Desire (1936, Frank Borzage)

Sharp looking romantic comedy. Dull engineer Gary Cooper (this opened one day before his Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, according to IMDB) meets glamorous jewel thief Marlene Dietrich. I’d only seen Dietrich’s later films – Rancho Notorious, Touch of Evil and the documentary Marlene – great to see her in her prime. Watched with Katy who liked the movie except for its bland title.

First non-silent Borzage movie I’ve seen. He had assistance from Lubitsch, but Borzage doesn’t seem to have taken to sound as readily as Lubitsch did. The dialogue scenes are very straightforward, airy with no background noise or music. The editing and camerawork is fine, but it seems like it’s lacking something, some energy. Maybe it’s Gary Cooper’s fault.

Cooper is an auto engineer, kicks off the movie with a bang by asking his boss (William Frawley, in both versions of The Lemon Drop Kid) for vacation time, then discussing marketing slogans. Good transition to Dietrich’s character, then we spend what feels like a half hour on her heist, which involves pitting a famous jeweler (Ernest Cossart of a couple Lubitsch movies) and a famous psychiatrist (Alan Mowbray, played a dullard in My Man Godfrey the same year) against each other then slipping away with a two million dollar pearl necklace. She meets up with Cooper again, slips the necklace into his pocket to evade customs, then steals his car, accidentally leaving him with the loot.

How Gary Cooper sees himself:

Things heat up when her partners in crime show up, Carlos (John Halliday, Hepburn’s dad in The Philadelphia Story) and Aunt Olga (Zeffie Tilbury, one of the few times she didn’t play a grandmother). But there’s never a sense of danger, even when Olga mentions her time in prison and Carlos pulls a gun, because we know that Dietrich can outsmart them both. And since she’s unaccountably fallen for Cooper to the point that she’s willing to throw away her riches and become a Detroit housewife with a criminal record, that’s just what happens. Actually I think Cooper beats up Carlos, but same difference.

Jeweler vs. Psychiatrist:

H. Dumont:

The film may be divided into two parts: the first funny, cynical, and airy, extremely ‘Lubitsch-like;’ the second tenderer, more cheerful, almost a little serious, unmistakable carrying Borzage’s mark. On one side style and irreverence, on the other, playful acting and delicacy.

G. Kenny:

What Borzage finally pulls out from his hat is not a repudiation of the Lubitsch ethos, and its devil-may-care quasi-amorality, but, arguably, a transcendence of it. In other words, it isn’t so much that Tom makes an “honest woman” out of Madeleine as he enables her to realize the good within herself.

Related posts