Morocco (1930, Josef von Sternberg)

Marlene Dietrich sails away from a troubled past, becoming a nightclub singer in Morocco. She takes up with young Legionnaire Gary Cooper (three years before Design for Living, sans his stammery, wooden persona), who has his own problems, having slept with his commanding officer’s wife. Gary gives her up and marches into battle, where his boss (Ullrich Haupt, who’d die in a hunting “accident” in under a year) is killed, while Marlene prepares to marry wealthy Adolphe Menjou (anti-Lincoln conspirator in The Tall Target and anti-communist conspirator in the McCarthy hearings) instead. But she ditches Adolphe at their wedding party, returning to Gary, finally throwing away her pride and independence to follow him sheepishly into the desert.

Sternberg’s and Dietrich’s first American picture, a follow-up to The Blue Angel but beating it into U.S. theaters. Dietrich got an oscar nomination despite delivering her lines phonetically. She was beaten by Marie Dressler, with Cimarron, Norman Taurog and Tabu winning out for Morocco’s other nominations. It’s not my favorite Sternberg movie, but Dietrich’s obsessive performance towards the end is among her best. Sternberg loves his tragedies: nobody gets out of this one easily, and Dietrich’s final humiliation reminds of the Emil Jannings pictures that preceded. Controversial at the time: Dietrich wears a tux and kisses a woman. “Battling” Butler was sixth-billed, but I didn’t recognize him.

Film Quarterly in 1948: “The story itself was exceedingly simple, romantic .. However, it was not von Sternberg’s intention to produce a film of reflected reality, but rather to evoke cinematically an exotic locale peopled with extraordinary characters. .. [the] absence of background music gave the film a sharp, immediate quality seldom found in films today, generally burdened, as they are, with a lush musical score.”

The Devil is a Woman (1935, Josef von Sternberg)

The bookend segment implies that the movie will be more fun than it is, opening during “Carnival Week” in Spain with the chief of police telling his men to shoot criminals during the festivities rather than arrest them, so the jail doesn’t overfill. Then straight into a party scene where masked Antonio (Cesar Romero, recently of The Thin Man) glimpses masked Marlene Dietrich. It immediately recalls the similarly-streamer-filled party in Dishonored with a masked Victor McLaglen (who has a much better smile than Cesar does). It’s a great-looking movie, if less gloriously so than the other Sternbergs I’ve been watching. Its best moments recall those earlier films: characters trapped together on a train (Shanghai Express), a man obsessed with Dietrich to his own humiliation and ruin (The Blue Angel) and all the carefully-composed obscured-vision shots. But it doesn’t add much original flavor of its own (besides a good dueling scene), and the middle of the movie drags from its uninteresting story.

Cesar trails Dietrich to her house but can’t get in, so he meets buddy Pasqual (Lionel Atwill, in the To Be Or Not To Be acting troupe) and listens to him talk for the majority of the movie. Pasqual recalls meeting Dietrich on an avalanche-bound train, giving money to her and her mother (Alison Skipworth of the similarly-titled Satan Met a Lady), then watching her escape with another man. This happens again. Then again and again. Then he rapes her, I think. The point of his story is that Cesar needs to stay away from the girl, but all I’m getting is that Pasqual is extremely pathetic. Cesar must’ve gotten that too, because he shows up at her house again. Pasqual sees, challenges him to a duel, then fires into the air, a suicide move. Dietrich pulls a total Casablanca on Cesar, getting travel papers for both of them (from cameo-governor Edward Everett Horton) then hopping off the train.

L-R: Pasqual, Marlene, Cesar:

Guest star E. Everett:

C. Silver:

The film is neither as warm as Morocco nor as accessible as The Blue Angel. If it is perhaps the most perfect film ever made in some ways, its very precision conveys a coldness, a diamond-like hardness; the romanticism of Morocco transformed into cynical introspection and fatalism. If Sternberg is any closer to understanding Dietrich, he is unwilling to solve the puzzle for the audience; the film remains one of the most beautifully realized enigmas in the history of the cinema.

Marlene with a duck in a basket:

from A. Sennwald’s original NY Times review:

The talented director-photographer, in The Devil Is a Woman, makes a cruel and mocking assault upon the romantic sex motif which Hollywood has been gravely celebrating all these years. His success is also his failure. Having composed one of the most sophisticated films ever produced in America, he makes it inevitable that it will be misunderstood and disliked by nine-tenths of the normal motion picture public. . . . a heartless parable of man’s eternal humiliation in the sex struggle. As Don Pasqual dances foolishly at the bidding of the young woman who has him biologically trapped, we begin by laughing with the director at the ludicrous spectacle and end by suspecting that the joke has been a grisly one.

Buy (cheap) from Amazon:
Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection

The Scarlet Empress (1934, Josef von Sternberg)

Based on the diaries of Catherine The Great of Russia, the story felt like it spanned maybe a year or two, but wikipedia says it was sixteen years between her marriage and the coup she arranged to replace her husband on the throne.

Marlene Dietrich plays Sophia (Catherine is her Russian title), at first a naive girl from the country married to a not-handsome prince (Sam Jaffe of The Day the Earth Stood Still), instead entranced by a count (John Lodge of Murders in the Zoo, future governor of Connecticut).

