Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection Review
You may take it as a sign of partiality but I am really quite excited at the prospect of these five films. The very idea of Marlene Dietrich appearing in films with such titles as Blonde Venus, The Devil is a Woman and The Flame of New Orleans is almost too exciting a one to contemplate without breaking into a hot flush. As for Morocco, it's quite the perfect title for a Marlene Dietrich film, suggesting a mix of glamour, sensuality and eroticism. Tangiers has long drawn writers and artists to its steamy mix of anything goes sexuality and North African exoticism - William Burroughs was a long-time resident of the city. The sight of Dietrich, on stage in a Moroccan theatre dressed in trousers, top hat and tails and kissing a female member of the audience squarely on the lips confirms everything that one might expect of the film.
Indeed, it confirms everything that one might expect of Dietrich. Her entrance in the film is a lonely one, on board a ferry bound for Morocco, travelling through the fog and with her heavily-lidded eyes partially obscured behind a veil. We're led to believe, wrongly as it turns out, that Dietrich's Amy Jolly is something of a lost soul, a tender-hearted, innocent young girl who's making a grave mistake travelling to the lusty heat of Morocco. As she tears up a note passed to her by Le Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou), we see her as she really is, a strong-willed, sexually confident woman who explains her travelling to Morocco with, "There's a foreign legion of women, too but we have...no medals when we are brave."
From looking lost in the fog aboard the ferry to Morocco, Dietrich comes alive on stage, suggesting that her early sadness came about as a result of her running away from someone. On stage, dressed in formal wear beautifully cut for her figure, Dietrich is a star with an innate knowledge of what makes her so desirable. Her kissing of a woman, if unnecessary, is her reply to being laughed at, the best response being a matter-of-fact kiss on the lips in acknowledgement of her own sexuality, her androgynous eroticism and of the ease with which she can have others fall in love with her. This is made even more suggestive in her next appearance onstage when, dressed only in lingerie and carrying a basket of apples, she teases the audience with the sexually alluring, "The fruit that made Adam so wise...On the historic night that he took a bite / They discovered a new paradise." The apple that she tosses to Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) is all that is needed to leave him smitten.
Dietrich's role in Morocco is one of the two that made her name. Born Maria Magdalena Dietrich in 1901, the daughter of a member of the Royal Prussian Police, she featured in her first film in 1923, appearing intermittently on films and on stage thereafter, where she became a cabaret star. Director Josef von Sternberg claimed to have seen Dietrich in the stage show Zwei Kravatten, after which he cast her in his 1930 film Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) but even before that film's release, Paramount, seeing a rough cut of it, signed Sternberg and Dietrich to make Morocco. The two films opened soon after one another and Dietrich was a star. It's not entirely surprising that the public took to her as effortlessly as they did. Her relationship with Brown is a typically tempestuous one, neither of them quite in command of the other but it's a more flattering one to them both than one might expect from the era. When Brown is posted to the Sahara, both are distraught. When word comes that he was injured, she begs Le Bessiere to drive to the hospital, reaching a decision on her future when she sees her name carved into a table in a bar next to the hospital. It's a typically impulsive moment in a film that makes a virtue of them with love, when at last it comes, being something that one is unable to resist.
Having played, in Morocco, a woman driven by her falling in love, Blonde Venus sees her playing a fallen woman, learning through hardship and through disappointment to not give in to temptation. And yet, this being a Dietrich boxset, temptation does come so very easily and, at first, is made to look so very pleasant. Directed by Josef von Sternberg and released two years after Morocco and The Blue Angel, Blonde Venus tests the pre-Code mettle of Hollywood by opening with a group of young girls swimming nude in a lake in the German countryside. There she's spied upon by a group of American tourists including Ned Faraday (Herbert Marshall). Unable to watch her leave, he teases her before she finally swims away, which then cuts to bath time in their new home, in which sits their little boy, clearly enjoying the domestic bliss around him. But there's an ill wind coming, literally so, as Ned learns that he's falling sick after eight years of research with Radium and that the specialised treatment that he needs will cost him $1,500. Struggling to pay for her husband's treatment from what he earns, Helen agrees to go back on the stage at a nightclub but, with Ned in Germany, where he is being treated, she gives in the advances of wealthy socialite Nick Townsend (Cary Grant). When Ned returns home, he goes in search of her but everywhere he turns, what he hears becomes ever more heartbreaking, with news reaching him that Helen is living in poverty and that she is working as a prostitute in New Orleans. But as a detective hired by Ned closes in on Helen and their son but although she gives her son back, Helen keeps on running, ending up in Paris where an old friend is waiting for her.
