Wait for the Moment When: In The Blue Angel

lolalola

…when Professor Rath (Emil Jannings) shuts himself in his chaotic study¤ to peruse the lubricious postcards of Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich) confiscated from his somewhat mature high school pupils. His pose anticipates the fascinated KING KONG examining a doll-like Fay Wray cradled in his palm.¤¤ With the guilty furtiveness of a pornographer, he blows on the feathered card (bird imagery saturates a film which begins aptly with a shot of women loading geese into coops). The fronds fly up to reveal the Dietrich stocking tops and thighs, the objects of his coming destruction. Dissolve to Lola Lola in person, singing a jaunty rude song¥ full of triple entendre, on the stage of the Blue Angel cabaret.

Which itself is like a disturbed child’s cut-out toy theatre jam-packed with grotesques. As a director Von Sternberg, like de Mille, believed in giving the viewer plenty to look at. Moribund obese girls sit drinking beer passed up to them by the even fatter landlord; cut-out cherubs, sunbursts, fountains, clouds, stuffed seagulls and anchors hang over their heads. Nets are draped around like sticky cobwebs. Phallic symbols abound. Lola Lola is shot from below to give us an eyeful of beautiful legs,# pearly plump thighs and suspenders. (The bemused and besotted Professor will be later commanded to roll on Lola’s stockings for her). Dietrich wears the first of a collector’s wardrobe of weirdly fetishist costumes, a shimmering strappy maillot of black sequins with a spangled butterfly in her tong-frizzed hair. Here is Marlene but not as we later knew her: grubby, cheerfully greedy, stupid, sexy and (initially) rather endearing, even loveable, wiping the beer from her lips with the end of her sash. Lola is a dirty postcard come to life. She seems devoid of emotions, an easy-going tart who preys idly on men to relieve her ennui and only incidentally for whatever rewards are going – a bottle of Sekt, a pineapple, a fur coat and in the Professor’s case an offer of marriage, accepted for a laugh. But her eyes light up like a serpent’s, like those a beast of prey as the Professor peers in through the filthy windows and stumbles into the Blue Angel to be entangled in the fishing nets: Lola turns a stage spotlight onto him as he struggles like a bluebottle caught by a plump blonde spider in backless transparent panniers. Her closeup then is astonishing, not for the ethereal beauty revealed in SHANGHAI EXPRESS or BLONDE VENUS, but she because she looks dangerously mad, an erotic Lumpen vampire. She has come to life with the smell of fresh blood and found something to do with her evening.

As you’d expect from a case study of sadomasochism, the film delights in casual images of cruelty, nastiness and threat. A dead canary is thrown into the stove by a shrewish landlady, a muzzled bear is pulled through the dressing rooms, moths burn in the lyrics of Lola’s song, an emasculated dumb clown mourns and gawps. The Professor bullies his pupils: they trip, entrap and spank the class sneak. Everyone shouts, fights, sneers and blusters – and lives in dread of the police. The characters in this most interior & claustrophobic of films crash, push and trample around like stockaded cattle. Lola’s frilled knickers (dropped, inspected, pocketed, used as a hanky) become the focus of everyone’s attention. It’s like a crazy drunken nightmare: and like a dream it is carnal, comic, surreal and terrifying by turns, each quality taken to extremes. As in a dream, too, the setting is vague and timeless. The very first shot of the movie is of Grimm/ Expressionist rooftops & gables establishing a dark Hansel and Gretl territory where any horrors may happen. There is no sense of a particular era: the studio streets are crooked medieval alleys and it is a shock when we briefly see the cast wearing fashions of 1929. There is a curious echo of THE BLUE ANGEL in Tod Browning’s much-banned FREAKS (1932): both as regards similarities of plot, setting, atmosphere, and in the climax of both films. The last few minutes of THE BLUE ANGEL achieve a rare pinnacle of hand-over-mouth horror as the pervasive bird motif explodes* once again back on the stage of the cabaret. (Wait for the moment when Hans Albers unpacks the straitjacket…).

This was intended to be Jannings’s film**, not Dietrich’s. His is the name above the title. The later fate of the cast after Hitler came to power is bizarre, extraordinary and tragic enhancing both the gloom and magnetism of the film. Marlene took American citizenship and metamorphosed into the most enigmatic and enduring of 20th century movie legends; for my money she was never again as good on screen as in The BLUE ANGEL. A luminous, unearthly and impossible glamour replaced her earlier liveliness and spontaneity. Her lover Von Sternberg helped her realise her potential as one of the most startlingly beautiful women of the cinema; but even as he laid the foundation for her legend Von Sternberg came close to ruining her as an actress. In 1929 Dietrich was heavier but sprightlier; and so assured, so natural, so spontaneous, so entirely within character – “she doesn’t ‘act’ common – she IS “. THE BLUE ANGEL is one of those rare and wonderful films when a star personality, a director’s vision and a script come together perfectly. As Marlene tugs at her crotch, snaps her suspenders and clucks like a hen we gaze fascinated at one of the great instinctive performances of cinema history.

This sinister hypnotic gripping film is as rich in the suggestion of stale, disturbing, invasive smells as it is in its startling and thrilling exploration of the new sound technology***. Dietrich herself was one of history’s great perfume lovers. In the movie our olfactory imaginations are constantly stimulated: cosmetics, creams and a large atomiser on Lola’s dressing table; face powder blown in the Professor’s eyes, endless cigarettes and unclean silk stockings; sweat, hair oil, burning hair and papers; cheap make up, ratty old clothes and wigs; chalk, dust and decay, slopped beer, pigs trotters with sauerkraut, “the roar of the crowd, the smell of the greasepaint”. And of course those eternal knickers. Even the Professor’s name is repeatedly corrupted from Rath to Unrath (“excrement”, by your leave). Which leads our noses into the animal stenches of lust, sex and body fluids. No wonder THE BLUE ANGEL was banned in Germany outright after 1933. The prurient, sensory realism of the post-Inflationary Weimar depression – the smell of moral rot – had no place in the Nazis’ own hellish version of puritan hygienic nightmare.

