Saturday, February 6, 2010

1930: The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg)

I skipped 1929 because there are too many key films from that year that I've yet to see.  I'm embarrassed to say that I have never seen either GW Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl or Pandora's Box. (I know, absolutely unacceptable!)  Other films I still need to see from this year include: King Vidor's Hallelujah!, Dziga Vertov's Man with the Movie Camera, Josef von Sternberg's Thunderbolt, Ernst Lubitsch's The Love Parade, and Jean Renoir's Le Bled.  And, of the films I have seen from 1929, none have left a strong enough impression on me to really qualify as a "favorite film" of mine.  Over time, however, I hope to rectify this and eventually have an entry for 1929.

2/17/10 I watched GW Pabst's Pandora's Box.  I loved seeing Louise Brooks after hearing so much about her, but the film challenged me.  I could never really connect to anything on screen, and Pabst's direction felt scattered and unfocused to me for almost the entire film.    

2/18/10 I watched Dziga Vertov's The Man With the Movie Camera. Like Pandora's Box, this wouldn't contend for my top spot.  It never really sucked me in emotionally.  However, it's a key film in the history of cinema, and I'm so glad to finally watch it.  More than anything, I was fascinated to learn at the beginning of this that it's an effort (articulated by Vertov in the opening credits) to demonstrate the difference between cinema and the other arts.  I always attributed this movement to the French New Wave and never knew that as early as 1929, people were trying to substantiate film as an artform.

2/19/10 I watched King Vidor's Hallelujah!  It wouldn't contend for my top spot, but I thought there were a few amazing scenes, namely the final chase in the swamp, Zeke's dice game, and Zeke's recognition of Chick at church near the end.  Another one that I'm really glad to finally see.

2/22/1o I watched Ernst Lubitsch's The Love Parade.  Although I found some of its themes fairly interesting (marital power negotiations, male struggles in a female-dominated relationship), this one didn't really work for me.

4/4/10 I watched GW Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl.  Although I enjoyed it slightly more than Pandora's Box, Pabst is a tough director for me. He seems to have a very melodramatic sensibility and a somewhat episodic approach to storytelling.  These two movies are pretty tough going for me.  It also doesn't help that they are both almost unrelentingly dark.    

10/9/20 I watched Joseph Santley and Robert Florey's The Cocoanuts.  An early Marx Brothers film that seemed to meander even more than usual.  But Harpo for me, as usual, steals the show when he's given his several moments to shine.

1930: The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg)

I first saw The Blue Angel during the Summer of 1996, only a month or two after graduating college.  I spent most of May-August living in a friend's apartment in Paris, right in the middle of cinephile mecca, the Latin Quarter .  There are more arthouses per square mile in the 5th arrondissement of Paris than in any other place I've ever been. Anyway, I remember catching The Blue Angel at one of these great theaters on Rue Mouffetard.  I saw it at like noon or maybe even 10AM (another great Parisian quirk, many of the arthouses open early).  Needless to say, it was a great day. 

The Blue Angel reminds me very much of my 1931 entry, La chienne. Both movies contain absolutely devastating femmes fatales, Marlene Dietrich here.  And both movies conclude (SPOILER!) with their male leads in incredibly dark places.  I'm not sure why, but I like grand tragedies, and The Blue Angel and Emil Jannings' performance are about as tragic as they come.  I can't always identify with loneliness on screen, but Jannings makes me feel for his character in a way that is complete and painful. 

Of course, I also love Dietrich in the film.  She not only traps Jannings, she entangles me, too.  But it's really Jannings that makes this one so powerful for me.  

Other contenders for 1930: There are some huge gaps I still need to fill in for this year.  The three most notable are probably Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front, Howard Hawks' The Dawn Patrol, and Alexander Dovzhenko's Earth.  Other films from this year I still need to see are:  Ernst Lubitsch's Monte Carlo, Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail, Alfred Hitchcock's Murder, Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar, Yasujiro Ozu's That Night's Wife, Josef von Sternberg's Morocco, Tay Garnett's Her Man, and FW Murnau's City Girl.  I'm a fan of Luis Bunuel's L'Age d'Or although it doesn't affect me emotionally in the same way as the von Sternberg film.  I remember really falling for the charm and music in Rene Clair's Under the Roofs of Paris, but it probably didn't impact me as deeply as my first choice. Of my runner-ups, the only real challenger for me is FW Murnau and Robert Flaherty's Tabu.  It's one of the most poetic films I've ever seen, and it's a film I'll continue to re-visit with some frequency.  But ultimately it's the sense of tragedy in The Blue Angel, and the way that Jannings' performance devastates me, that make it my favorite film of the year.  

