This bitter-sweet romantic comedy flopped at the box office on release, and is still largely overlooked. It led to Marlene Dietrich being labelled ‘box-office poison’ and dropped by Paramount, before going on to reinvent herself in Destry Rides Again. It also contributed to director Ernst Lubitsch getting his own marching orders from the studio. Nevertheless, I love it, and think it is definitely a film with the ‘Lubitsch touch’, full of his sophistication and sharp observation of relationships – and also with his flavour of nostalgia for a European way of life which was slipping into the past, something even more poignantly evident in later works like The Shop Around the Corner. There are several mentions of war approaching in Europe, and Dietrich’s weary diplomat husband, Herbert Marshall, plainly has good reason for staying long hours at the office, as he tries to keep the conflict a little further off. The film is available on budget-price DVD in region 2/UK, from Universal Classics, but has not been issued in region 1 as yet. I do discuss the whole plot in this review, but I don’t think the ending will come as a shock to anyone anyway.
Dietrich looks amazingly glamorous, in a succession of stunning gowns, jewels and furs, photographed beautifully in black and white by Charles Lang, while Frederick Hollander’s seductive music adds enormously to the film’s atmosphere. It’s just a pity that the leading lady doesn’t get to sing in this one. She plays Lady Maria, bored wife of English diplomat Sir Frederick Barker (Marshall). Maria impulsively flies off to Paris for a night while her husband is away on business yet again. During her French leave, after visiting a “salon” run by a Russian grand duchess, she embarks on a flirtation with a handsome stranger, Anthony Halton (Melvyn Douglas). She shares a meal with him and spends an evening kissing in the park before tearing herself away. They have not even exchanged names, and he knows her only by the nickname he has given her, “Angel”. However, when Maria has returned home to her husband in London, her indiscretion comes back to haunt her. Through a series of unlikely coincidences, similar to those in some of Lubitsch’s own earlier films, it turns out that Anthony is also a diplomat and has connections with her husband through their shared service in the same regiment in the First World War. Soon the two men have made friends and Maria finds Anthony turning up as a dinner guest at her home – where there is an increasing threat that he will let the cat out of the bag and destroy her marriage.
On the face of it, this is a farcical plot (Samson Raphaelson’s screenplay was adapted from a stage play, and I do wonder if it was played more as a farce in the theatre) which sounds as if it could have screwball possibilities. However, nothing could be further away from screwball than the way it is all played out, with quiet and rigid propriety. The principals sit making polite conversation over the dinner table while their emotions simmer just below the surface. I don’t think a voice is ever raised in the whole film – everything is subtly suggested through little details like Dietrich’s lifted eyebrow, or the dejected slump of Marshall’s back as he walks through a door. James Harvey writes in his book Romantic Comedy in Hollywood about the way in which many key moments happen off-camera – apparently there was even one scene originally shown obliquely through the reactions of the central couple’s Great Dane dog. Neither the footage nor the dog survives in the finished film.
Even with this mood of deceptive quietness, however, the theme of an adulterous liaison was clearly daring material for a film made under the Hays Code, and it is hardly surprising to hear that Lubitsch had to re-shoot and tone down many scenes. For instance, the Russian “salon” was originally a bordello. However, the Hays office was powerless to remove the sexual tension building all through the film – Douglas and Dietrich might only kiss, but this is clearly a suggestion of something more. There is also a scene of Marshall standing over the sleeping Dietrich in the marital double bed, looking at her with longing and almost climbing in beside her before changing his mind and going to the single bed in their dressing room. This might stick to the Hays code ruling of twin beds for married couples in the letter, but not in the spirit. There is even one suggestive conversation where Marshall and Douglas recall how, during the war in France, they both visited the same “seamstress”, discussing the bric-a-brac on her dressing table – and it’s clear enough what their relationship with her was.
I suspect one reason for the film’s failure at the box office is that it was hard to sympathise with a heroine who “dares to love two men – at once!” as some of the advertising material had it. However, as the film progresses, the long opening sequence of Dietrich and Douglas’s dangerous liaison in Paris starts to seem almost like a dream sequence, to set alongside the sexy dream she shares with her husband, Marshall. It seems as if what she really wants is to recapture their past as a couple, rather than to start again with someone else. There are yearning mentions of their courtship in Vienna, evocative of some of Lubitsch’s pre-Codes, which, of course, also featured complicated love triangles. At the end, after a painful confrontation in Paris, Angel/Maria has to choose which man she wants, and she chooses Frederick – running after him as he goes through the door, and slipping her hand through his arm. I’ve read a couple of reviews expressing disappointment with this decision. However, in a film made under the code it is no surprise that the wife chooses the husband – and at least he does have to make a change too, deciding to go with her to Vienna rather than deserting her for another diplomatic mission. I have no problem with her choosing Marshall, anyway, partly because I find him so attractive, with his beautiful speaking voice, but also because the warmth of the couple and their shared history makes it hard to believe she could give all that up for a dream.
An extra layer woven into the film is a sub-plot involving the Barkers’ servants, who have their own love lives and rivalries and organise the details of their employers’ lives – Edward Everett Horton in particular adds a lot of dry humour. There is an amusing scene where the staff are dismayed to see plates of food coming back uneaten from the dining room and start making frantic notes about who likes what food, failing to realise that there are different reasons for Maria and Anthony’s lack of appetite. However, the servants’ characters are never fully developed and a love plot below stairs is not fully worked out, making me wonder if this was an element which was lost when some footage was cut. Even with one or two loose threads, though, to me this is a great romantic comedy which deserves to be better-known, and a must for all fans of Dietrich and Lubitsch.