Marlene Dietrich Movie Collection, Part 1 Review
In 2006, I began a review of a set of Marlene Dietrich films by admitting to being quite partial to Dietrich, particularly at her most wanton and lusty. Back then, five films with such titles as Blonde Venus, The Devil is a Woman and The Flame of New Orleans was almost too exciting to contemplate, coming with the breaking into a hot flush and a certain breathlessness. No one, less so even the sexually gurning Demi Moore and Sharon Stone, has ever brought such a natural swagger to the screen as Dietrich, at ease wearing nothing at all as she is a gorilla suit, making quite the most lusty great ape that you'll ever see. Had Charlton Heston seen a monkey that moved like Dietrich, he'd have cared not a damn for the half-buried Statue Of Liberty.
Such is the way with Dietrich, having a presence onscreen that draws out all of the glamour, sensuality and eroticism of the location, the character or the story. When she appears as Bijou in Seven Sinners, one can only nod at the inevitability of both the name of her character and her being cast in a film that suggests as much lust as it does envy, gluttony, greed, sloth, pride and wrath. Her portrayal as a spy in Dishonored says everything that one has ever suspected of the story of Mata Hari, whilst her playing of a nude model in The Song Of Songs makes clear the rum goings-on in the Bible - no Book of Job for Dietrich. Meanwhile, the title of The Devil Is A Women is perfectly apt where Dietrich is concerned, her being as tempting as was the serpent in the Garden of Eden. When she charms Gary Cooper with the toss of an apple in Morocco, the association would seem to be made. There's a feeling of it being a fait accompli when she appears as Shanghai Lily in Shanghai Express, whilst her playing of Catherine The Great in The Scarlet Empress is, horse or not, spectacularly debauched. As for Morocco, it's quite the perfect title for a Marlene Dietrich film. 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.
Helpless in love in Morocco, the Marlene Dietrich of Dishonored shuns desire for death as Agent X-27, a Viennese prostitute turned spy who uses her considerable charms to draw out a nest of traitors during the first world war. First amongst them is the head of the secret service (Gustav von Seyffertitz), one who sneers at the war but who soon finds himself under arrest when X-27 excuses herself, leaving in search of a bottle of wine but returning on the arm of an officer in the army. On the street outside, he reveals his position to the officer, who salutes and leaves, but, looking up towards the light from Dietrich's window, leaves to consider what he might do next. The next day, Dietrich arrives at a government building and in spite of refusing to give her name is brought in by a young officer (Barry Norton) to the office of von Seyffertitz who asks Dietrich to look out his window at the young officers of the army marching to certain death. Could Dietrich be capable of charming those under the spell of treachery?
She certainly proves her worth when her first assignment, General von Hindau (Warner Oland), falls for her and, admitting his guilt, retires to his study where, under Dietrich's piano playing, a single gunshot rings out. Soon, there is a trail of dead bodies throughout the streets of Vienna, either shot by their own hand or riddled with bullets from the firing squad. Impassive throughout is Agent X-27, who takes to each assignment without a care, stepping to another lover as each one falls. Then even X-27 finds her heart torn when she meets the dashing Russian spy Lieutenant Kranau (Victor McLaglen), with whom she falls in love, a passion that survives even his arrest and imprisonment, one that will see him eventually face the firing squad. But with Kranau escaping whilst X-27 stands idly by, von Seyffertitz sentences her to death. With that same young officer from von Seyffertitz's office escorting her out of her cell one morning, he walks with her once again, perhaps this time to her death.
