Marlene Dietrich Movie Collection, Part 3 Review

Pittsburgh

John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich are reunited for Pittsburgh, albeit with a good deal less to enjoy than in Seven Sinners. Made in 1942, America's mind was turning to the war and the froth of Seven Sinners, being as much to do with the wash of the waves of the South Seas as the romance and comedy in the writing, is replaced by a gritty tale of ambition, squandered love affairs, a ruined friendship and the war effort. Keep that in mind as Wayne and co-star Randolph Scott haul Marlene Dietrich back into a supporting role in their playing of longtime friends Pittsburgh Markham and Cash Evans (Wayne and Scott, respectively), whilst Dietrich copes with the part of Josie Winters. The film opens in, one shouldn't be surprised to learn, in Pittsburgh itself, in the mines to be exact, where Markham and Evans reveal themselves as having such ambition as to strain the very walls of the mine shaft in which they work. Actually, it would appear as though the rickety wooden struts aren't quite up to the task when they collapse and, in the manner of good friends, one saves the other. They celebrate, as men like Wayne and Scott are wont to do, by stealing a pair of bespoke suits and taking to the boxing ring against heavyweight hopeful 'Killer' Kane (Sammy Stein).

It's that very night that Markham and Evans meet the beautiful Josie Winters - they're en route to the ring at the time - which immediately drives a rather beautifully-shaped wedge between the friends, one that sticks firm when Evans begins a relationship with her. Soon, Markham and Evans, now running several foundries of their own, begin to drift apart, one of whom is keen, in the manner of the Quaker chocalatiers of England, to share the wealth somewhat whilst Markham would rather not. Uniquely, an argument over the medicinal benefits of coal tar is the final straw, with Evans leaving to set up his own business and taking his best men with him. When the eggs laid by Markham's ruthless business practices begin to hatch, he's left ruined but then America enters the war and, unknown to Evans, Markham sets out to redeem himself by signing on to Evans' thriving business as a simple miner. But as we know, you can't hold a good man down and very soon Markham is being noticed once again...

I am unnecessarily hard on Pittsburgh. It isn't that Pittsburgh is a bad film - it isn't, in fact it's quite a good one - more that it's a very different film to the rest of the movies in this set. For a start, Dietrich isn't the star - there isn't enough room even for her slender frame between the broad shoulders of John Wayne and Randolph Scott - and takes to Pittsburgh looking slightly rejected by the experience. She does tend to sit back in the film and other than being a slightly more feisty character than her female co-star Louise Allbritton, who plays Shannon Prentiss, there isn't a great deal between them. With war breaking out, this is clearly a man's film, with Scott and Wayne brawling, making up and brawling once again as two men rapidly rising through up the social and business ladder before one tumbles all the way back down again. Indeed, the highlight of the film, for all the drinks and deals in stuffy restaurants and offices, is a good old-fashioned fistfight between Scott and Wayne within a mine shaft with the two of them taking sticks and shovels to one another before hauling each other over the side of a lift as it goes up the access shaft. It's all back-projected - as you might expect, you don't dangle stars like Wayne off a lift - but hugely exciting nonetheless, with Wayne proving that no one could ever windmill quite like him. But then Dietrich arrives and takes a lift marked faulty, the brakes on which fail and accelerates towards the very bottom of the mine. Her scream interrupts their fight, proving that though she's clearly third-billed, she still has the star power to draw the attention of Wayne and Scott. And if it works on them, it must have worked a treat on an audience rightfully concerned about their family and friends overseas.

Follow The Boys

"I'll go anywhere as long as it's soldiers, sailors or marines!" So says Marlene Dietrich as Tony West (George Raft) pools a room full of major Hollywood talent in his organising of all-star USO revues. It's tempting to nod slowly in the manner of one who is hearing something they'd long suspected but it's impossible not to smile as Dietrich delivers it with an equally knowing smirk. Ten films in and one can say that I always suspected as much. The film itself doesn't actually feature Dietrich very much, looking towards George Raft instead, having him star as Tony West, one of a failing vaudeville act who heads west with his partners, sister Kitty (Grace McDonald) and father Nick (Charles Grapewin), in search of success in Hollywood. Oddly enough, his luck is in as he lands a role as a dancer in a movie starring Vera Zorina (Gloria Vance). But when she struggles to perfect a dance routine, West steps in, confidently offering her advice. Soon, a love affair begins between them and their double-act woos not only movie crowds but theatre audiences as well.

