Thursday, June 30, 2011

Blogathon Round-Up

So, the Roger Corman Blogathon has wrapped it up. With a grand total of 21 entries, each on a different Corman film. This was an incredibly fun blogathon and I think Corman himself would have been impressed with the creativity, humor, and smarts of all those who participated. And of course, the enthusiasm of our host Nathanael, the man behind Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear, was an inspiration.

On a different corner of the blogosphere, Caroline over at Garbo Laughs, brought us the Queer Film Blogathon on June 27th. And damn, I knew it was going to be good, but it wasn't until I started digging through the entries, that I realized just how brilliant my fellow bloggers are. There were over 60 entries and although I still haven't shoveled my way through all of them, I haven't found a weak entry in the bunch. And Caroline led the way with her own excellent analysis and insight. 

I think my favorite part of blogathons, even more than the writing or the reading, is meeting people from all corners of the blogosphere. Experts in horror film, classic film, foreign film, independent film. And then people who weren't film bloggers at all, but ventured out anyway. I got to chat with so many different people. Smart, talented, funny people. It's amazing and kind of awe-inspiring. I know that by the time the next blogathon rolls around, I'll be working furiously to up my game.

Oh, did I say next blogathon? 'Cause there's another one coming up.

The inexhaustible Nathanael, fresh from conquering the Worlds of Corman, has declared a new blogathon: Monster Movie Mania!

From July 27th through August 3rd, he'll be hosting a celebration of 1950s monster movies. Nate can explain it better than I can, but basically, participants choose a movie that was made from 1950 to 1959 that features some kind of monster. That includes aliens, demons, robots, mutated humans, mummies, vampires, anything so long as it's from the 50s. The film can be from any country, so you're not limited to Hollywood. Anyone who's interested can pop over to his blog and choose a film to review. It's first-come, first-served, so better hurry over and pick your flick. Nate is also promising awards and prizes, as he did for the Corman blogathon (Nate, if you're reading this, I think you spoil your bloggers), so if you need a little incentive...

I'm looking at this list right now and I notice nobody's picked The Fly yet. Or The Incredible Shrinking Man. And I Married a Monster from Outer Space is still available. Grab 'em while you can, people.

And if you need some help getting in the mood, Where Danger Lives is starting a Countdown of the 50 Greatest Classic Sci-Fi Posters. Not to be missed.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Movie Review: Sylvia Scarlett

Sylvia Scarlett (1935) 
directed by George Cukor, starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant

(Note: This is my entry for the Queer Film Blogathon, hosted by Garbo Laughs.)

One day, young Sylvia Scarlett (Katharine Hepburn) gets an unpleasant shock: her father Henry (Edmund Gwenn) has embezzled from the lace factory and now, there is nothing to do but go on the run. Sylvia convinces her father that the police won't be on the lookout for an embezzler and his son, and with one twist of the scissors, Sylvia becomes Sylvester. 

However, just as Sylvia is becoming comfortable in her new identity, her father bumbles into the path of Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant), a Cockney con artist. Fortunately or unfortunately for the hapless Scarletts, Monkley takes a shine to them and enlists them as his new partners. To Monkley's disappointment, the Scarletts are more of a hindrance than a help until Sylvia gets the bright idea for them to form a traveling player troupe, with the help of a ditzy housemaid named Maudie (Dennie Moore). 

While performing, they make the acquaintance of aristocratic artist Michael Fane (Brian Aherne) and his snooty girlfriend Lily (Natalie Paley). Sylvia quickly falls for Michael, who's quite taken with this hot-tempered, free-speaking boy. From there, it becomes a romp of Shakespearean proportions, as Sylvia and her cohorts are quickly entangled in deceptions both romantic and criminal.

Sylvia Scarlett was one of the more notorious flops of the 1930s. At the time, audiences did not know what to make of the film's strange plot or of Katharine Hepburn in drag. Nowadays, Sylvia Scarlett stands as one of Hollywood's early and more interesting experiments in examining gender roles.