Dishonored could have been a hokey old wartime espionage film but it makes clear its intentions when it opens in a rainstorm with Dietrich hitching up her stockings whilst, in the near distance, a body is carried out of a building. Dietrich, surrounded by prostitutes, says, "I am not afraid of life...although I am not afraid of death either!" and with that catches the ear of the head of the secret service, a man who could make use of one as unscrupulous as she. Dishonored moves quickly, almost effortlessly to a point where X-27 is present at a masked ball and in between the popping of balloons and champagne corks, General von Hindau falls for her, only realising her intention when, unraveling his cigarette, he realises that she is not his is house for love but to entrap him. Thereafter, Dishonored leads to X-27 standing in front of the firing line, still not afraid of death but looking hopeful as Barry Norton's young officer refuses to let his sword fall to signal the firing squad to begin shooting. Unfortunately, this inspired moments are rare in a film that tends towards cantering for much of its running time, with none of the male actors doing very much when compared to Dietrich. Victor McLaglen has, Dietrich excepted, the best role in the film but he's actually rather dreary, spinning some nonsense about the daring flights of the air force to an unimpressed Dietrich. However, Dishonored does save itself for a wonderful finale, in which Dietrich stands confidently before the firing squad. It's as memorable an image as Dietrich in the fitted suits she so favoured and being one of the very few screen goddesses whose actions might have landed her in such a predicament - Lana Turner and Veronica Lake are two others that come to mind - a rare one as well.
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.
Song Of Songs
The first film written with Dietrich in mind to star but not directed by Josef von Sternberg, Song Of Songs takes the Old Testament book as its inspiration, a book that can either be read as a celebration of erotic love or, allegorically, of God's love for the people of Israel. As one might expect of Dietrich, here it is quite obviously the former. In this, Dietrich stars as Lily Czepanek, a simple country girl who, layered in petticoats, goes to live in the city with her aunt. There, she finds hope in the words of the Bible, which offers her an escape from the beatings dished out by her relative, the long hours that she must work in the family bookshop and the loneliness she feels as she goes to bed each night on her own. But gazing out of her window one night, she's attracted by the lights in an upstairs apartment opposite and by a turn of events, extols the wonderment of the Song Of Songs to the artist therein, who's so captured by Czepanek's beauty and the love of the words in the book that he feels compelled to capture it.
As these melodramas would have it, Richard Waldrow (Brian Aherne) is a sculptor and convinces Czepanek to pose for him, undressing behind a curtain before being seated in his studio. But as the weeks pass and the sculpture nears completion, the sponsor of the piece appears, the wicked Baron von Merzbach (Lionel Atwill), who cares not for Czepanek's innocence but only for bedding her, which he plans to do on the night they are married. On that night, he plies Czepanek with champagne and listens carefully as she readies herself for bed. Hearing her crying, he can only laugh as he unbuttons his tunic and steps inside the bedroom. The horror of her situation hits Czepanek quickly but is too ashamed to find comfort in the words of the Bible, choosing instead to drift further into debauchery by becoming a cabaret singer. But just as redemption seems an impossible goal, she's visited by a familiar sculptor who asks if she would be so kind to call on his apartment, where a figure of a beautiful and innocent woman awaits.
"It's cold", says Dietrich's Lily Czepanek as she undresses for artist Richard Waldrow. She need not have said anything for it's quite obvious Waldrow's apartment is unheated, not only because it's fitting for an artist living in poverty but because the sculpture that he creates has a grand pair of breasts, on which a pair of erect nipples sit proudly. One grants the filmmakers the luxury of lingering on this statue for as long as they do - and how the camera linger's over these stone breasts - as, given the year, Dietrich's own remain hidden behind a silk dressing gown. The suggestion of nudity is, however, most clearly there. Otherwise, this kind of material, being Dietrich's tumbling down the social ladder, is one that the actress had already visited with Blonde Venus but where that film had her being something of a vamp as the film opened, Song Of Songs has her play naïve, which makes her fall from grace all the more watchable. Proving herself as an actress, innocence comes to Dietrich very easily, particularly where she gazes towards Heaven and quotes the Song of Songs but her heart quickly hardens, showing a weariness with the world that comes with being abused. The ending isn't at all surprising but there's a certain charm to Song Of Songs in how it offers Dietrich a hand to climb out of the mire in which she finds herself. But however much that sounds like a story worthy of a Christian parable, the wickedness with which Dietrich and Lionel Atwill take to their roles means there is a touch of blasphemy about the film, one that the devil himself would be proud of.
And so wraps up this first part of three reviews of The Marlene Dietrich Collection. Come back later for The Devil Is A Woman, Desire, Seven Sinners and The Flame Of New Orleans.