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Angel (1937)

"I have been to Paris, France, and to Paris, Paramount - and, believe me, Paris, Paramount, is better." So said the great Billy Wilder, and, in 1937, the powers that be governing Paris, Paramount, would have much preferred if Wilder's European expatriate colleagues Ernst Lubitsch and Marlene Dietrich, the formidable talent involved in the mockingly entitled Angel (1937), were situated in the former.

While today considered one of director Lubitsch's and star Dietrich's most underrated efforts, Angel all but signaled the death knell for the studio's once prosperous German emigre colony.

Lubitsch, whose string of undisputed Paramount masterpieces (The Love Parade, 1929; Trouble in Paradise, 1932; Design for Living 1933) prompted the otherwise troubled company to offer him the position of head of production, grabbed the opportunity to put his patented "touch" (some called it box-office poison) on a wide variety of films being produced by the Melrose Avenue dream factory. He scored a bull's-eye with Frank Borzage's delightful Desire (1936), which temporarily seemed to rescue Marlene Dietrich from her consistently failing collaborations with mentor Josef von Sternberg.

Von Sternberg, who discovered the gorgeous, sultry singer/actress while preparing the UFA/Paramount co-production The Blue Angel (1930), brought her to Hollywood, where the pair embarked on a slew of erotically charged super hits (Morocco, 1930; Dishonored, 1931; Blonde Venus, 1932; and Shanghai Express, 1932). By 1934, the sensual Dietrich/von Sternberg combination waned for Depression audiences while the mounting costs of such impossible opulent epics as The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil Is a Woman (1935) recalled the excesses (albeit also the genius) of fellow German expatriate von Stroheim.

Booted out of the studio, von Sternberg fled to Columbia to adapt Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, while an understandably nervous yet collected Dietrich accepted an offer from Selznick to star in a lavish Technicolor romance, The Garden of Allah (1936).

Lubitsch, the inmate now running the asylum, saw great comedic potential in Dietrich, and helped shape Desire for her considerable talents, which included luring co-star Gary Cooper with the sworn promise that von Sternberg wouldn't even be allowed on-set (Cooper claimed Morocco was the worst working experience he ever had).

By late 1936, Desire notwithstanding, Paramount profits dipped - a situation not helped by a production halt on a new Dietrich picture, I Loved a Soldier. The movie was scrapped, and so was Lubitsch's position as studio head.

Re-hired as a director and promising to repeat the success of Desire, Lubitsch and Dietrich (the latter still under contract for one more picture) began Angel, a suave, sly morality play encompassing infidelity, Parisian bordellos, fabulous clothing and servants who could gauge their employers' sex lives by the leftovers on their dinner plates. With Herbert Marshall and Melvyn Douglas signed as co-stars, the premise certainly seemed prime for the "Lubitsch touch," but almost from the beginning there were signs of trouble.

Almost immediately there were daily intrusions from the Production Code causing expensive re-takes, re-edits and even re-writing (the aforementioned Parisian bordello being transformed into the Russian Embassy!). Paramount executives, already dubious as to whether this kind of story would play with a public now infatuated with the feel-good movies of Bing Crosby and Frank Capra, had double jitters when The Garden of Allah bellied up, followed by the quick death of another highly touted Dietrich picture, A Knight Without Armour (1937). Adding to the strain was the fear that the ever-present censors might catch on to the director and writers' in-joke concerning the all-too-close parallel of Angel's plotline with Marlene's offscreen adulterous lifestyle. Making matters worse, an ongoing dispute regarding Lubitsch's insistence that Dietrich wear a hat (she refused) resulted in an additional $95,000 delay. This proved the final straw for the suits, who, in no uncertain terms, told their star that contract renewal was out of the question, regardless of Angel's performance, which disastrously lived up to Paramount's low expectations. When Lubitsch's next project, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), co-starring Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert, did only moderate business, the director was subsequently given his walking papers as well.

Despite the initial financial failure, Angel survives as a wonderful reminder of Hollywood sophistication, sparkling with Lubitsch's trademark charm and the potent on-screen chemistry between Dietrich and Douglas. Marlene, adorned in an array of scintillating Travis Banton creations, never looked better, and the charming Frederick Hollander score so captivated the star that she insisted he be hired whenever possible for all her future projects (Hollander appears on-screen as her accompanist in Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair, 1948). Surprisingly, the reviews were quite positive from as critically diverse publications as Variety (" of the best films Lubitsch has made...") to The Literary Digest ("...very sophisticated, very subtle, very chic...").

But both director and star would have their just revenge. In that magical of all Hollywood years, 1939, Lubitsch, now at MGM, had one of his greatest triumphs with Ninotchka, starring the woman Paramount hoped Dietrich would rival, Greta Garbo (opposite the co-star of Angel - Melvyn Douglas), while Marlene, in a brilliant stroke of career re-invention had her biggest box-office hit yet: Destry Rides Again, made at Universal opposite Jimmy Stewart. By effectively shedding her exotic goddess image, Dietrich literally let her pants down and stole the movie from her co-stars. Her newfound success also made her realize the necessity of aligning herself with hardcore Yank stars (like Gary Cooper and James Stewart) and she went on to co-star in an unprecedented number of profitable vehicles with John Wayne, Randolph Scott, George Raft, Fred MacMurray and even Bruce Cabot!

Director: Ernest Lubitsch
Screenplay: Guy Bolton, Melchior Lengyel, Russell G. Medcraft, Samson Raphaelson, Robert A. Stemmle, Hans Szekely
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Editing: William Shea
Costume Design: Travis Banton
Music: Werner R. Heymann, Frederick Hollander, John Leipold
Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Maria Baker), Herbert Marshall (Sir Frederick Barker), Melvyn Douglas (Anthony Halton), Edward Everett Horton (Graham), Ernest Cossart (Walton), Laura Hope Crews (Grand Duchess Anna Dmitrievna).

by Mel Neuhaus

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