Then war breaks out but Tony is refused entry to the forces due to a bad knee, one that he's been dancing on for years but which won't withstand tours of duty on the Pacific and European fronts. Feeling as though he still ought to do something, West takes to working within Parmount to organise USO revues featuring the likes of WC Fields, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, The Andrews Sisters and Dinah Shore, which go down a storm with the troops. But having kept his bad knee a secret, his wife suspects that West is avoiding service due to cowardice, which begins with a small amount of friction and ends with West moving out of his home. Travelling the world in support of the troops, what West doesn't know is that his wife is pregnant but with the US becoming more involved in the war, will he live to see his son or daughter?

Follow The Boys is an odd film to have in this Dietrich set given that it actually features very little of Dietrich. Even when it does, she's only in support of Orson Welles doing his magic act - with the assistance of a couple of GIs, he saws Marlene Dietrich in half - and though she takes the lion's share of laughs in the act, it's clearly Orson's show. That, though, is an observation that one can make for the entire film with the various guest stars lifting Follow The Boys from being a rather humdrum domestic drama through to something that's interesting from the perspective of a period piece. As well as Marlene Dietrich and Orson Welles, we have WC Fields doing a comedy routine around a billiards table, Louis Jourdan doing Is You Is Or Is You Ain't (My Baby) in the minutes before a rainstorm, which George Raft then dances through to Sweet Georgia Brown, whilst Dinah Shore is cast to perform I'll Walk Alone and I'll Get By. Given the nature of these revue shows, one can take them or leave them depending on the cast - I have a lot of time for Donald O'Connor but not a whole lot for The Andrews Sisters - but this one has its moments. Only, in fact, its three moments, one in which WC Fields tears up a pool table, when Marlene and Orson do their magic act and, lastly, when Marlene explains just what's needed to get her someplace. Soldiers, sailors or marines!

Golden Earrings

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 Golden Earrings isn't quite of the standard set by The Devil is a Woman, that's not to say it's 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.

A Foreign Affair

Finally, we come to writer/director Billy Wilder's comedy about bankruptcy, moral or otherwise, in post-war Berlin. Structured about a trip made by visiting US Congress-people - largely being various men in grey suits but also including spinster-ish Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) among their number - A Foreign Affair looks in on the efforts of US troops in the rebuilding of Berlin but finds that their winning the peace sees them fraternising with the locals, selling their gifts from back home on the black market and getting a little too close to German cabaret singers, namely one Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich) and American Captain John Pringle (John Lund). In fact, everything is rather muddled to Frost's rather puritanical eyes, not least a cake that she hand carries all the way from Iowa from Pringle's sweetheart, which she later finds for sale on the black market. Muddled, indeed!

Then again, Frost isn't exactly helping matters, adding to the confusion when she begins an affair with Pringle herself and finds herself enjoying the schnapps down at the cabaret a little too much, even to being arrested by the German police force. But, as von Schlütow reminds Frost, she didn't survive the years under Hitler, the Allied bombing, the arrival of the Russian troops and post-war poverty just to lose a man to a lovesick woman from Iowa. Frost reminds herself that it may just be that she's destined to be unlucky in love, with her decision being made easier when she overhears Pringle telling von Schlütow that he was only playing with Frost. But what neither woman knows is that Pringle is playing to a plan cracked in the army, one that will smoke out SS officer-in-hiding Hans Otto Birgel (Peter Von Zerneck), a one-time lover of von Schlütow who's prone to jealousy. And Pringle is the bait!