2/20/10 I watched Alexander Dovzhenko's Earth.  It wouldn't beat out The Blue Angel for my top spot.  I simply connect personally too much with the von Sternberg film.  However, it's easy to see why Earth has such a major reputation.  

It taught me a couple of things.  I probably should have already been able to articulate this after The Passion of Joan of Arc, but I now understand that it was necessary in silent film to push actors to do something more THEATRICAL, bigger than what was necessary once the talkies gained ground.  The actors in this film, and the way that Dovzhenko films them mostly in close-up, are incredibly expressive, nearly on the same level as Falconetti in the Dreyer film.  Also, it's the first time I've fully appreciated Eisenstein's montage theory.  Twice, Dovzhenko uses it to great effect.  The first time is after a shot of Simon dying, he immediately cuts to a shot of high grass (or maybe wheat) blowing in the wind.  The second time is immediately after (I believe) Basil's fiancee learns of his death, he immediately cuts to a shot of a young boy eating watermelon.  These two juxtapositions create unusual and deep emotions that a more conventional editing pattern could never achieve.  

2/21/10 I watched Ernst Lubitsch's Monte Carlo.  It wouldn't contend for my top spot as the chemistry seemed off to me at times.  But Jeanette MacDonald charmed me again, as she has in a number of other Lubitsch films.  It also was the first time that I realized Preston Sturges must have considered Lubitsch a major influence.  These early Lubitsch films have that offbeat humor, mania, and cleverness that I so often associate with Sturges.  

2/21/10 I watched Alfred Hitchcock's Murder!  It wouldn't contend for my top spot, but it is amazing to see how many things Hitchcock did this well this early in his career.  He already is telling a good amount of the story with the camera.  And, in this, one of his earliest sound outings, he already has incorporated his trademark double entendres into the storytelling.  Of particular interest, the "mousetrap" scene in Sir John's office and the final trapeze set piece.  The offscreen violence in the latter is amazingly impactful.  

2/24/10 I watched Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front.  It wouldn't contend for my top spot, but it does have some very powerful moments -- the final images, the scene between Paul and the French girl, and the moments near the end between Paul and Katczinsky and Paul and Franz.  It has some fantastic tracking shots during some of the battle scenes, and I really like the way it handles a few of the death sequences.  You can tell there's a real reverence for life here.  All in all though, a little of it felt too broad for me.  And I think emotionally I would have been more involved if Milestone had chosen one character and spent more time letting us track him.  However, with the way it's done, I find myself caring less than I would have hoped.  

2/26/10 I watched FW Murnau's City Girl.  Although Murnau demonstrates moments of being a director of an unbelievably modern sensibility, most of this story and film fell flat for me. 

2/28/10 I watched Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar.  Although it wouldn't contend for my top spot, I thought it had several really strong moments -- particularly the close-ups LeRoy uses as Rico confronts Joe near the end and Tony's death on the steps of the church.  

3/3/10 I watched Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail.  Although it wouldn't contend for my top spot, there is the painfully beautiful Marguerite Churchill and some great examples of Walsh's special feel for nature and Americana.

3/14/10 I watched Josef von Sternberg's Morocco.  Wow, a pretty great film.  The most poetic von Sternberg I've seen and some incredibly brave and conceptually consistent filmmaking -- those tracking shots and that scene of Dietrich looking for Cooper upon his troop's return.  I still probably prefer The Blue Angel, but this one, along with Earth, push very close.

5/14/15 I watched Yasujiro Ozu's first surviving film, Days of Youth.  Interesting more than anything as a starting point for the rest of his work. 

5/23/15 I watched Yasujiro Ozu's second surviving film, Fighting Friends.  Hard to tell how much of what was originally shot remains but certainly reminds of Ozu's tremendous humanism. 

5/24/15 I watched Yasujiro Ozu's third surviving film, I Graduated, But....  Not the easiest to follow as not very much footage survives but invaluable as we continue to put the Ozu story together.

5/25/15 I watched Yasujiro Ozu's A Straightforward Boy which is certainly an oddball in the director's incredible body of work.

7/11/15 I watched Yasujiro Ozu's Walk Cheerfully.  An Ozu noir that is not incredibly interesting but it is at least curious to see the master working in this space. 

7/18/15 I watched Yasujiro Ozu's I Flunked, But...  Not a masterpiece yet but Ozu's confidence and touch are beginning to take very clear form. 

10/11/15 I watched Yasujiro Ozu's That Night's Wife.  An interesting noir with some complex unusual emotional moments.  Ozu still finding his voice but certainly worth a look.  

5/28/18 I watched Jean Vigo's A propos de Nice.  Vigo was like the Hendrix of cinema, constantly finding ways to blow up the medium.  He obviously viewed cinema as full of unexplored possibilities, charting new territory with such ease and reckless abandon.  