¤ we have already been told that it smells.

¤¤ and, as in KONG, here too it is Beauty that kills the Beast, after first driving him mad.

¥ “It’s not that one…it’s the other one..” M.D.

# “Sweetheart, the legs aren’t so wonderful, I just know what to do with them” – M.D.

* just as Olga Baclanova ends up in the sawdust as the mutilated Human Chicken in FREAKS.

** as LW witnessed at a London screening about 20 years ago. An elderly German woman stood in the aisle crooning “Ach! Der Jannings! Der Jannings!” until implored to sit by a packed house. In the foyer afterwards, another woman asked her husband, “So – who was Marlene?” As Barbara Windsor once said to LW: “Manic, innit?”

*** THE BLUE ANGEL was Germany’s first major talkie.

EMIL JANNINGS 1884 – 1950
MARLENE DIETRICH 1901 – 1992

Woman in a Dressing Gown

From http://notreallyworking.co.uk

A universal cliche holds it as a truth that you cannot portray or even talk about perfume on film or tv without extreme difficulty: ” they can’t smell it, don’t you see?”. I don’t at all agree, holding with that apocryphal but accurate endorsement of radio that the pictures on the wireless are better. I believe that imaginary smells may be more pungent if the correct stimuli are applied to the senses. Do you remember that gruesome children’s game – was it Murderer in the Dark?  – when we all sat in a circle with the lights off while peeled grapes, lumps of meat, pickled onions and egg yolks were passed from hand to hand, purporting to be parts of a dismembered corpse? (Childhood still retained its innocence in the 1950’s). Parents worked very hard preparing the objects for this tableau vivant and there’s no doubt it left a lasting impact on the players and the development of their imaginations.

If you think about it, film has always been able to suggest smell and scent; using them as part of the holistic mood of a movie. I don’t mean that handful of novelty features which pumped smells into the auditorium or used scratch cards to release odours on cue.(“Smell-o-vision” being one such process). No. I’m talking about aromas released in the viewer’s head via the screenplay, the dialogue, the camera. “Out of the character comes the movement; and out of the movement comes the dialogue”, Louise Brooks used to say. Maybe out of the camera comes the perfume.

And out of the vision of a gifted director. Think of Germany’s first talkie, Dietrich’s breakthrough picture The Blue Angel. Setting the action mainly in schoolrooms and the backstage of  tavern cabarets Von Sternberg enhances his banal and sordid theme with a battery of smells, mostly unsavoury, implied by sets, characters and action. A dead canary thrown into the stove, a performing bear, Marlene’s knickers repeatedly gloated over by the camera, face powder blown in Emil Jannings’ face, tatty costumes, beer, cheap champagne,coffee, smoke, tobacco, broken eggs, a pineapple, chalk dust, old books, sweaty wigs…well, see for yourselves sometime. Then take a deep breath on Sunset Boulevard. I don’t know whether (as Caron used to claim) Billy Wilder really sprayed the sets with Narcisse Noir but there’s certainly the dead monkey, the decaying house and pool, the Isotta Fraschini upholstered in leopard in the damp garage, Norma’s Egyptian cigarettes (“Abdullahs”), her tuberose perfume, her “half an inch of makeup”, the rats, the untouched buffet at her New Year party. Plus, what is she smoking in that curious wire holder on her finger? I’m now on series 4 of Mad Men and a holder just like Norma’s is used to puff marijuana at a wild club. And we all used to think it was the champagne making her talk so silly.

But the olfactory movie par excellence must be the more modest Woman In A Dressing Gown, Ted Willis’s 1957 British slice of kitchen sink: Amy (Yvonne Mitchell) in the throes of unrecognised undiagnosed depression, surrounded by her ghastly menfolk and her own hopeless mess at 23 Nightingale House. She’s past bothering to dress, just throws on the eponymous dressing gown.  Her first appearance is accompanied by an beast-like snuffling and sniffing as the breakfast toast burns, followed by a huge close-up of the charred slice shot from under the grill. We’re off!

The camera lingers obsessively over Amy’s dreadful cooking – the blackened bacon and eggs, soaked in fat and the plate wiped on her gown; the burned fillet of plaice and chips (“Smells Good!” – doesn’t taste it though); and yet another supper treat, “cold ham, cold veal, cold pork”. All are served with a battery of bottled sauces, and everything smells of confusion, anxiety and a desperate longing to nurture and please. (Jimbo’s mistress, of course, cooks like an angel in the kitchen: a beautifully presented Sunday roast to mirror her skill in quite a different room).

From breakfast we cut to Jimbo shaving in a steamy bathroom and segue into laundry, hot irons, baby-minding, pawnshops (an old old coat being popped), timber yards, the river, raucous pubs, a hairdressing salon run by Olga Lindo, Tallulah’s understudy in the 1920’s and now a gruff dragon-manageress with a golden heart. And the rain pours down: black, mucky, sooty city rain – used as so often in old cinema as a metaphor for sex, a symbol of illicit passion. Wasn’t film so much more interesting when we had to familiarise ourselves with all these codes and ciphers which faded away so quickly with the collapse of censorship? The film ends with the saddest “happy ending” you ever saw and a threat that the dressing gown may be discarded, even washed. Like dogs, the characters have returned to their own vomit, reassured by the smells of their own debris and failure, safe if not happy in their soiled bedding.

Image from: http://notreallyworking.co.uk