Less sexually daring than Morocco, Blonde Venus still has its moments - Dietrich once again dons a top hat and tails, though white this time, as well as, bizarrely given what goes on beforehand, an ape suit for Hot Voodoo. It is, though, not as successful a film as the others in this set, largely because they don't seek to punish Dietrich for her behaviour as does this. Much like, for example, Linda Fiorentina in The Last Seduction, we love Dietrich and, and a couple of generations ago, made her a star precisely for her incorrigibly lusty behaviour. When she is, as in Morocco, looking fabulous and toying with weaker men's affections, she's the very essence of desirability. Had the devil set himself on tempting Adam, he would surely have appeared as Dietrich - beautiful, feisty and sexually threatening.
Which brings us to the third film in this set, The Devil is a Woman, an enormously enjoyable film that revels in Dietrich's wickedness, here playing a woman who not only does unforgivable things but is also unforgiving in her deviousness. And all the while looking fabulous. The film opens at a carnival in southern Spain, in which Antonio Galvan (Cesar Romero) spies the beautiful Concha Perez (Dietrich) and follows her back to her mansion, leaving a note for her at the gate of her estate. He confides in his friend Don Pasqual (Lionel Atwill) of his love for Perez but, in a terribly grave voice, he warns Galvan to leave her alone. Pasqual cuts a dismal figure as he tells Galvan of his meetings with Perez, every time watching her run out on him and leaving him humiliated whilst unable to overcome his feelings for her. As he tells Galvan, Pasqual would marry Perez in an instant but he wants nothing from him but his money. Galvan, though warned, cannot leave Perez alone and calls on her later that day but finds that Pasqual has written her a note, asking that she meet him again. The two men, once great friends, fall out and challenge to another to a duel, agreeing to meet the next morning for a duel to the death with whoever is left standing being the one to take the hand of Concha Perez.
There are two ways to look at The Devil is a Woman - one is as a straight drama, a tragedy even, but in which Dietrich's performance is wholly out of place, whilst the other is a riotously entertaining melodrama wherein she pitches her role perfectly - beautiful, charming but devilishly wicked. Although anyone actually paying attention to the plot can see that Don Pasqual is a fool for his persisting in his attempts at romancing her, so charming and lusty is she that we can well understand how he is unable to resist her. Her ability to roll a cigarette appears to be shorthand for all manner of sexual daring whilst her promising of a kiss may, of course, only be a kiss but in the manner in which she first throws herself at Don Pasqual, it suggests much, much more. Dietrich looks no more Spanish than I but she twirls her skirt, sings and dances convincingly and is impossibly attractive, so much so that the idea of two men duelling over her isn't an entirely ridiculous idea.
That The Devil is a Woman is here at all is something of a surprise given that, for a long time, it was considered lost. Soon after its release, the Spanish government objected to its portrayal of the Spanish people and government, which led to Paramount pulling it from the theatres and destroying prints of the movie. It wasn't until twenty-four years after this that Dietrich offered the organisers of a Sternberg retrospective a print of the film from her personal collection, which, after all this time, is likely to be the source of his release of the film. Scripted by John Dos Passos, though its nothing like his classic novel USA, and looking terrific thanks to the direction of Josef von Sternberg, The Devil is a Woman is the most enjoyable film in the set and it's a pleasure to have it included here.
The Flame of New Orleans casts Dietrich as Claire Ledeux, a character not dissimilar to Concha Perez but this time as one who's outraged polite European society by her dallying with the affections of foolish men. As the film opens, she's newly arrived in New Orleans in 1841 and is set on marrying a rich man. Seated at the opera, she faints, attracting the attentions of the wealthy Charles Giraud (Roland Young), who proposes soon after. But Ledeux finds that roguishly handsome ship's captain Robert Latour (Bruce Cabot) is also attracted to her and though she rebuffs his advances, telling him, "Remain a sailor, sailor!", she remains drawn to the life of adventure that he promises. However, her posing as a woman of society is threatened with the arrival of Zoltov (Mischa Auer) who remembered Ledeux from St Petersburg, even to her habit of fainting to extract herself from uncomfortable situations. As he talks about his memory of her to an increasingly large audience, Ledoux must convince Giraud that Zoltov is actually talking about her cousin, who Ledeux must also portray. But this sudden appearance of Ledeux's notorious cousin is a problem for Giraud, who offers Latour $150 to get her out of New Orleans before his wedding to Ledeux, something that, given he's not entirely convinced by the deception, he's more than happy to do.