In the film's opening scene, Sylvia, after learning of her father's embezzlement, suddenly decides to pass herself off as a boy. She removes her long braids and switches her luggage label from Sylvia to Sylvester and that is that. The speed of her decision, as well as the enthusiasm with which she goes about it, is the film's first hint that Sylvia's cross-dressing might not be for the reasons she says it is. Her flimsy justification that the police will be thrown off if her father Henry is traveling with a boy and not a girl doesn't really hold water (Henry, it should be mentioned, doesn't make any attempt to disguise himself). And as the film wears on, well after it becomes clear that the police aren't going to catch up with them, Sylvia remains in her masculine identity.

Katharine Hepburn is nobody's idea of a convincing boy, but this is not a film where realism is paramount or even wanted. Hepburn makes some attempt to distinguish the two personalities by speaking in a high-pitched, trembling voice for her scenes as the girl Sylvia. Interestingly, the voice and mannerisms she uses for the boy Sylvester feel a lot more like authentic Hepburn than the girlish ones do; Hepburn's opening scene as the tearful, pigtailed young girl (with an on-again, off-again French accent) plays like parody. It's only when Sylvia dons drag that she feels relaxed and free.

As a boy, Hepburn's movements become easier, her laugh more open. Her attitude changes as well;  the timorous heroine of the opening scene becomes a pugnacious, spirited young man, who's more than willing to take a sock at anyone. Sylvia's performance of being male is clearly tied to her ideas of what being male means. The idea of a woman posing as a man in order to find freedom is nothing new (Shakespeare's heroines are a big believer in it), but Cukor's film adds another dimension to the idea: Sylvia is not only more comfortable as a boy, but doesn't know how to be a girl. This becomes obvious in the second half of the film when Sylvia, having fallen in love with the rakish artist Michael Fane, finally discards her boyish identity in order to woo him.

George Cukor later went on record as saying that the film loses interest in its second half when Sylvia goes back to being a girl again. He's right in saying this, but it isn't because the plot becomes weaker or because the character becomes less interesting, it's because Hepburn's performance goes seriously downhill. Her movements are fluttery and exaggerated, she mugs for the camera, and always seems to be on the verge of breaking out in a sobbing or giggling fit. Sylvia the cross-dresser is interesting, but Sylvia the girl is a ninny.

And I don't think this was due to the script, since the character's actions aren't necessarily weaker; she retains the decisiveness and independence of her boy persona (even jumping into the ocean to rescue her romantic rival). It's Hepburn's performance that weakens her. Considering how well Cukor and Hepburn would work together on other occasions, as well as Cukor's reputation as one of the great directors of actors, it's hard to believe that the acting choices weren't intentional. But they made a mistake. After all her experiences, Sylvia should be stronger as a character, not weaker. And considering that the film's other two main female characters are, respectively, the foolish, unfaithful housemaid Maudie, and the snooty, unfaithful society girl Lily, the implications of Hepburn's performance become a little uncomfortable.

I realize that I've spent most of this review not talking about the plot but in the case of Sylvia Scarlett, the plot is incidental to the antics. Sylvia and her father Henry go from being outlaws on the run to con artists to theatrical troupers, without much difficulty. In spite of the fuss about Henry's embezzlement, there's very little urgency to their renegade lifestyle (the law enforcement doesn't seem to be interested in following them) and much of the action seems to take place on a cloud of pink champagne and gaiety. The characters play a lot of their scenes either drunk or wishing they were. Whenever a new deception is unmasked, the characters respond not with anger, but with delight.

But George Cukor isn't trying to make a serious film about criminals. The fluidity of the way Sylvia can switch gender roles is matched by the way other characters can switch their identities, from criminal to theatrical. In that respect, Sylvia Scarlett might be taken as one of Cukor's more personal films. As more than one critic has noted, Cukor was fascinated by performance and theater, and his films reflect that fascination. Many of them are about the lives of people who perform for a living, as in What Price Hollywood?, Dinner at Eight, Camille, A Double Life, The Actress, A Star is Born, and Les Girls. The cleverness of this film is the way Cukor hints that every role in society is a kind of performance, whether it's your gender or your social class.