Much as I have enjoyed these Dietrich films, it does feel good to be coming to the end of them. And what a film to go out on. Billy Wilder danced close to the edge of what must have been considered acceptable at the time with A Foreign Affair, which portrays the boys from back home selling off their home-baked cakes, food parcels and gifts for cigarettes, nylons and chocolate, all in the hope of landing themselves a beautiful young mädchen for a night or two. But such is only the beginning of this film with its two main strands - Jean Arthur's search for love and Marlene Dietrich's affair with an American officer - intertwining nicely throughout the film, Arthur always looking hopeful, Dietrich, more cynical, looking at her affair with Pringle as a chance to have some fun amidst the gloom. She offers a short speech during A Foreign Affair that says as much, "We've all become animals with exactly one instinct left. Self-preservation. Now take me, Miss Frost. Bombed out a dozen times, everything caved in and pulled out from under me. My country, my possessions, my beliefs... yet somehow I kept going. Months and months in air raid shelters, crammed in with five thousand other people. I kept going. What do you think it was like to be a woman in this town when the Russians first swept in? I kept going." The leap that the film makes to her still being a Nazi sympathiser is an unlikely one and represents the lowest point about the film but so long as Dietrich remains on the screen, it's a great one. Wilder would, in time, go on to Some Like It Hot but what's clear in A Foreign Affair is his enjoyment in taking a risk, being unafraid to find comedy in the post-war effort in Berlin and for questioning whether the minds of the GIs were entirely on the job. As funny as it is, one doubts if anyone was left upset by it, particularly not at seeing the confidence shown by Dietrich at being back in Germany. She left on the cusp of stardom and returned as one and I suspect that those who waved goodbye to her on the release of The Blue Angel would also have warmly welcomed her back



Transfer

Dating from between 1930 (Morocco) and 1948 (A Foreign Affair), these twelve 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. However, the best comes later in the set with Follow The Boys, Pittsburgh and A Foreign Affair all looking very good indeed, particularly with a noir influence to their lighting and plenty of sharp location shooting in amongst the drama on the stages.

Now, readers with a long memory will realise that I've written of these films before with those exact same words. Not letting the opportunity to discuss these particular discs pass, I have compared this five films in this set to the same five films in the Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection from earlier this year. Truth is, there isn't a great deal between them. In fact, they look identical, implying that Universal used the same transfers in the production of both. That's not entirely surprising, not only for one's knowledge of the economics of home entertainment being sufficient to know that Universal aren't going to expend a great deal on any remastering of these films but that, having done the job once, why do it again? However, one would have liked, given the extra space these films have in this set over the two-films-per-side of the Region 1 for these to look a little bit better. Unfortunately, Universal haven't taken advantage of that but, then again, given that a box set of eighteen Marlene Dietrich films, which is currently listed at well over a hundred pounds on any one of many online retailers, one can understand their reluctance to spend a great deal on restoring these films. One can also understand, however, how its likely audience will be disappointed by their decision.

The R1 Glamour Collection (Below)


This R2 Dietrich Movie Collection (Below)


The R1 Glamour Collection (Below)


This R2 Dietrich Movie Collection (Below)


The R1 Glamour Collection (Below)


This R2 Dietrich Movie Collection (Below)


The R1 Glamour Collection (Below)


This R2 Dietrich Movie Collection (Below)


The R1 Glamour Collection (Below)


This R2 Dietrich Movie Collection (Below)

Otherwise, 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 a vast array of subtitles, including English, French, German and Spanish subtitles, all of which are actually rather complete.



Extras

There are no extras in this set. Being honest, that's not at all surprising as one gets used to big sets like this being released without any bonus material. However, that is no less disappointing.



Overall

You will have noticed that only twelve of the eighteen films have been reviewed here, with the reason being that Universal only supplied these twelve for review. The missing films are Destry Rides Again, The Scarlet Empress, Shanghai Express, Touch Of Evil, The Spoilers and Angel, four of which are comparable with anything else on this set whilst the other two - Destry... and Touch... - are outright classics. All in, these eighteen films are a treat, often excellent, sometimes utterly wonderful and never less than enjoyable, with all the melodrama of the era. Destry Rides Again is as good a comedy western as you're ever likely to see with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich sparking off one another, even as she kicks him out of a saloon. Touch Of Evil is a classic noir, able to be indulged as a deconstruction of noir as it is a cracking tale of corruption. With The Spoilers, she's back together with Randolph Scott and John Wayne whilst Angel, in spite of a title that implies purity, comes with all manner of sexual entanglements. With Dietrich cast as Catherine The Great in The Scarlet Empress, her career seems complete. But even then she could surprise, being the star of Maximilian Schell's Marlene without ever appearing on the screen.

Granted, this set isn't up to the very high standard set by Warners but Universal have got the basics right. Fundamentally, it's a big set and therein probably lies its appeal, containing eighteen great films starring a legendary actress in some of her very best and most memorable roles. What Universal have done is to get the packaging right, attractive even, and to have the films look and sound perfectly fine. Not quite, I admit, as good as did Marlene Dietrich at the time, but good nonetheless.

Film
8 out of 10
Video
6 out of 10
Audio
6 out of 10
Extras
- out of 10
Overall

6

out of 10

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