Angel (1937)

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Ernst Lubitsch’s Angel has a lot going for it. Marlene Dietrich, Melvyn Douglas, Herbert Marshall, experienced contract players and other resources of a major studio promise yet another of the director’s famous combinations of winking humor and technical finesse. Nonetheless, this love triangle centered on Lady Maria Barker (Dietrich), her diplomat husband Sir Frederick Barker (Marshall) and playboy Anthony Halton (Douglas) never quite lives up to that promise.

Part of the problem is that Dietrich, lovely as she may be, is mis-cast. Although there is a perfunctory explanation of her accent, the role otherwise demands she discard her erotically charged, Continental image to become a dissatisfied English housewife cum clotheshorse. That both men are captivated by her beauty is believable, but there is little more to fascinate them and they provide scant appeal of their own. Marshall is all too convincingly clueless, while Douglas offers little but wistful mooning.

Peripheral, questionably relevant details such as the below-stairs workings of the household provide some amusement. Ernest Cosset as the Barkers’ butler Wilton offers a little distraction with his marital machinations, but they never amount to much. Inventive bits, like when Halton visits the Barker home for the first time and Wilton and the other servants assess the off-screen action by how much food the principles leave on their plates raise a chuckle. For that matter, Maria’s initial incognito appearance in Paris intrigues for its apparent arbitrariness and is never explained beyond the desire to do something irrational that she confesses to the Russian Grand Duchess Anna. Since the Duchess is little better than a high class procuress, their familiarity plants seeds of doubt about the Lady’s past which, again, never amount to anything.

The digressions are matched by imaginative play with stock situations that are all part of Lubitsch’s famously wry “touch.” For example, when Halton first arrives at the Barker’s home, he does not yet know Lady Barker is his “Angel” (the name he gives her when she refuses to reveal her identity). Suspense builds on how they will react when they see each other again, but instead of a predictable outburst of flustered feelings, their reacquaintance occurs off-camera, after Halton has seen a photo of Maria sitting on Barker’s piano, thus extending the game of calculated ignorance and polished politesse a bit further.

Thanks to the Production Code, there is no possibility that this dance of innuendo and frustration will threaten the Barkers’ marriage. Nonetheless, the elegant handling makes the foreseeable ending ambiguous. For while Halton may be in love, it is not clear Maria feels the same. Rather, she goes through the motions of how a lovestruck woman should behave. When we learn that her first visit to Paris resulted more or less from a whim, just how deep Maria’s “love” may be becomes doubtful.

Angel plays by the rules to tweak them. It is almost sophistication for its own sake. Whether that is enough for viewers is another matter.