Sylvia Scarlett began life as a book by Compton MacKenzie, The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett. Possibly that is why this film, unlike Cukor's more polished adaptations of popular plays, feels rambling and unfocused. Characters switch their minds on a whim, romantic attachments are made and broken with ease, and the atmosphere swings from brightly cheerful to dark and even tragic at times. But it's that same quality that gives Sylvia Scarlett its charm; it's like a traveling companion that can't resist pulling you off the path to come look at whatever new shiny thing happens to catch their eye.

Aside from its examination of gender roles, Sylvia Scarlett is known as arguably the first film where Cary Grant's star persona really began to take shape. Here, he plays a charming, amoral Cockney con man Jimmy Monkley, annoyed by Sylvia but also amused by her. In one of the film's funnier scenes, Grant strips off his shirt and invites "Sylvester" to join a bed with him in the caravan, telling her, "You'll make a proper hot water bottle tonight." But there's an element of menace to Grant's character; Monkley's introduction is straight out of film noir, standing in the fog, his face lit but his body in shadow, staring silently at the frightened Scarletts. After a few altercations, he joins forces with Sylvia and Henry, but makes it clear that he's not going to be bound by any ethical constraints. Even when his con games fail (usually because Sylvia bungles something), Monkley still carries on. Towards the end of the film, Monkley even manages to resolve a love triangle by kidnapping an unconscious woman.

While his Cockney accent is less than convincing, Cary Grant brings all of his talents to the role of Monkley. His charm, his theatrical and acrobatic training, and the ability to make a cad look charismatic. And since it wasn't yet de facto that Cary Grant would get the girl, it allows Grant to play a friendly (and suggestively homoerotic) role in relation to Hepburn. It's certainly their most unusual pairing together.

The failure of Sylvia Scarlett at the box office is a shame, because the film is one of the most interesting of its decade. There were other films of the 30s that explored the potential of cross-dressing (Queen Christina and Marlene Dietrich's tuxedos come to mind), but Sylvia Scarlett really does take the premise in fascinating directions. At times, it almost seems like Cukor was drawing on some obscure Shakespeare play. And if the film does start to lose some of its sparkle and energy by the end, it remains as a brilliantly subversive and funny examination of the role-playing inherent in gender, crime, and art. As Shakespeare would have it, "All the world's a stage and all the men and women, merely players."

Favorite Quote:

"Well, we're all fools sometimes. Only you choose such awkward times."

Favorite Scene:

I'm going to cheat a little here, since my favorite scene is more like two scenes melting together. Sylvia, Henry, and Monkley are in the mansion of Maudie's employers. Maudie believes that Henry is a theatrical impresario, ready to sign her on and flirtatiously consents to put on her mistress's jewels for the big audition. But Sylvia, due to a sudden attack of drunken honesty, forces Monkley to reveal to Maudie that they were planning to rob the place, using her. Maudie is shocked and Monkley is about ready to knock Sylvia's block off. But then, just as Maudie is bemoaning her bad luck ("Now, I shall have to stay here, slaving away, instead of performing by the sea") a light bulb goes off in Sylvia's head. "But we must perform by the sea!" she shouts. They could be real performers, they could get a caravan...Monkley shakes her off but Sylvia persists. And then Henry and Maudie join in. Maudie tells them to take her savings. Monkley turns away, trying to resist, and then finally gives in to the carnival spirit. Henry starts up a round of "I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside." The con artists and their erstwhile victim end up jigging on the staircase because, oh well, why not? The great joy of this film is its upside-down logic. In this world, deception doesn't drive people apart. It brings them together.

Final Six Words:

Sparkling, rambling celebration of crossing boundaries

Friday, June 24, 2011

Farewell, Peter Falk

As you wish.

Peter Falk (1927-2011)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Movie Review: The Haunted Palace

The Haunted Palace (1963) 
directed by Roger Corman, starring Vincent Price, Debra Paget, Lon Chaney Jr.

(Note: This is my entry for The Roger Corman Blogathon, hosted by Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear.)

