June 3, 2010

The Blue Angel (1930)
Grade: 74/100

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Stars: Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich, Kurt Gerron

What it's about. Set in 1920s Germany. Professor Rath (Emil Jannings) is a balding, bespectacled, aging professor at a men's college. His life is strictly intellectual, with social interaction outside of his classes limited to terse dialogue with his homely, no-nonsense maid (Ilse Fürstenberg).

Strict disciplinarian Rath is despised by his rebellious class, with the exception of teacher's pet Angst (Rolf Müller). From Angst, Rath learns that his students have been frequenting a disreputable nightclub, The Blue Angel, to see Lola (Marlene Dietrich), an earthy showgirl.

With the goal of catching and punishing his errant students, Roth visits The Blue Angel. The respectable but naive and ultimately foolish Rath is promptly flattered by Kiepert (Kurt Gerron), the magician who manages the touring company, and by Lola, who teases and flirts with Rath. Soon, Rath impetuously abandons his prestigious post to become the husband of showgirl Lola.

He joins their company, but as time passes, he becomes an object of derision, although Lola retains motherly affection for him. He is reduced to shilling her postcards during shows, and appears on stage in a humiliating role as Kiepert's assistant.

Two events lead to a complete nervous breakdown for Rath. Muscle man Mazeppa (Hans Albers) joins the company, and openly begins a liason with Lola. Also, the company returns to Rath's hometown, which fills The Blue Angel to mock the unforgotten and much disliked former professor.

How others will see it. The Blue Angel was the first important German talkie, and is known to classic movie fans as the film that introduced Marlene Dietrich to American audiences. At imdb.com, it is the third highest-rated and most voted film from 1930, with the magnificent All Quiet on the Western Front in first place. The user ratings are very high, and consistent across both genders and all age groups.

How I felt about it. From a modern American perspective, the obvious question the film raises is, why does Lola marry Rath? He is a completely unromantic figure, and much older than her. True, Lola genuinely enjoys endearingly bossing around the hapless but devoted Rath. However, her ulterior motive is advancing within the German class system. In America, a Ziegfeld showgirl might be esteemed over a college professor, but in Germany, a doctorate university instructor was highly regarded, while Lola was equivalent to a modern-day lap dancer.

Could Lola have left the company to be the wife of Professor Rath? Not possible, unless their marriage or her identity was kept secret. Rath lacked the social finesse for such an arrangement. He was obligated to resign, and is soon financially dependent upon his showgirl wife, the next step in his spiritual decline. He becomes a broken man, a cuckold, and eventually, all he has left to take pride in is his past as a respected professor.

Emil Jannings was the star of The Blue Angel. In 1929, the year before, he was the first winner of the Best Actor Academy Award, for The Last Command, also directed by von Sternberg. At the time, Dietrich was a minor silent film star in Germany, although unknown in the U.S. von Sternberg recognized Dietrich's star potential, cast her as the female lead, and brought her to the States, where he directed her in six additional films.

The Blue Angel was filmed in Berlin. Two versions were made, in German and English, but the English version is obscure today due to its thick accents. In the early sound era, this practice took place in Hollywood as well. Dracula (1931), for example, was filmed in English during the day, and at night, a different cast and crew used the same sets to film a version in Spanish.