I went to see Der Blaue Engel last night. It's a great film, eh? Marlene Dietrich, Joseph von Sternberg, Emil Jannings, obsession and madness, creepy clowns, show people, sex, gutter life; it has it all.
There's something else it has too: a cast of fat actors. Dietrich herself is pretty chunky in the earlier part of the film, much fatter than a leading lady would be allowed to be nowadays, though still normal-sized. What I'm talking about is the protagonist, Professor Immanuel Rath, who is a very stout fellow, not to mention Kurt Gerron, who plays Kiepert the conjuror, and the actor who plays the owner of The Blue Angel. These guys really fill up the screen.
It's not just the men either, Rosa Valetti, who plays Guste, corrals a group of fat women performers who share the stage with Dietrich. They are clearly background, they don't have names, but they are unforgettable. It's possible that their fatness is an allusion to their low rent status as performers and maybe sex workers, or to their general degeneracy. These women are not curvy, they're barrel-shaped fatties and they wear skimpy clothes and sit on the stage drinking beer after beer, some of them are old. They get in the way, they sulk, and one of them has an act that involves something saucy that is kept well out of the frame, all we ever see is her rolling her eyes suggestively. These are the kind of gals that I dream of hanging out with.
I'm developing a fascination with fat characters in film, not the stars, the ones who appear in the background, the secondary or tertiary characters. I want to know more about them. I wonder if being background means that film makers can get away with more, in a cultural climate that denigrates fatness, than if such fat characters were placed in the foreground. Their presence is so fleeting yet they stay with me.
I think this phenomenon has roots in the work that Vito Russo did with The Celluloid Closet. Russo identified queer characters in films, the sort of characters and actors whom you might pass over unless you knew the signals, codes and stereotypes that outed them. If you have The Eyes, that is, a certain queer sensibility, you can see these characters, Russo used this way of seeing to shine a spotlight on them.
Being in the margins of film, and culture, is a depressing reminder of fat people's secondary status in general. Looking out for fat people in the background is like begging for crumbs of recognition from an uncaring culture. But Russo showed us that these crumbs can add up and become something more substantial, and that in some circumstances the margins can eclipse the action centrestage.
Here are three publicity stills from the same scene. Don't look at Dietrich, check out the women behind her!