Charles Dexter Ward (Vincent Price) and his wife Ann (Debra Paget) have arrived at the isolated New England town of Arkham. Ward has come to claim his inheritance, the "haunted palace" that belonged to his ancestor Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price). The townsfolk are surly and mistrustful of these newcomers and it isn't until the Wards meet the helpful Doctor Willet (Frank Maxwell) that they understand why. 

Over a century ago, Joseph Curwen was known as an evil warlock that lured young girls over to his castle to fulfill his twisted scheme: to bring back the power of the old gods by mating them to human women. Because of Curwen's actions, the town is now haunted by the presence of misshapen "mutations," creatures not entirely human. Finally, the townsfolk had enough of Curwen and burned him to death outside his castle, but his evil influence is still  felt in the village, especially when they look at those mutations. And now his descendant has come to take possession of the castle, his descendant who looks so exactly like Curwen...

Ward and his wife Ann are naturally spooked by these tales but well, they have to find somewhere to spend the night, so why not spend it in Curwen's castle? There's even a helpful caretaker named Simon (Lon Chaney Jr.), who's there to settle them in. But once inside, Ward begins to fall under the spell of the place and of his dead ancestor, who takes over Ward's body in order to carry out his two missions. First, to resurrect his beloved dead mistress Hester (Cathie Merchant). Next, to take vengeance on the descendants of all those who betrayed him. Fiery vengeance.

The Haunted Palace takes a title from Edgar Allan Poe, a story from H.P. Lovecraft, and a screenplay by Charles Beaumont, so it's surprising that the finished product doesn't, in the end, feel like it really belongs to any of these three men. In spite of the borrowed title, Poe has nothing to do with this story. The plotline comes from Lovecraft's novella "The Case of  Charles Dexter Ward," but the film's Gothic, grandly clanking atmosphere doesn't feel particularly Lovecraftian. It belongs far more to Roger Corman and Vincent Price than it does to its literary origins. In interviews, Corman was frank about his displeasure with the Poe references that were forced on him by the studio (in an attempt to make this movie seem like another entry in the Price/Poe series of horror films) since he was very excited about adapting Lovecraft.

In its opening stretches, the film takes pretty near every horror trope you can possibly think of and sets them to an operatic high C. Haunted castle? Check. Vaguely Satanic character who endangers women? Check. Angry village mob? All-encompassing mist? Ominous crashes of lightning? You'd better believe that's a check. For someone like me, who isn't a horror connoisseur, the flood of cinematic cliches in the opening was a little daunting and I started to wonder if maybe I'd made a mistake in choosing The Haunted Palace for my blogathon entry. 

Fortunately, as the movie wore on, I gradually became transfixed by its artistry. For one thing, it's quite beautiful to look at, combining the hypnotic blues and grays of Floyd Crosby's cinematography with the leering angles of Roger Corman's camera. According to the TCM database, Corman deliberately chose a "somewhat starker lighting pattern" than for his Poe pictures, wanting to stress the difference between the two artists. The sets were small, but Corman used forced perspective and sweeping camera movements to create the illusion of size. The ultimate effect manages to be both grand and claustrophobic, as characters race down staircases and in and out of blue mists, always seeming to end up right back where they started.

The crux of the story is Joseph Curwen's return and his possession of his innocent descendant Charles Dexter Ward. In spite of the borrowed Poe title, Corman's film is far more interested in the destructive rampage of the Curwen character than of his haunted house. And Curwen is plenty dark, drawing women to the house in order to chain them up and let some unknown monster rape them. We don't get a good look at the creature but Corman shows us how the women are raised up in chains, legs and arms splayed. Then they suddenly look down to see something coming up from the depths below, right between their legs. The film's advertising would capitalize on the psychosexual horror: "What was the terrifying thing in the pit that wanted women?"

This is Vincent Price's movie and he carries it off proudly, in a performance that combines courtliness and evil. Price has to play the dual role of the demonic Joseph Curwen and the innocent Charles Dexter Ward and it's to his credit that you're never in any doubt which persona is in control of Ward's body. The actor gets some help from Corman's makeup and lighting, but he mostly communicates the switches with his eyes, his voice, and the small shifts of his face. Except for a few big moments, Price avoids chewing the scenery and opts for a quiet malevolence. Appropriate, since for most of the movie, Curwen is trying to pretend that he is Ward. 

