Josef von Sternberg wasn’t the only great director Marlene Dietrich worked with — she also worked with Ernst Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian.
The Song of Songs (1933)
The story of the artist and his muse is a tale as old as time but not all tellings of this tale are done with as much shading as Rouben Mamoulian’s The Song of Songs. Sent to live with her aunt (Alison Skipworth) after her father’s death, Lily (Dietrich) begins to work at her aunt’s book shop, where she meets Richard (Brian Aherne), a sculptor who lives across the street and wants Lily to pose for him. One night Lily decides to sneak out, but what Richard neglected to mention when he asked her to pose for him was that she would need to do it nude.
Out of anyone else’s mouth that would sound like the biggest lie in the world, but that’s where The Song of Songs becomes less predictable, because while it doesn’t avoid the obvious plot points (like Lily and Richard becoming romantically involved), it does make it so their relationship isn’t so cliché as the exploitive artist who intended to sleep with his model all along. The truth is, and while it’s not much better, Richard doesn’t seem to understand why nudity would faze Lily, which is why he blows off her protests. Until they later fall in love, there’s nothing sexual about their sittings at all, though when it does change it’s amazing how Mamoulian is able to convey that their feelings have changed without resorting to dialogue.
Visually, the film plays with extremes. When Richard and Lily are happy the lighting and costumes are idyllic, but later, when Lily has to spend more time with the Baron (Lionel Atwill) (who, unlike Richard, is exactly what you expect him to be) the film becomes a horror movie (as film historian, David Del Valle, observes in his commentary). As a precursor to The Scarlett Empress (in which Dietrich’s Princess Sofia goes through a similar loss of innocence), The Song of Songs is an absolute, pre-code wonder that deserves more championing.
Maria (Dietrich) loves her husband, Frederick (Herbert Marshall), but that doesn’t mean their marriage isn’t in jeopardy when Maria meets Halton (Melvyn Douglas) who, unlike Frederick, doesn’t have diplomatic duties to keep him busy. Angel is both a very different film for director, Ernst Lubitsch, and a film filled with his “Lubitsch touches,” which author, Joshua McBride (How Did Lubitsch Do It?), breaks down in his commentary. Editing wise, the film is a fascinating study in choices – holding the camera on one person so viewers’ are denied the chance to see another’s reaction; implying that certain realizations have been made but never actually confirming them. All of the scenes with the Barkers’ staff (played by the always reliable Edward Everett Horton and Ernest Cossart) are hilarious, but Angel isn’t a comedy and while there are moments of greatness (like a sequence where Lubitsch is able to unmask how the characters are really feeling by how much they’ve eaten), the film stagnates more than it sings, and doesn’t break the mold, in terms of character types Dietrich’s been asked to play before.
Angel and The Song of Songs are available on Blu-Ray now from Kino Lorber.