Finally, Golden Earrings is, like much of The Devil is a Woman, told in flashback with British army officer Ralph Denistoun (Ray Milland) meeting American journalist Quentin Reynolds (playing himself) in a gentlemen's club in London, with one asking the other how, as a man of society, his ears are pierced in the manner of a gypsy. What Denistoun tells him is of an affair that he had in Germany in 1939 on the outbreak of war with a gypsy woman, Lydia (Dietrich). In Germany with fellow officer Richard Byrd (Bruce Lester) on a mission to contact the German scientist Prof. Otto Krosigk's (Reinhold Schunzel) with the aim of recovering the formula for his new and deadly poison gas, they are arrested by the Nazis but escape into the countryside. There, they split up, Byrd setting off on a stolen bicycle to find Krosigk, Denistoun meeting Lydia who disguises him as a gypsy and pierces his ears, giving him two golden earrings as proof of her love. Joining a band of gypsies, earning their respect by fighting Zoltan (Murvyn Vye), they continue on to his meeting with Krosigk but with this being late-August 1939 and war only a matter of days away, Nazis are never far from catching up with Lydia and the British spy Denistoun, who, despite his mission, find their feelings for one another growing as the days pass.
If these two final films in the set aren't quite of the standard set by The Devil is a Woman, that's not to say they're not a great deal of fun. Directed by René Clair, The Flame of New Orleans has Dietrich reprise the role of Concha Perez but with a greater accent on farce, seen to best effect when she plays both Claire Ledeux and her made-up cousin. Dietrich gets her role just right as does Bruce Cabot and the two of them spark off one another wonderfully, both as wily, as flirtatious and as sexually playful as each other. Whilst some of The Flame of New Orleans is so very familiar, this relationship between the two leads is what carries the film, making what scenes they have together irresistible.
Directed by Mitchell Leisen, Golden Earrings is a sometimes confusing story, not helped by Ray Milland looking a touch lost in a Romany disguise. Dietrich, though, is a treat, sitting open-legged at the front of her caravan, she's a lusty, earthy presence in the film who, only two years after the end of the Second World War, drops enough clues to a mainstream audience to suggest the fate of gypsies in Nazi Germany. The film ends with Milland, still lovestruck by Dietrich, going to post-war Germany in search of her. As you may well suspect given what has been written in this piece, I can't entirely blame him as she is as beautiful, as charming and as alluring as her reputation suggests. The Glamour Collection? A five-film set like this could hardly be released under any other title.
Dating from between 1930 (Morocco) and 1947 (Golden Earrings), these five films are somewhat variable in quality. Morocco, the oldest film in the set, looks very soft in many of the scenes but looks much better when outside of, I'm assuming, the soundstages. There's a good deal of grain but as with my view of The Busby Berkeley collection, films like this aren't quite complete without it, much like needing to hear the crackle behind jazz recordings of that era to know that it's authentic. Things do get better with the rest of the films in the set - there's still a good deal of grain but the pictures sharpen up and none look better than The Devil is a Woman, probably because it was out of circulation for so long. This film really does look wonderful - the source print is in fine condition and Sternberg's not-so-subtle direction is shown off well by the DVD. Each film has been presented in 2.0 Mono and barring some background crackling, which you may or may not object to, these sound warm and nicely of their time. Finally, all five films come with English SDH (Subtitled for the Deaf and Hard of hearing), Spanish and French subtitles.
As with the Lombard set, this uses DVD18s from Universal and it has been reported on The DVD Forums that some players are experiencing problems with them. It does seem, though, to be player dependent as I have tested these on a few machines and found them, where I've found problems with other R1 Universal DVD18 releases, alright. Be warned, though.
Although there's five films in this set, there are only two trailers included as extras, one for Morocco (2m24s) and the other for Golden Earrings (2m19s).
It could be said that the lack of extras doesn't leave this set looking particularly impressive but that's to underestimate the appeal of these five films. Whilst one might have expected a commentary or two and at least a documentary had these films been issued separately, that they come in a very reasonably-priced set means that the films are quite enough. Although not quite up to the standard set by Warners, Universal have got the basics right - the packaging is good, attractive even, and the films look and sound good. Not quite, I admit, as good as did Marlene Dietrich at the time, but good nonetheless.