Unfortunately, the character of Charles Dexter Ward (the screenplay has a lot of fun with that name, having characters chant the whole thing all the time) doesn't feel fully fleshed out so that when his personality is finally submerged under Curwen, there's no sense of loss. Compare it to something like The Shining in which we get to know Jack Torrance intimately before his soul is drained away by the Overlook Hotel, and you get a sense of what The Haunted Palace is missing. The tragedy underneath the surface frights.

Vincent Price is backed up by a great supporting cast in this film, including screen heavy Leo Gordon, everyone's favorite gunsel Elisha Cook Jr., and of course, Lon Chaney Jr., as Joseph Curwen's evil servant Simon. Corman uses every crag and crevice of Chaney's face for maximum spookiness, slathering him in gray-green make-up and letting him pop out of shadows without warning. Chaney's character Simon never makes much sense since we don't know what he is, why he's at the castle waiting for Curwen, or why he serves him. Even Simon doesn't seem to know. At one point, in one of the film's unintentionally funny moments, he asks Curwen to give up this mad idea of resurrecting his dead mistress Hester. 'Cause you know, possessing people, burning them alive, playing with the Necronomicon, and mating unwilling women to monsters, that's all in a day's work, but getting hung up on a girl? That's just not on.

Sadly, this would be the final film for the regal, slightly feline Debra Paget, who was only thirty years old when she stopped making movies. She gives an intelligent and sympathetic performance here, as the frightened, unhappy Ann Ward, determined to stick by her husband no matter how horrible things become. She's also completely gorgeous, so it isn't too much of a surprise when Joseph Curwen takes a momentary pause from his necromantic doings to look lustfully in her direction. In a clever little touch, Corman casts another dark-haired beauty, Cathie Merchant, as Curwen's long-dead mistress, Hester Tillinghast. The two women look enough alike that I was briefly convinced it was the same actress until I checked the billing. Merchant has some nice memories of filming this movie, posted here.

The doubling of Ward's wife and Curwen's mistress doesn't stop with their physical similarities. Corman also links them symbolically in several different shots. In the film's opening, we see the mistress Hester struggling to get to her lover as he is tied and burned at the tree and in the finale, we see Ann throwing herself on her husband at the very same tree, as the flames rise up behind them. There are other, subtler touches. A scene where Hester's gray, decaying corpse rises slowly from her deathbed, Curwen's arms around her, cuts to Ann bolting upright in bed; her wifely instinct is aroused by her husband's touching another woman. Even if it's not really her husband. 

One of the film's creepier and more brilliantly suggestive themes is the gradual switching of roles between the two women. As the film begins, Ann is the happy, lawful wife of Charles Dexter Ward; they discuss things with each other, they're affectionate. Gradually, as Ward becomes submerged by Curwen, Ann finds herself confronted by someone who looks like her husband but isn't, who shouts at her, dismisses her, and frightens her. Curwen initially is disgusted with Ann, longing only to get back to his dead love, but as his efforts to revive Hester continue to fail, he starts to eye her with a little interest. The more Ann shrinks from him, the more he delights in asking for his "rights" as a husband. One scene of Curwen gloatingly demanding a kiss from Ann is more frightening than all of the film's cobwebs and creaky doors put together. It's clear that for Curwen, it's the dead Hester who deserves the rights of the wife and Ann that should be treated like a mistress. While he's using Ward's body, why not use Ann's? All of this climaxes in a you-could-see-it-coming-but-it's-still-brilliant finale with Curwen, whom Ann still believes is her husband, dragging her down to be chained and raped.

