The Blue Angel (1930)

blueangel1The Blue Angel is the name of a nightclub and it turns out to be a very fateful nightclub indeed. It just takes us a while to figure out why. Although Josef Von Sternberg’s film is known, rightly so, for making a star out of Marlene Dietrich — in the first of their 6 collaborations — this early German sound film is nevertheless about the decline and fall of Emil Janning’s character. Immanuel Rath begins as a professor at the local college, and although his pupils are unruly, he commands the utmost respect. He sees it as his prerogative, and he is quick to bring order and discipline to these young lads. But boys will be boys and they become corrupted by the beautiful cabaret singer Lola-Lola (Marlene Dietrich). One evening the professor drops into the seedy joint to look out for some of his troublemakers and talk with the proprietor. Of course, he unwittingly ends up meeting the gorgeous girl backstage and returns the following evening with a seemingly very flimsy excuse.

Ironically, his boys are not the only one who take a liking to her. The once restrained and reserved man of learning begins to change. He becomes a man obsessed and infatuated beyond the point of logic. But what does he care? He enjoys being in Lola’s company and the idea of a marriage proposal makes complete sense in the reverie that he is swimming in. So they do get married. The professor leaves all the common sense behind and goes on the road traveling with his wife and their promoter.

blueangel2But by this point, he is a sorry figure, so pitiful and bedraggled in every way. He reluctantly parades himself in front of audiences as a clown just to make some money for him and his wife. It is, of course, inevitable that he return back to his old stomping ground, and it does eventually happen. He reluctantly goes onstage and it is difficult to watch this final chapter. Lola is no longer his. He’s completely ruined. Completely destroyed. Oh how far the man has fallen, as he winds up keeled over on top of his former desk in the gymnasium.

I think I enjoyed Emil Janning’s in The Last Laugh more and yet to its credit The Blue Angel does not cop out in the end. It has a tragic trajectory that in some ways feels like a precursor to such noir as Scarlet Street and Nightmare Alley. It’s understandable how Dietrich became a star because stars have the capability of drawing your attention. Janning’s gives a wonderful performance certainly, but the allure of Dietrich is too much to discount. She steals the show just like she steals the Professor’s heart. We’re just “Falling in Love Again and we Can’t Help It.”

4/5 Stars

The Last Laugh (1924)

lastlaugh1Without sound, silent films become almost a completely visual medium and there was no one more visually-minded than German director F.W. Murnau. Aside from the opening title card and a message to begin the epilogue, he stays away from that kind of aid to tell his story and instead relies wholly on the image. His film does, however, boast a vibrant score, so that fills the void in the absence of dialogue.

Emil Jannings, the rotund, mustachioed leading man, stars as the veteran hotel porter, who is demoted to bathroom attendant due to his age and frailties. And it’s true that he always seems bent over and perpetually weary, but it only gets worse when he loses his esteemed position as the symbol of The Atlantic Hotel. Before he stood beaming ear to ear in his prim and pressed uniform that reflected his status. Then, he winds up towel in hand, resigned to stay hidden away in the bathroom. Now everyone could care less about him. It’s a tragic trajectory that this story takes.

The film opens at the lavish hotel which feels very similar to the grand hotel, and this along with the man’s apartment building are the main locations that Murnau works with. And he does set up his scenes so interestingly, whether it’s around a revolving door in the hotel or the staircase in the apartment. He’s constantly giving us a perspective of things with wonderfully textured, layered shots exemplified sublimely in such moments as Jannings superhuman feat carrying the large chest. Murnau gives it a wonderfully dreamy, ethereal quality, the way he clouds the frame. He also uses his actors in dynamic ways to fill the space in front of us. It hardly ever feels static or boring for that matter, because there’s almost always something of interest to be looking at.

lastlaugh2This is a very heart-wrenching film, because, in a sense, at its core, it’s about aging gracefully and trying to navigate that season of life. Because, the reality is that, each one of us will grow old. Our bodies won’t be able to function like they used to. Our feet will grow weaker. Our eyes will become tired more easily. We can completely understand this man’s plight. He has pride and the shame of acknowledging his demotion is too much for him to bear. He tries to hide it, from the wife and from the neighbors, but, of course, they find out. His family is ashamed and his neighbors belittle him with glee. The saddest thing is this doorman is not a bad fellow, as illustrated by how he comforted a little girl who was being made fun of. He’s a good man, and he deserves better than this and yet life very often is not just. The gossips and the connivers seem to get ahead. The beatitude, the first shall be last, hardly ever seems to be true. In fact, the film pauses with the following title card:

“Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.”

There is a major shift in tone as the doorman is left a huge sum of money rather unexpectedly, and he spends the days now eating heartily and generously tipping all his former colleagues at the hotel. It almost feels like a completely different story, and it’s the ending that we want as an audience. Except still lurking in the back of our minds is that this is very rarely reality. But there is some satisfaction that at least in this case Emil Jannings had The Last Laugh.

This film is literally a piece of film history that has thankfully been reconstructed for our viewing pleasure and I’m thoroughly glad it was. I’ve only seen Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which is magnificent. However, after watching this earlier work it made me realize I need to examine more of his filmography, including Nosferatu (1922), Faust (1926), City Girl (1930), and Tabu (1931).

4.5/5 Stars