undertones, it's a beautifully elegant picture, expertly composed.

As it begins, playboy Anthony Halton (Melvyn Douglas, later in Lubitsch's Ninotchka) arrives at the mansion of Grand Duchess Anna Dmitrievna (Laura Hope Crews); she's actually something of a whorehouse madame, and he's there looking for a good time. He accidentally runs into Maria Barker (Dietrich, with unbelievable eyelashes), who is there for the same reason, and they click.

They spend a magical evening together, even though Maria refuses to exchange names. (He decides to call her "Angel.") Anthony falls madly in love, and while he goes to buy her flowers in the park, she disappears. (This is a gorgeous, heartbreaking scene, with the old woman flower peddler in the center of the shot the entire time.) It turns out Maria is married. Her husband, British diplomat Frederick (Herbert Marshall, also in Lubitsch's great Trouble in Paradise) travels frequently for work and she feels unsatisfied in their marriage.

In one great scene (which might have inspired Orson Welles), they have breakfast together and try to find something to argue about; their matter-of-fact banter slyly suggests both comfort and a lack of passion. Then, Anthony and Frederick accidentally run into each other, and the latter invites the former to dinner, where he sees his Angel again.

Eventually, she must decide which man to choose, and Lubitsch keeps this agony slowly simmering, tilting back and forth on the smallest of moments. He also manages to get a great deal of sex talk in the movie without sounding dirty (and thereby baffling the censors). The great Edward Everett Horton (a veteran of many Lubitsch movies) plays one of a gaggle of servants that provide most of the movie's humor, as well as most of the "Lubitsch Touches." They seem to know more than the wealthy folks, just from examining their lunch plates.

Kino Lorber released Angel on a great-looking Blu-ray with a gaggle of trailers (many of them for other Dietrich movies), and an excellent commentary track by San Francisco State University professor and screenwriter Joseph McBride, who recently published a book on Lubitsch.

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