The product of these rapes of woman by monster, the aforementioned "mutations" are one of the film's more confusing and fascinating subplots. There's a brief mention of Curwen wanting to use them to bring back the power of the old gods, but we don't get any insight into just how the mutations are supposed to do that and although we see them in the village, sometimes walking around, sometimes being chained in basements, we don't know if they're demented, evil, or even sentient. Even with the lack of explanation and the rather cheap makeup job on them, I found the mutations extremely creepy. I think it's the facelessness of some of them, I always get creeped out by faceless monsters no matter how cheesy the makeup or CGI work. I'll have to go back and read the original Lovecraft story to find out whether these creatures come from Beaumont or Lovecraft.

Charles Beaumont and H.P. Lovecraft are an unlikely marriage of scriptwriter and source material. In his fiction, Lovecraft was obsessed with the undefinable, with horror on the mythic and cosmic scale. His stories frequently harped on the dread of the unnatural and for Lovecraft, the unnatural included any hint of miscegenation, of hereditary taint. The Haunted Palace echoes that theme with its voiceless, mindless mutations, the zombie-like beings that Curwen brought to life through his unholy mating of Arkham's women to demonic entities.

Beaumont on the other hand, known as one of the great Twilight Zone scribes as well as a prolific short-story writer, often had a fascinated sympathy for the misfits and outsiders. His Twilight scripts are peppered with lonely protagonists caught in a world they don't belong in, from the timid bachelor in "Miniature," who finds love with a museum doll, to the ranting prisoner of "Shadow Play," trying hopelessly to convince people that they are stuck in his recurring nightmare. One of Beaumont's more famous short stories, "The Crooked Man," portrayed a dystopian future where heterosexuality is forbidden and a straight couple try furtively to hide their love in a gay bar. Lovecraft hated and feared the deviant; Beaumont reached out to it. Perhaps that is why The Haunted Palace feels a little uncertain of where the greatest horror lies, in Curwen or in his creations. 

The film unfortunately loses steam by the climax and even its final "gotcha" moment is dissatisfying, since it implies that any answers we got about Curwen's powers and the extent of his power over the village weren't really answers at all. Even though Corman does give us a grand set piece of the castle going up in flames, it wasn't enough to dispel my feeling that I had been waltzed right into a Plot Hole Pile-Up. Let's consider a few of these plot holes:

1. We never find out the truth about the mutations and whether or not they are evil or why they keep popping up in the village even during the years when no maidens were being mated to devil gods.

2. We never find out what Curwen's henchmen are and what ties them to Curwen (in fact they disappear at the end of the film).

3. We never get much understanding of what the curse on the village really means.

4. And finally, why are all the villagers just standing there at the end? Why don't they just skewer Curwen? C'mon, the mob from Beauty and the Beast had more moxie than these clowns.

All of these plot holes unfortunately put some dents in an otherwise stylish film. We expect some unanswered questions in horror films, but when they pile up in this fashion, it starts to look like laziness, not mystery. It's a pity, because Corman shoots a grand, fiery climax, perfectly book-ending the beginning, and Price is so good in the ending, flipping between the horrified Charles Dexter Ward and the diabolical Joseph Curwen right up until the very last moment.

The Haunted Palace is a strange meeting of minds, a movie that pays homage to Lovecraft but ultimately feels entirely like a Corman and Price creation. It's frequently stunning, in spite of its clumsy moments, like a good dancing partner that every so often feels the need to just stamp on your toes. The confidence of Corman's camera work, the thundering Ronald Stein score, the beauty of Debra Paget and the wily charm of Vincent Price will probably stay with me far longer than my plot complaints so overall, I have to say, the film works. It's a worthy entry in Roger Corman's long, creative career.

Favorite Quote:

"I advise you, Mr. Ward, to leave this village. I advise you to flee it as you would from a madman with a knife, who feels compelled to destroy you before you can destroy him."

Favorite Scene:

Hands down, the film's creepiest, most flesh-crawling scene is the moment where the mutations converge on Charles Dexter Ward and Ann. It starts slowly, with Ward and Ann walking through the streets of Arkham, shrouded in that ever-present mist, when suddenly they come upon one of the faceless mutations, shuffling silently towards them . They whirl away as suddenly another starts coming towards them. The camera whirls with the hapless Wards as more and more mutations arrive until suddenly the couple find themselves trapped, as these beings corral them for...who knows what purpose? Then suddenly, in the distance, the church bells start to ring. Church bells, even in Arkham. And then, with no explanation, the mutations turn and limp away. Driven away by God, fear, we don't know. We never find out. But in this case, explanations didn't matter to me. It was still chilling.

