"I . . . I don't know how you feel about . . ." Angel (1937, dir. Ernst Lubitsch)

"The Lubitsch Touch" just closed at the Film Forum in New York: two weeks of films from the German master, and it seems that, at least for a moment, he's back in fashion. Although Ernst Lubitsch has never been truly ignored—films like Trouble in Paradise (1932) and To Be or Not to Be (1942) have stayed in the hearts and minds of cinephiles through the decades—a great many of his films have, and to no surprise. Lubitsch's career spans far longer than most care to remember, beginning in the mid 1910s and stretching about thirty years to 1946 with Cluny Brown (although that depends whether you consider That Lady in Ermine [1948] a Lubitsch film). He made a total of 44 feature films, 17 (or 18) of which were sound.

Lubitsch fell out of fashion for a while in his own time, too. William Paul's Ernst Lubitsch's American Comedy (1983) and James Harvey's Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturges (1987) point to the 1930s as a time of great aesthetic change in the comedy. Films like It Happened One Night (1934), Twentieth Century (1934), and My Man Godfrey (1936) were making American comedy screwball. By 1937, when Ernst Lubitsch directed Angel, that style of comedy had solidified, leaving Lubitsch's elegant, controlled, even subtle comedies looking perhaps a little slow and dated—just as they seem to some today. Although Angel received some positive reviews, it was generally poorly received, and a major financial failure.

As previously stated though, films like Trouble in Paradise never really have gone out of fashion. They've enjoyed lasting critical favor, if not the same popularity that other classics like Bringing Up Baby (1938) have. One film, however, has only just begun to find its ardent supporters—this writer one of them—and that is the aforementioned failure Angel

The film has been ignored in several books on Lubitsch, including Lubitsch Can't Wait, which includes an entire essay about polyamory in Lubitsch, yet no reference to Angel, as well as Leland A. Poague's Cinema of Ernst Lubitsch, who admits to having never seen the film.

And yet, the plot is quintessential Lubitsch: the unhappily married woman, Lady Maria Barker (Marlene Dietrich), the brief romance with Anthony Halton (Melvyn Douglas) under false pretenses, the oblivious cuckolded husband-British diplomat Sir Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall), snobbish servants in his home, the accidental meeting of Maria's oblivious husband and less oblivious lover, and the strained ménage à trois evening they spend together (at least on Maria and Anthony's part) . . . Scott Eyman, in his Lubitsch biography Laughter in Paradise (1993), notes the plot's potential service for a screwball comedy of the time. He ultimately lambasts the film, however, calling it by "any standards [...] a failure," an "aesthetic mistake," diagnosing the film's problem thusLubitsch and his screenwriter (frequent collaborator) Samuel Raphaelson "don’t dig deep enough, and they didn’t cast actors who could suggest deep emotional confusion underneath the requisite placid surface."

Where Eyman goes wrong becomes evident in his suggestion that the film could have been a "fine screwball comedy" if played "faster, for confusion and duplicity" or a "moving, albeit contrived, romantic drama" if with "more inflection, with more expressive leading men, or more of a sense of emotional commitment." Eyman seems to completely misunderstand Angel—he sees it as a film that can't make up its mind and ends up muddled, between comedy and drama.

Geoffrey O'Brien, in his recent article on the retrospective "The Magician of Delight" for the New York Review of Books, more astutely recognizes the comedic register Lubitsch is playing at: "a beautiful application of comic style—dry and precisely trimmed off at the edges—to the sympathetic treatment of three rather frail humans caught up in a melodramatic situation."

James Harvey also seems more aware of Angel's stylistic complexity, although he too shares Eyman's dissenting view on the film. Summing up the film rather pithily, in a passage discussing Lubitsch's use of doors for manifold purposes, foremost in their abilities to conceal and to obscure, he describes Angel as the "the movie equivalent of one of those doors […] a whole film that expressed itself through a closed and impassive surface."

Harvey goes on to critique the film's "novelettish talk, full of women's-magazine sentiment and psychology" as the problem. One might forgive Harvey for taking the dialogue to be indicative of the film's meaning and beliefs. Although he doesn't offer specifics except for the line "I am a woman and it is the privilege of a woman not to make sense. Men who expect women to be logical are likely to be failures in love," which he condemns as lacking any ambiguity whatsoever, the problem lies in that he takes what a character says to be what the film is saying. William Paul acknowledges this very fallacy, especially with Angel, where he sees Lubitsch's directorial voice as especially experimental for its mutedness. Paul argues that the film's muted point-of-view reinforces the dialectic nature of the characters' words, noting that thematic ideas and concerned are delivered with more than the usual amount of bluntness for a Lubitsch film (Harvey's cited line would fall into this), which deliberately undermines their effectiveness. Lubitsch does not back up the characters' thoughts and opinions with visual metaphors as he would in previous films, because he does not endorse them explicitly.

Paul likewise notes the film's muted acting style, something that Eyman reads as simply insufficiently capable actors (a ridiculous claim on the part of Marshall, at the least, that I shall not stand for). Paul sees it as Lubitsch maintaining a unity of discreteness, of "grey-tones" throughout the film, or as Harvey would put it "impassive." Both Harvey and Eyman see Angel for what it is—an abnormally discrete, tonally quiet film where the director seems to have taken a vow of silence, and refuses to show anything for what it is—and yet neither can see what that means for the film itself. The central relationship in the film, between Maria and Frederick, revolves entirely around Frederick's inability to recognize the emotions in Maria, and Lubitsch challenges us as well to find it in her actions, in her attitudes, rather than showing it outright. 

