By Lloyd Schwartz
Feature image: P. Roberts. Allum Bay, c. 1794. The Art Institute of Chicago.
It’s probably hard to remember, but there once was a time when Hollywood took for granted from its audience a certain level of cultural knowledge. I mean high culture. Art. Literature. Classical music. My favorite example of this assumption occurs in a 1937 romantic comedy-drama called Angel, a generally overlooked film by the great German-born director Ernst Lubitsch, still admired for his inimitable “touch” in such stylish masterpieces as The Merry Widow, Trouble in Paradise, Ninotchka (“Garbo laughs!”), and The Shop Around the Corner. His earlier Lady Windermere’s Fan, based on Oscar Wilde’s play but without any of Wilde’s dialogue (just as my nominee for the greatest Shakespeare movie, Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, hasn’t a line of Macbeth), might be the most sophisticated silent film ever made.
In Angel, the glamorous heroine, played by Marlene Dietrich, perfectly cast, is married to a British diplomat (the touchingly stolid Herbert Marshall) who devotes more time to the League of Nations than to his wife. She loves him, but is frustrated by how much his desire to save the world from war has blinded him to his need to save their marriage. So she slips off to Paris to visit an old friend, a Grand Duchess (Laura Hope Crews—soon to be Gone with the Wind’s Aunt Pittypat) who runs a social (very social) club where people connect anonymously (there’s a delicate post-Production Code innuendo that Dietrich may have been an active member of this “private club” before her marriage). On this impulsive visit to Paris, she meets at the club Melvyn Douglas, who instantly falls for her. Hard. Since she refuses to give him her name, he calls her “Angel.” Their negotiation for their first rendezvous has some of the film’s most deliciously teasing double-entendres (screenplay by Samson Raphaelson). But Dietrich becomes frightened by the intensity of this fling and disappears, returning to London without even saying goodbye, leaving Douglas no way to reach her.
Later, in England, still searching for Dietrich, Douglas by chance crosses paths with Marshall, whom, it turns out, he knew during World War I when they shared a “seamstress.” He tells Marshall about his “Angel” and Marshall, though disapproving, invites him for lunch and to meet his wife. That night, preparing to go to the opera, Marshall tells Dietrich about this meeting and Douglas’s irrational infatuation, arousing in Dietrich more than casual interest. Maybe the most remarkable moment in the film is the brief scene at the opera: Dietrich and Marshall seated in a box, the camera focused only on them. The lights dim . . . we hear the first four chords of the opera . . . fade to black.
These opening chords are probably the most famous in all of opera. Without ever mentioning its title, Lubitsch clearly assumes that his audience will recognize the opera and remember its plot. It’s Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the story of how the trusted young emissary of the Cornish king and the king’s bride-to-be fall hopelessly and tragically in love. It’s the darkest depiction of the archetypal love triangle of which Angel is a semi-comic parody. Older man; beautiful wife/fiancée; dashing suitor: an all-too-familiar story. Lubitsch’s glancing reference to Wagner is slyly hilarious, yet also an ominous and poignant anticipation of the clouds that will increasingly darken our expectation of a happy ending. Given the emotional depths Lubitsch plunges his characters into, a satisfyingly happy ending now seems virtually impossible, although we can be pretty confident that Lubitsch won’t end with a “Liebestod” (the sublime and tragic “Love-Death” with which Wagner ends Tristan).
Lubitsch expected an audience to understand his allusions. If we don’t get some of them today, it probably wouldn’t ruin the movie. But understanding them, like understanding any deep cultural reference, brings with it a rich—a richer—world of parallels and alternatives. It’s not just the amusing contrivances of plot that make Lubitsch a great director, or even the superb performances he elicits from his actors. It’s those dark, knowing little jokes that create “the Lubitsch touch.” That mini-quotation from the Tristan Prelude, those four opening chords and how Lubitsch sets them up, are the real—I would even say the major—signature of his slippery genius.
Lloyd Schwartz is the Frederick S. Troy Professor of English Emeritus at UMass Boston, the longtime classical music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, and the 2019-2021 Poet Laureate of Somerville, Massachusetts. His awards include NEA and Guggenheim Foundation fellowships for poetry and a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. His most recent poetry collections are Little Kisses (2017) and Who’s on First? New and Selected Poems (2021), with the University of Chicago Press.
Originally appeared in NOR 10