Marlene Dietrich (Morocco). Other Noteworthy Performances: Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel), Marie Dressler (Min and Bill), Greta Garbo (Anna Christie).
For me the best female performance of the year is clearly Marlene Dietrich’s role as the sexy singer Amy Jolly in Morocco. At first glance she plays the part almost lackadaisically; she looks bored to be on the set. But there is an underlying passion and vulnerability that she keeps hidden and Dietrich gives us restrained hints at them. It takes an accomplished actress to pull off something as subtle as what she does here. Nothing is over the top as was the case with so many of the performances of an era that preferred either mannered or histrionic acting to quiet sincerity. Even Garbo in Anna Christie has some eye-rolling moments. Dietrich’s Jolly, a singer at a Moroccan nightclub, falls for legionnaire, Tom (Gary Cooper). They are both emotionally broken and cannot trust one another, but are drawn together nevertheless. As they fall in love they both get scared and panic. They break it off, trying to convince themselves that they didn’t really need the other. She even has an affair with Adolph Menjou to show Cooper (and probably herself) that she doesn’t really need him. She is flirtatious when she needs to be (such as when she playfully kisses a woman during her act), but comes off as cold when she feels something (such as when she encounters Cooper with another woman at a bar). If only Dietrich could have sung well she would have been a perfect performer. Fortunately she left us this truly great performance, so understated it almost looks natural.
Emil Jannings (The Blue Angel). Other Noteworthy Performances: None
I know it isn’t fashionable to praise the work of Emil Jannings anymore. He enthusiastically embraced the Nazi movement and made several propaganda pictures for them. (Quentin Tarantino gleefully killed Jannings off in his alternate history World War II film Inglorious Basterds.) But his performance in The Blue Angel deserves notice. His portrayal of staid Professor Immanuel Rath stands as one of the greatest of romantic obsession. Rath, dismayed at his students’ infatuation of showgirl Lola Lola (Dietrich), visits her cabaret to make sure they aren’t there ogling the half-naked woman. His sexual appetite was suppressed, but Lola inflames him and he becomes infatuated with her more than his students ever were. For them she is a natural adolescent fantasy; for Rath she becomes a fatal fixation. Perhaps intrigued by his respectability she begins seeing him and they eventually marry. Naturally a professor cannot be married to a disreputable woman in show business so he is forced to resign. So begins his descent into disgrace. It is interesting to see someone, so sure of his moral and social standing, fall so far when he realizes he can have the woman of everyone’s dreams. Of course he can’t hold her. A person with more experience and perspective might cut their losses and walk away, someone like Rath, who never pursued the sensual or erotic sides of life, can’t see that she isn’t the only one, because for him she is the only one. His final scenes of murderous jealousy and irreparable despair help make Jannings the only actor of 1930 worth singling out. Too bad he didn’t follow Dietrich’s path and denounce Nazism. If he had he might actually be remembered today.