One of the major differences between Lubitsch's romantic triangles and other directors is the sympathy afforded to all, rather than seeing one party as being unworthy or an outright jerk (I think of King Westley in It Happened One Night or Jack Carson's Ward Willoughby in Love Crazy [1941]). This fairness for all becomes pertinent in how Lubitsch portrays the flaws of his characters.

After the opening act—Maria and Anthony's night together—the film is almost literally interrupted by the loud roar of a train, the loudest noise in the film up to that point. On the train is Sir Frederick Barker, and for the rest of the film, he will be plagued by interruptions, and those are the interruptions that cause problems. He does not beat, or abuse Maria, and he genuinely loves her very much, if not very well. However, just as his train interrupts the romance of the film, the constant phone calls and telegrams and duties he has interrupt his marriage. He does not wish to "interrupt" Maria's sleep when he finds her in his bed, so he goes to the other room—his servant Graham (Edward Everett Horton) knocks on his door, expecting him, waking her up anyway with an official telegram. When the married couple find themselves together subsequently, in the midst of romance, that telegram pops back up, dragging him away. And again later on in the film when the two are socializing with Anthony, he is called away, literalizing the threat to the marriage that these interruptions are in giving Anthony the opportunity to talk to Maria alone. The Barkers' vacation, one that Maria had been very much looking forward to, is interrupted by official business. Lubitsch creates a very specific and problematic reason for Maria's unhappiness that ultimately is Frederick's fault, but he never suggests it as a reason to dislike him, as it may have been framed in another film.

In discussing the flower lady sequence earlier in the film, Paul notes that Lubitsch's camera lingers on the flower lady, capturing her transition from sympathy for Anthony's trouble to "calculation" as he picks up his flower to hopefully resell, not to simply capture a sardonic punchline, but to encompass both emotions, as co-existing, "that it is possible to be both calculating and emotionally engaged at the same time." The same point exists for Frederick's absence in marriage: he may be both distracted and emotionally engaged. 

This attitude towards people's motivations certainly demonstrates a maturity that Harvey doesn't quite account for, especially as we see it multiplied across characters, across situations. This almost Bressonian acting style that permeates the film, lines delivered simply, faces remaining unexpressive, is too controlled and too sustained to be the result of poor actors, all of whom demonstrate expressiveness elsewhere in their careers. 

The overall simplicity of the film's visual construction, especially compared to earlier Lubitsch films, is reflected in those "closed and impassive surfaces" which, like the door at the end of the film that Frederick, we must decide whether to go through or not. We must make the conscious effort to see in Maria, or Anthony, or Frederick, the emotions that they are not openly providing us. We must open those doors, and if we find on the other side, like Frederick, nothing but an empty room, almost oppressive in its negative space, we must recognize what that means, too.

This artfulness of indirection is completely fitting with the temperament of early 20th century literature, yet its place in film evidently was too mature. I think of what Virginia Woolf wrote about Middlemarch—that it is "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." 

I'm trying to imagine myself years and years ago watching this film, and I wonder what I would have thought. Would I have recognized what all the emptiness of expression and of rooms meant? Would I have appreciated the ability for Maria to love both Frederick and Anthony, albeit both in specific ways? Would I have recognized the distinctly political overtone to Frederick's character, that he must decide whether his duty to his country or his duty to his wife was more important? And, would I have found the gentleness of style so beautiful—the linger on the flower lady, Frederick hesitating to awaken his wife (who has slept in his bed . . . to wait for him? or, not expecting him back, to be closer to him in some way?), or Maria silently joining Frederick to leave, to try again—would this have meant anything for me, as someone so inexperienced in love and life? Angel, far from an immature, undeveloped failure, is one of the few Hollywood films made for grown-up people.

Works Cited/Further Reading:
Bowman, Barbara. Maste Space: Film Images of Capra, Lubitsch, Sternberg and Wyler. New York: Greenwood, 1992. Print.
Eyman, Scott. Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. Print.
Harvey, James. Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturges. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1987. Print.
Novak, Ivana, Mladen Dolar, and Jela Krečič. Lubitsch Can't Wait: A Theoretical Examination. New York: Columbia UP, 2014. Print.
O'Brien, Geoffrey. "The Magician of Delight." The New York Review of Books. The New York Review of Books, 1 June 2017. Web. 16 June 2017.
Paul, William. Ernst Lubitsch's American Comedy. New York: Columbia UP, 1983. Print.
Pinkerton, Nick. "The Importance of Being Ernst." Artforum.com. Artforum, 2 June 2017. Web. 16 June 2017.
Poague, Leland A. The Cinema of Ernst Lubitsch. South Brunswick, A.S. Barnes, 1978. Print.
Smedley, Nick. A Divided World: Hollywood Cinema and Émigré Directors in the Era of Roosevelt and Hitler, 1933-1948. Chicago: UChicago Press, 2011. Print.
Weinberg, H.G. The Lubitsch Touch: A Critical Study. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1968. Print.


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