Angel: Marlene Dietrich as Maria ‘Angel’ Barker

Marlene Dietrich Angel poster 3

Angel, directed  by Ernst Lubitsch and released in 1937, was the last film Marlene Dietrich would make under her Paramount contract, which had begun in 1930 with Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco. It was also the last film she would make with costume designer Travis Banton who, along with von Sternberg, had been responsible for creating the Dietrich ‘image’: sculpted cheekbones, immaculate poise and assured sexuality with a dash of feminine mystique thrown in for good measure. In Angel, she plays Lady Maria, the bored wife of English diplomat Sir Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall). During an impulsive visit to Paris whilst her husband is away on business she meets a handsome stranger, Anthony Halton (Melvyn Douglas). He takes her to dinner and they finish the evening kissing in a park before she runs away. Back in London she is racked with guilt as, thanks to a fortuitous series of coincides, Anthony comes back into her life.

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Although Angel had a respected director and several stars attached, the film was a commercial and critical flop and led to Dietrich being labelled as box-office poison. One of the reasons is a lack of pace – it feels very languorous and, at times, laboured – and there’s an uneasy Post-Code morality that places too much emphasis on the sanctity of marriage. Whilst Dietrich has a commanding screen presence, she struggles to convey the demurity expected of a diplomat’s wife. She’s clearly much more comfortable as the flirty Angel, rather than the trophy wife – and that’s reflected in the quality of the scenes. It must have been difficult for a 1930s audience to feel sympathy for a character caught in a trap of her own making (who “dares to love two men – at once!”), so that might go some way to explaining lack of interest. Despite these issues, Angel is beautifully shot and Lubitsch captures, almost nostalgically, a European way of life that wouldn’t exist for much longer.

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In terms of costume, the ‘star’ of the film was a dramatic jewel-encrusted gold two-piece gown that was exhibited at the V&A’s Hollywood Costume exhibition. The full-length baroque gown, which Angel wears during an opera visit with her husband, was finished with a luxurious fur-trimmed stole; the perfect fabric to enhance the seemingly millions of gold beads and sequins, pearls, rhinestones and faux rubies and emeralds. No-one at the opera can take their eyes off Angel – this is a dress designed to impress. Apparently it was inspired by the opulence of Fabergé eggs, a fair comparison – those glamorous, gilded eggs wouldn’t have looked out of place on Angel’s dressing table, alongside her sparking hairpieces and oversized perfume atomisers.

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According to Larry McQueen’s essay in the book that accompanied the V&A exhibition, the gown cost $8,000 (more than $100,000 in today’s money) and was the most expensive costume Banton ever designed. When filming wrapped, Dietrich asked to keep the gown; apparently storming off when the studio refused. As was common practice in the 1930s, it was recycled and used in various other Paramount films. McQueen and Bill Thompson (who together founded The Collection, a business dedicated to the preservation, restoration and exhibition of motion picture costumes) discovered the gown in December 1990, at an auction of ‘star wardrobe’ from Paramount at Christie’s, New York. Because the gown had been altered so much for later films it was in poor condition and McQueen opted for restoration, employing Getson/Eastern embroidery, the firm that had produced the original item. Incredibly, they still had many of the original beads and sequins that Banton chose.

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There’s a wonderful interview with Adele Balkan, one of Banton’s assistants on Angel. The full audio is worth a listen, but there’s a lot to be gleaned from the following extract, specifically relating to the gold dress discussed above:

INTERVIEWER: Did you have a chance to see [Dietrich and Banton] working together?

BALKAN: I was never in on a fitting with them exactly, but it so happens that [I worked on] one of the gowns. It’s a beautiful beaded outfit, with a stole bordered in sable, and I did the beading pattern. I didn’t do the beading, I did the pattern for it. So I was in on that inasmuch as I would do a little, for a sample, I would do a little design. The beader would bead it, we’d use our own imagination, we’d bring it in to Dietrich and Banton. We did not stay in the room with them. And she would say whether she liked it or what she thought, whether there should be a pearl here instead of there, she would say. Then she would send it back. We must have done that three or four times. And I can remember the beader, instead of making a new piece of material, she would add to the original, and in doing that it created a whole new design, and that’s what Dietrich chose. She loved it, the conglomeration of the whole thing. And that is a beautiful dress. I don’t think I ever got in on a fitting on that. But it is on display every once in a while.

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The film also includes some other Dietrich/Banton staples, including a wonderfully androgynous white double-breasted jacket. Banton was a fan of using white, enjoying how it made the actress the centre of attention, and Dietrich’s appropriation of masculine attire is well documented. Others – a long satin night gown with a large slit – showed of Dietrich’s famous legs or softened her strong facial angles with lightness and froth. the gown she wears to dinner with Anthony Halton is finished with a large chiffon wrap – its ethereal romance is a visual representation of an ‘Angel’.

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As previously mentioned, this was the last time Banton would design for Dietrich, although he had made her aware of the necessity of a great costume designer and she chose her designers for later films with great care. Banton’s tale has a sorry end: in 1938 alcohol forced him to leave Paramount (replaced by Edith Head, his long-term assistant). He took a new role at United Artists, followed by periods at 20th Century Fox, Columbia and Universal, and founded his own fashion label. However, the combined pressures of creating his-own label and pleasing studio execs took its toll and Banton’s behaviour became increasingly erratic and his alcoholism made him unreliable. He eventually died in 1958, two years after completing the costumes for Rosalind Russell in the Broadway play ‘Auntie Mame’.

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Further reading: Shanghai Express: Marlene Dietrich as Shanghai Lily / Hollywood Costume edited by Deborah Nadoolman Landis

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2 thoughts on “Angel: Marlene Dietrich as Maria ‘Angel’ Barker

  1. That is a stunning gown, and it looks much better on Dietrich than it does on the form!

    I’m always surprised when I see costumes from black & white movies. They’re never the colour(s) I expect them to be. It just goes to show that costume designers really knew their business!

    1. I agree – it’s always such a surprise. I can imagine Dietrich looked great in gold – sadly there doesn’t seem to be a colour photo of her wearing the costume.

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