It's almost hard for me to picture what I will tell about The Blue Angel to those I recommend it to. It's a very special movie, and not necessarily for the only reason that some remember the film mostly for. Of course, Marlene Dietrich, in her debut, is stunningly sexy, in clothing in some scenes (and the legs of course) that must've caused some turned eyebrows on its first release. But despite her great charisma, and a certain feminine attitude that was unique for the time, there is really another big factor that makes the Blue Angel work a lot more for me than I thought. Hearing about the film, I got the impression it might be more of a vehicle for Dietrich, the inspiration for what would come in Madeline Kahn's equally memorable turn in Blazing Saddles. What I didn't expect was such a well-rounded, bittersweet kind of story going along, not to mention a sublime, powerful lead performance.
It's really the story of Professor Rath, played without a cue missed (and with some of his own ingenuity) by Emil Jannings. Here is a teacher with high morals, and little tolerance for his College student's impudence. He finds out from a classmate interrogation that some of the kids are sneaking off to 'the Blue Angel', a club with dancers, music, and singing in half-naked costumes. He meets Lola (Dietrich) and against all his better judgment, he falls in head over heels, loses his job, and then...well, it might be best to leave it there. What then ensues is a sort of collision of an enriching structure from director Josef von Sternberg (in that the unexpected occurs at times, if only in the little behaviors and bits of business with the characters), and Janning's acting.
I loved how it sort of went past the barriers that might have stifled other filmmakers at the turn of the start of silent to sound- the musical numbers makes the Blue Angel club seem hypnotic, sensual, and a little crazy. Then the use of the camera, its stillness most times, focusing on the subtleties of the acting, bring forward the remnants of the finely-tuned theatrical acting from the silent era. What Jannings does here is make a character with a total arc, in this sort of downward spiral that soon occurs once he's made his decision in terms of how he feels vs his career. The last twenty minutes or so, when it finally comes back around for the teacher a 180- from respected teacher to, well, you'll see- is rather shocking, and not as light and amusing as during the first forty minutes or so.
But it also shows that Jannings, more often than not, is fearless in his timing and expressions. It's not a completely realistic performance here and there, but it sometimes doesn't need to be. Sternberg sets up such a mood that persists, with little touches (i.e. shots of the statues moving as the clock chimes, expressionistic angles), that give Janning's enough room to do what he does. He helps make the character, who at first seems very expectable and usual (a cranky teacher) into someone we care about. Of course, one doesn't discount Dietrich's presence in the film as enough to seek out the film. She doesn't necessarily give a great acting turn, but in terms of just a great screen presence at times, of providing enough airs to make it clear why Janning's character is falling for her like this. That there are good supporting actors all around them is a plus as well.
It's one of those rare films you might smile one minute and then get a little sad at the next. It's quite a lovely little movie.