Final Six Words: 

Conventional yet compelling, stylish Corman horror

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Reminder: The Roger Corman Blogathon Starts Tomorrow

This is your friendly neighborhood blog, The Girl with the White Parasol, stopping by to spread the word that Nathanael, over at Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear, is hosting the Roger Corman Blogathon. Starting tomorrow, from June 17 through June 19th, film bloggers will be posting their Corman film reviews. It looks like we've got a good line-up going, ranging from the stylish Poe thrillers right up to the offbeat exploitation films like Boxcar Bertha. Although I can't figure out why nobody pounced on It Conquered the World--maybe next time.

I've pledged to post my review of The Haunted Palace on the 18th. See you then.

Movie Review: Angel

Angel (1937) 
directed by Ernst Lubitsch, starring Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, Melvyn Douglas

In the salons of the Grand Duchess Anna Dmitrievna (Laura Hope Crews), two people meet by chance. Diplomat Anthony "Tony" Halton (Melvyn Douglas), who's looking for an attractive escort to show him around Paris, and a beautiful, mysterious woman (Marlene Dietrich), who excites his imagination. Because she refuses to tell him her name, he knows her only as "Angel." After a dreamlike interlude in the park, she runs away from him and while he searches for his elusive Angel, a woman known as Maria returns to her husband, the illustrious British diplomat, Sir Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall). Frederick and Maria are widely acknowledged as the perfect couple. As they like to joke to each other, they can't even find anything to quarrel about. But their marriage faces its test when Tony Halton discovers that his heart's ideal and Sir Frederick's ideal wife are the same woman.

Angel marks an ending point in the careers of both Marlene Dietrich and Ernst Lubitsch. It was Dietrich's last role before Destry Rides Again permanently changed her onscreen image. 1937 was not a happy year for Dietrich's career; both Angel and the Korda epic Knight Without Armor flopped. In 1937, Ernst Lubitsch was nearing the end of his Paramount years and the unenthusiastic reception of Angel and the following year's Bluebeard's Eighth Wife showed that the master's golden touch was looking a little coppery. He would come back and how with Ninotchka in 1939, but Angel shows both he and Dietrich trying fitfully to adjust to the cinematic standards of Post-Code Hollywood.

At first glance, the plot seems like it's heading in the same fun, frothy direction of Lubitsch's Pre-Code classics, Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living. In Trouble in Paradise, the dashing thief Gaston has to choose between his partner in crime and the lovely victim of his con game. He goes for the fellow thief, but the film doesn't make an issue of Gaston's infidelity; he's simply responding to the attractions of both women. Design for Living goes even further by having the love triangle resolve into a happy ménage à trois. Both films suggest that monogamy is pretty much unimportant in the quest for romantic happiness. Angel starts out as yet another variation on the Lubitsch triangle, with Marlene Dietrich navigating what appears to be the beginning of a bedroom farce.

However, Angel has something a little more serious in mind. In other Lubitsch films, infidelity was more of a game. It was also something relegated entirely to bedrooms and parlors and the sophisticated, private worlds of elegant people. Here, there is no question of privacy; Maria Barker's very public role as the perfect wife means that she can't act only to please herself.  Her choice between two lovers is made even more uneasy by the fact that both of them are diplomats and whichever she chooses, she will be subjected to the same scrutiny. This point is hammered home in a scene where her husband's servant natters on about how the Barkers' marriage has been his own romantic ideal. Lubitsch carries the point further in a later moment at a horse race. Just as the servant and his fiance are watching her through binoculars, Maria looks through her own pair and sees the man she met in Paris. There is no possibility of escape for Maria; her public and private worlds are inextricably linked.

