The Lubitsch Touch

Angel (1937 film)

Angel (1937 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know I’ve been focusing more on Doctor Who related things on this blog lately (and I’ll have a review of the fifth Doctor Who story up soon), but I was just able to watch Ernst Lubitsch’s Angel, which is, I think, a very overlooked film.  I’m a big Lubitsch fan, so I was excited to have the opportunity to see this classic film in an old-fashioned movie theatre.

The plot involves a love triangle, as much of Lubitsch’s early films do.  The film begins with Tony Halton (Melvyn Douglas) visiting the salon of the Grand Duchess Anna, looking for, well, since this story is from 1937, I’ll say companionship.  It’s implied that the Grand Duchess can arrange private meetings for two, and Halton is looking to have some fun while he’s in Paris.  It just so happens that bored housewife Maria stops by to visit the Grand Duchess at this point.  It has been years since she has last seen the Grand Duchess, and the Grand Duchess is unaware of her current marital status.  Of course, Maria ends up meeting Halton in the salon, and agrees to meet him for dinner.  There is an instant attraction between the two, but Maria does not want names exchanged, so Halton calls her Angel.  She asks him to promise to never look for her, but he refuses.  However, after their romantic tryst, Angel disappears, but Halton does not give up searching for her.

Maria returns home to London, where we find out that she is married to Sir Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall), a workaholic diplomat, trying to keep Europe from dissolving into war.  The scenes with Maria and Frederick lack the sexiness of the scenes with Halton, but that is the point.  Frederick loves Maria and thinks that they are a model of domestic bliss.  It’s clear that at one point, this was true, but since that happy time, Maria is always forced to play second fiddle to his work.


The plot thickens when Frederick meets Halton, and the two men strike up a friendship.  It turns out that their taste in women has always been quite similar because during the war, they shared a “seamstress.”  Halton tells Frederick about his Angel, completely unaware that he is speaking of Maria, Frederick’s wife.  An invitation extended to Halton brings him to Frederick’s home, where he discovers the truth about his Angel.  The end of the movie brings the action back to Paris, where decisions must be made, and the messy triangle gets wrapped up rather neatly.

I would have liked to have seen what Lubitsch (and screenwriter Sam Raphaelson) would have done with this story in the pre-code era.  Really, Lubitsch manages to make a sexy film without have any sex or direct reference to sex on the screen.    The envelope is still pushed in this film by the not so subtle implied sexuality of the characters, but I don’t think the ending would have been quite so neat, if it were not required.

This film also has the traditional Lubitsch trademark of not shooting what you would expect him to in key moments.  For example, Halton leaves Angel for a moment to go buy her some violets from an old woman who is selling violets in a basket.  When he turns back to Angel, she is gone.  Instead of showing Halton looking for Angel, Lubitsch stays with the old woman.  We see her watch Halton search, and hear him call out to Angel.  Finally, we see her walk over to where Angel had been sitting, pick up the violets from the ground, dust them off, and finally put them in her basket,ready to be sold again.  Without seeing Halton again, we know exactly what happened and the image of the woman putting the violets in her basket is more memorable and heartbreaking than seeing Halton’s reaction would have been.

Overall, Angel might not be the best Lubitsch film, but it’s still a good one.  How this film has been so overlooked with Dietrich, Douglas, and Marshall in film written by Sam Raphaelson and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, I’m not sure.  It walks a delicate line between comedy and melodrama, and has a great performance from Marlene Dietrich.  Its plot still feels very fresh and it clearly demonstrates that “Lubitsch touch.”