Marlene Dietrich Stars in This Lesser Lubitsch Dramedy




A big problem with being a film buff is that they keep making more good ones every year. Just when you think you might start getting caught up, a whole bunch of new movies that you need to see get dropped into your lap. And even as you’re trying your best to stay current, there are 120 years worth of films behind those that you need to see as well. 

All of this is just a roundabout way of admitting that up until now, I’ve only seen one movie by Ernst Lubitsch (To Be or Not To Be). Lubitsch was one of the greats. Orson Welles referred to him as a giant, and his movies influenced some of the greatest film artists all over the world. Angel, a light romantic drama from 1937, is not the best introduction to the man’s work and legacy. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s fairly forgettable and doesn’t demonstrate the qualities for which Lubitsch’s work is so revered.

Angel stars Marlene Dietrich as Maria Barker, the wife of the British Ambassador to the League of Nations. We meet her as she’s flying into Paris, alone. She goes to see an old friend, a Russian Duchess (Laura Hope Crews) who has a side gig setting up lonely men with companionship. (This was apparently meant to be a high-class brothel, but the Production code, obviously, wouldn’t allow that, so they changed it to a Russian Embassy!) In any event, while she’s visiting, she meets Tony Halton (Melvyn Douglas) who’s come for the Duchess’s services. Maria and Tony spend an evening together, even as she insists they not share any personal information, even their names. He takes to calling her Angel, and by the time she vanishes on him at the end of their evening, he’s besotted with her.

Back home we soon see the reason Maria’s been flirting with infidelity. While she is deeply in love with her husband, Sir Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall), and he loves her, she still takes second place to the demands of his work.

In an amazing coincidence (except if you’re in a movie like this), it turns out that Halton and Barker are old war buddies, and when they meet at an official luncheon, Barker invites Halton back to his house for dinner. Halton happily agrees and finds his ‘Angel’ there, although Maria pretends never to have met him before- even when her husband leaves the room. Halton, who still hasn’t gotten over his crush, presses the matter and tells her that he’ll be back in Paris the next week should she decide to come to him. Maria refuses- until Barker tells her that he has to cancel a trip they had planned together because of his job. She gets him to agree to drop her off in Paris, but soon he begins to suspect she’s planning more than just a shopping excursion.

The movie’s tone remains light and frothy even as the plot is full of a whole mess of melodrama. It’s not a comedy, although it does contain its share of comedic elements. The behind-the-scenes commentary from the Barker’s two servants are funny- as is the scene where one of them shows off to his fiancee by pointing out, not the powerful or famous people he knows, but their servants.

But despite this, and despite enjoyable performances from Dietrich, Marshall and Douglas (though we’d expect nothing less), the film feels light enough to blow away in a stiff breeze. There are few displays of the urbane wit Lubitsch was known for in his films, and the conflict only really begins to heighten at the very end. 

But while Angel is a middling example of a Lubitcsh film, it’s still a great example of a prestige Hollywood picture from the 1930’s. The movie is gorgeous to look at. The costuming from Travis Banton and art direction by Hans Dreier and Robert Usher are top-notch. Lubitsch’s cinematographer here, Charles Lang, lights Dietrich beautifully. 

Angel had a tepid reception at the box-office upon its release, which was the end of both Lubitsch and Dietrich at Paramount. Both of these German emigres would re-emerge at different studios by 1939, and each would go on to enjoy greater success: Lubitsch with Ninotchka at MGM and Dietrich with Destry Rides Again at Universal. Angel may be a minor blip in the filmographies of these two artists, but completists will certainly want to check it out.

Kino Lorber’s blu-ray is supplemented with an audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride, author of the book How Did Lubitsch Do It? It also has the usual assortment of trailers. The film comes with optional English subtitles, and is presented in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio in 1080p.