Lubitsch does some beautiful visual work in this film. I love the way his camera sweeps leisurely through each room of the Grand Duchess' salons and the way it slides smoothly down the length of a musician's violin to the lovers he is serenading, connecting them both in one serenely romantic moment. The grace of his Paris sequences is sharply contrasted with his introduction to Marshall in one brusque pan across the windows of a moving train, Marshall's back to the camera as a furiously upbeat march pounds away in the background.  Whenever Marshall makes an appearance in the film, the editing turns staccato, highlighting his character's busy, distracted nature. There are also some moments of great visual shorthand; Maria's anxiety is masterfully sketched out in a brief shot of a maid carrying away an overflowing ashtray in the early hours of the morning.

It's hard to admit, with all the intelligence and craft put into this picture that, "Well, it just isn't much fun." For one thing, the pace lags, which is not a typical problem for a Lubitsch film. After two grand introductions to Marlene's character, first as the reluctant lover and then as the gentle wife, we are treated to scene after scene of the Barkers' stifling marriage. These scenes don't build on each other but rather seem to sleepwalk. The couple make polite chitchat, Dietrich looks uncomfortable, Marshall oblivious, and then back to square one. After a while it all becomes a snooze, especially when both actors are obviously not at their best. 

Marlene Dietrich is fine in her early scenes, flirting with Melvyn Douglas, but when she has to start playing the trophy wife, it becomes clear that she has absolutely no clue how to play demure. You can almost gauge her uncertainty by how much she bats her eyelashes per scene. The more stilted her acting, the more she butterflies those lashes. As for Herbert Marshall, it pains me to say this, since I've loved him in other roles, but he is completely colorless here. In order for the story to work, there has to be some sense that Marshall's workaholic diplomat is capable of the same ardent passion as his rival. But there isn't and during Marshall's scenes, my mind wandered to more interesting concerns, like wondering if this film's thesis was that European diplomats in the 1930s were spending way too much time on their work.
Melvyn Douglas (one of my favorites) is polished in an underwritten role. His role here can be considered a dry run for Ninotchka: the suave, callow gentleman that reacts with happy bewilderment to the screen goddess who's wandered into his path. In Angel, however, Douglas doesn't have a crackling Brackett and Wilder script to buoy him up. His tendency to underplay, combined with an uneasy Dietrich and somnolent Marshall, makes the love triangle feel less important than it needs to be. And considering the film's reluctance to implicate Dietrich in any adultery, his character's lovelorn obsession feels pretty one-sided.  That's post-Code romance for you; one kiss on a moonlit park bench is enough to turn a man into a transcontinental stalker.

And that ultimately is Angel's problem: the demands of the Code. The film feels like an uneasy transition from the giddy Paramount comedies of the early 30s into Post-Code morality, where marriage is sacrosanct. Angel is too sober, too cautious, too coy about the realities of sex or marriage and as a result, it doesn't manage to say much about anything. There are touches of wit here and there (for example, Douglas and Marshall bonding over their shared memories of the same French prostitute), but the film is ultimately more interesting as a way station in the careers of Dietrich and Lubitsch than it is as a story. It's most worthwhile for the beauty of its visuals, for the elegance of its camera work. The final shot is a lovely, wordless moment of reconciliation that feels exactly right. Or would, if Angel had earned it. 

Favorite Quote: 

"I don't want to know your name. Whatever it is, it wouldn't suit you."

Favorite Scene:

Maria's recounting of an erotic dream to her bemused husband Sir Frederick. First, she describes her arrival at the League of Nations, dressed to the nines, while her husband drones on and on. The dream-Maria escapes, goes to Egypt, Arabia, circling the globe, only to come back and find her husband still talking. So she drags him away and they return home. "The next thing I remember, we were here at home and you were beating me...I'm afraid to tell you, I liked it. Then you started to kiss me." Frederick responds to this epic confession of Maria's desires with a slight smile and asks, "Did you like that, too?" Maria smiles back. "Better than ever before. And then you carried me upstairs." The dream ends there, but Dietrich's flirtatious delivery of this speech will certainly linger in my memory.

Final Six Words:

Elegant, unhappy story of love lost