6/10/20 I watched Howard Hawks' The Dawn Patrol.  It is great to finally catch up with some of Hawks' very early work.  A couple of weeks ago I saw Tiger Shark for the first time and now this, one of Hawks' first talkies.  There are some absolutely incredible and unexpected sequences.  The entire scene of Barthelmess and Fairbanks doing combat themselves without the rest of the squadron is remarkable in the time and air that Hawks grants the moment but also in the level of detail and realism he is able to bring to it.  Hawks also does one of his best jobs ever in creating the friendship between Courtney and Scott and all that comes with that level of connection.

10/8/20 I watched Victor Heerman's Animal Crackers.  It's hard for me to stay with a Marx Brothers film from beginning to end.  Groucho is just so verbose and some of the moments so loose the filmmakers give the impression that even they don't care if the audience's attention comes and goes.  I will say, to its benefit, that it has a few of the funniest moments I have seen from them yet, including their bridge game and Harpo Marx's leg gag with the various women and his brothers.


  1. I actually prefer Morocco to The Blue Angel, and I'm not even much of a fan of Gary Cooper in general. I really recommend checking it out (there's a relatively cheap Dietrich box set out that also has Sternberg's Blonde Venus and The Devil Is A Woman). It's a very different movie from The Blue Angel, but its imagery is some of the most striking in all of Sternberg (which is to say all of cinema really). Tabu is probably my favorite of 1930, however (although some of the films you mentioned I need to catch up on). It's really like nothing else.

  2. Doniphon, that's great to hear about MOROCCO and that Dietrich box set. I will definitely have to track that down. Actually, I don't think I've seen any of those three Dietrich films.

    Wow, another TABU fan! I was thinking I might catch some flack for that one. I've never met anyone else who really liked that film. Pretty cool.

  3. "There are five or six films in the history of cinema which one wants to review simply by saying, 'It is the most beautiful of films.' Because there can be no higher praise. Why say more, in effect, about Tabu, Voyage to Italy or Le Carrosse d'or?"

    - Jean-Luc Godard

    And Tabu's influence on Malick's post-Days Of Heaven work is fairly immeasurable.

    Pretty good company, I'd say.

  4. Wow, great stuff! I've never seen that Godard quote. And, I've never thought about TABU's influence on Malick, but that makes a ton of sense. Thanks so much for sharing these!

  5. Another terrific post, though as much as I like THE BLUE ANGEL, there are others this year I will place over it, including my own #1, Dovzhenko's expressionistic Russian masterpiece EARTH (Zemyla) which uses the montage more spectacularly than perhaps any other film. Lewis Milestone's anti-war classic ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, Luis Bunuel's surrealist masterpiece L'AGE D'OR and G.W. Pabst's WW1 epic WESTFRONT 1918 would push very close.

    My Own #1 Film of 1930:

    Earth (Dovzhenko)


    L'Age d'Or (Bunuel)
    All Quiet on the Western front (Milestone)
    Sous les Toits de Paris (Claire)
    Westfront 1918 (Pabst)
    A Propos de Nice (Vigo)
    The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg)
    Au Bonheur des Dames (Duvuvier)
    Animal Crackers (Marx brothers, Heerman)

  6. Sam, I can't wait to see EARTH. It's on Netflix, and I should be receiving it soon. I have also added the Milestone, which I'm really looking forward to, as well.

    Thanks again for the wonderful guidance here!

  7. One of my absolute dream box sets would be a complete set of the Von Sternberg-Dietrich films loaded with special features. It is tragic that they haven't been treated better on DVD.
    Have you seen DISHONOURED Jeffrey? Godard called it one fo the greatest films ever made and it is one of my favorite of their collaborations. I wrote an article on it here if you want to give it a read:

  8. Hey, Jeremy, excellent piece on DISHONORED! That's one I unfortunately have not seen yet. But I'd love to. Knowing me and my early obsession with Kael, that's probably the reason I never sought it out. But I will rectify that soon.

    Thanks so much for the heads-up! Your piece really makes me want to put all Von Sternberg-Dietrich films at the top of the viewing heap.

  9. I think Pandora's Box has its flaws, but within individual set pieces the focus is strong and Louise Brooks just MAKES the movie for me; its a masterpiece because she explodes the screen whever she's on.

    Speaking of Jannings/von Sternberg, have you seen The Last Command? Encouraged by Allan's list, I watched it recently and liked it a lot. It's the kind of hammy story, yet with deep pathos and an artistic gloss, that the American movie spirit can do wonders with.

  10. MovieMan, I haven't seen THE LAST COMMAND yet. But I really want to. I still have a good many gaps in my von Sternberg, but I've really liked what I've seen so far.

    Thanks for the great additions! Wonderful to have you here.