Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Blue Angel (von Sternberg. 1930)

"Falling in love again. Never wanted to. What am I to do? I can't help it...."

Do you remember Charlie Sheen’s short, but hilarious, cameo in John Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Isn’t it kind of sad how that performance sort of became his real life? Sometimes great movies can become rather sad because they foreshadow the life and careers of its stars. This is the case with the first ever German sound film, The Blue Angel. And though I loved this film, I cannot help but be saddened by the later life of Emil Jannings.

If you remember back to my write up of The Last Laugh, you know that Emil Jannings was the first man to ever receive an Academy Award for Best Actor. I called him the greatest dramatic silent film actor that I had ever seen. All of this still remains the truth, and even his talking performance in The Blue Angel is spectacular. He was an outstanding actor of very high esteem. But all of this changed less than a decade after the release of this film.

The Blue Angel follows the story of a grumpy college professor named Immanuel Rath. After the teacher’s pet rats out on his classmates’ activities, Rath ventures over to a burlesque show, of sorts, at a local dive club (The Blue Angel). He does this in order to catch his students partaking in vulgar entertainment. Rather than catching his students, he catches eyes with the star of the show, Lola. Through a series of chivalrous gestures, they begin to fall in love with each other. Or at least that is what it looks like.

Lola is played by the legendary sex symbol, Marlene Dietrich. This is the film that introduced the world to her signature song, "Falling in Love Again." It is also the film that catapulted her into mainstream superstardom. In The Blue Angel, Dietrich plays a cabaret performer and “shared woman” who supposedly falls in love with the Professor. After she marries him (and forces him to step down from the college), she barrels through all of her new husbands’ savings – reducing him to a role of a clown in her stage act in order to help pay bills. Lola is a femme fatale if film has ever seen one. The audience feels uneasy about her from the beginning. They hate her by the end.

I say that this film reminds me of Emil Jannings’ life because of the dramatic fall from grace that the main character suffers. And though we want to feel bad for him, we know that he brought all of it onto himself. Like Professor Rath, Jannngs was in a highly respected position in the world. Rath’s downward spiral was caused by the love of an unfit woman, and resulted in him becoming a stage clown. Jannings’ fall was caused by the love of his country, and resulted in him looking like a clown to the rest of the world. In the early years of the Third Reich, Jannings was an outspoken supporter of the Nazi party. He would even speak at rallies while holding his Academy Award. He made several pro-Nazi films in the late 30’s and early 40’s. Once the war was over there was no hope for a Jannings comeback in the United States. He had burned his bridge.

The Blue Angel
is the first ever sound film made in Germany. It is also widely considered the first great sound film ever made. This makes it the precursor to the cinematic masterpiece, M – so its importance should not be understated. Nazi or not, we are again treated to an amazing performance by an all time great Emil Jannings. And we also get to witness the silver-screen rise of Marlene Dietrich. This is a heartbreaking, emotional and sometimes funny foreign film from the early days of sound. I strongly recommend The Blue Angel.

The Blue Angel: B+

My Next Film....Suspiria (Argento. 1977)

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