Combustible Celluloid
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With: Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings, Kurt Gerron, Rosa Valetti, Hans Albers, Reinhold Bernt, Eduard von Winterstein
Written by: Robert Liebmann, Carl Zuckmayer and Karl Vollmoller, based on the novel by Heinrich Mann
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: German with English subtitles
Running Time: 106
Date: 04/01/1930

The Blue Angel (1930)

3 Stars (out of 4)

First an 'Angel,' Later a Devil

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I'm a big fan of Marlene Dietrich's seven films with director Josef von Sternberg -- except for The Blue Angel, which didn't do much for me the first time I saw it on home video years ago. Upon a second viewing, I'm glad to say I've now changed my mind.

It originally struck me as an oddity wedged between two time periods. It was conceived as a vehicle for actor Emil Jannings, a superstar of the silent cinema, best known for his performances in such classics as Murnau's The Last Laugh and Faust. But The Blue Angel was a talkie, and Jannings -- at age 46 -- had not had much experience acting in the new medium where words could serve as substitutes for wild gestures.

In addition, when Sternberg cast the relatively unknown 28 year-old Marlene Dietrich in the role of nightclub singer Lola Lola, no one knew the incredible star power she wielded. She easily stole the finished film from the outdated Jannings: the audience knew it and Sternberg knew it. He fell in love with her (both figuratively and literally) and cast her in six more films. (Strangely enough, their first movie had the word "Angel" in the title and their last contained the word "Devil," as in The Devil Is a Woman.)

Upon a second viewing of The Blue Angel, this time in a beautiful new film print from Kino, I appreciated the picture's subtleties far more than I had before. I realized the comedy inherent in this story, whereas before I had only detected the pathos. I still think it's a lesser Sternberg/Deitrich picture, but I can now recommend it unequivocally.

Jannings stars as a stuffy college professor who long ago earned the jeering disrespect of his students. The first thing he does in class each day is blow his nose at the students. He discovers that his class has been whiling away their evening hours in a club called the Blue Angel, watching a sexpot singer named Lola Lola.

He storms down to the club intending to shoo his students out, but he's clearly out of his element. The performers and other denizens at the club realize immediately how easily shocked the professor is, and go out of their way to do just that. Flustered, he leaves his hat behind and accidentally takes a pair of Lola's undies home with him, facilitating a return trip the following night.

Lola quickly gets the prof in her clutches, and despite laughing hysterically at his humble marriage proposal, marries him and forces him to go on the road with her. After he fails at selling sexy postcards of his lady love, he ends up playing a clown -- the goat in a magic act featuring conjured eggs and cream pies.

Sternberg's lush visual style was already in place, as he'd already made at least three signature silent films, The Last Command (also with Jannings), Underworld and The Docks of New York. He displays two striking tracking shots, both set in the professor's classroom, and both meant to illustrate the professor's feeling of loss.

But he'd not yet learned to center his universe around Dietrich as he would in his best films. As a result, The Blue Angel is looser and less formal than the later films, and funnier besides. But their second film together, Morocco, made later that year in Hollywood and co-starring Gary Cooper, comes across as far more accomplished and poetic -- the work of a master.

Though it was filmed simultaneously in German and English versions, this new print is the German version of The Blue Angel. I've never seen the English version (few have), but it's universally considered inferior to the German version. Lucky for us -- it's only because of German perfectionism that the original negative of The Blue Angel survived seven decades.

Kino has also restored and included Dietrich's original four-minute screen test, which has her singing (in English) and berating a piano player for cramping her style. In reality, though, nobody ever could.

In 2001, Kino released an excellent two-disc set containing both the English language and German language versions, Dietrich's screen test, plus tons of extras.

Their 2012 Blu-ray does not fare so well. It comes with only the German version (the preferred version) and no extras. The picture quality is not as good as could be hoped for a restored film; it's soft and waxy around the edges. Fans are urged to hang onto the DVD edition for now. Note: Just one year later, Kino released a 2013 Blu-ray edition with all the good old extras on it. Look for the box with Dietrich's face in close-up.

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