Marlene and the count:

Catherine is under great scrutiny until she bears her “husband” a son (he’s only momentarily bothered by the fact that they never slept together), then she’s free to run around having affairs and plotting. Nothing is done while queen Elizabeth is in charge, but once Catherine’s husband becomes emperor he doesn’t last a year before his wife has taken over. Catherine has caught the Count fooling around with the former queen, realizes he’s just sleeping around with whoever’s in power, and throws him over.

The Queen:

Katy and I would’ve liked to see more than a minute of screen time with Dietrich as the actual empress – didn’t know that would be where the movie dead-ends. Sternberg is, of course, much more concerned with his camera angles and lighting, and most importantly, shooting Dietrich through a series of filters and gauzes and screens. The wedding scene is an incredible cinematography show-reel, each shot outdoing the last.

Robin Wood:

The connecting theme of all the von Sternberg/Dietrich films might be expressed as a question: How does a woman, and at what cost, assert herself within an overwhelmingly male-dominated world? Each film offers a somewhat different answer (but none very encouraging), steadily evolving into the extreme pessimism and bitterness of The Scarlet Empress and achieving its apotheosis in their final collaboration The Devil Is a Woman.

R. Keser calls it the last great pre-code film, says it “mocks Hollywood’s conventional groveling toward royalty.”

Buy from Amazon:
The Scarlet Empress (Criterion DVD)

Shanghai Express (1932, Josef von Sternberg)

I rented The Scarlet Empress in anticipation of seeing Shanghai Express on 35mm at Emory – a screening preceded by a brief talk on the different goals of cinematography (Sternberg’s main one being glamour, not story). Empress is surely glorious-looking, but I appreciate a good story and snappy dialogue to go with my pretty pictures, and so I thought the less opulent and ornate but still exquisite-looking and more excitingly plotted Shanghai Express was the better movie.

Dietrich is Shanghai Lil, a fallen woman who runs into her old soldier boyfriend “Doc” (still-handsome Clive Brook, who played Rolls Royce in Underworld) aboard the titular train. The two of them try to avoid each other in the small first-class section of the Express, along with Marlene’s fellow traveler Anna May Wong, arrogant dog lady Louise Hale, gambler Eugene Pallette (happily closer to his croaky Preston Sturges persona than his Intolerance days), a preacher and a man named Lenard (silent film director Emile Chautard, also in Seventh Heaven) who only speaks French, much to everyone else’s annoyance. Oh, and there’s mysterious Warner Oland (returning from Dishonored), who turns out to be a head communist in the Chinese Civil War traveling undercover. He holds up the train when one of his deputies is captured, keeping Clive Brook (on his way to perform surgery on a head nationist) in exchange.

The government agrees to the exchange, releases the deputy, and Clive is allowed to return to the train. But Warner has made a damned nuisance of himself during the night. He gets Lil to agree to marry him in exchange for Clive’s life, and he rapes Wong. Wong’s not one to take things lightly, kills Warner, grabs Lil and escapes. So they’re all safe on the train together, but Clive is being a putz about Lil’s faithfulness, needs the preacher’s help to “forgive” her for a happy ending.

Expensive-looking, but it was the top-grossing film of 1932 so I guess that’s fine. Won the best cinematography oscar, lost the rest to Grand Hotel. Never seen Anna May Wong before – she’s very good. Remade a couple times, with Ellen Drew then Joseph Cotten.

Dishonored (1931, Josef von Sternberg)

“What a charming evening we might have had if you hadn’t been a spy, and I a traitor.”
“Then we might never have met.”

Another Sternberg/Dietrich movie, and this one just kills The Blue Angel, which I thought was overbaked and had too little Dietrich. Here not only is she perfectly lit and doing a better acting job throughout, but the story is a wartime (1915 Austria) spy vs. spy drama, all romance and excitement, more alive and relevant than the period self-punishment of Emil Jannings. Sternberg seems fully comfortable in his sound world now, maybe not pulling as beautiful images as in the silents, when it was all image, but making a movie that fully works. Some good expressive lighting (backlit against windows when she lets Victor escape) and long-held cross-fades.

Marlene with Austrian secret service man Gustav von Seyffertitz (Hymn Book Harry, who performs the wedding in Docks of New York):

The opening titles prepare us for tragedy and sexism, telling us that codename X-27 “might have become the greatest spy in history… if X-27 had not been a woman.” This is referring to the ending, when she lets the enemy spy she loves escape before his execution, which leads to her own. But of course the reason she’s a great spy in the first place is that she’s a woman, able to seduce and sleep with (whoa, pre-code) enemy officers in order to steal information, the Black Book of its time.

At the start, war widow Marlene is out streetwalking to pay the rent (whoa, pre-code!) when she picks up a gentleman with a droopy ‘stache who tests her patriotism, pretending to try recruiting her for anti-Austrian work, and when she has him arrested he reveals that he’s the head of Austrian secret service and actually wants to hire her for pro-Austrian work, argh.

Warner “Charlie Chan” Oland as the spy who shoots himself:

Some veils, feathers and masks later, she’s at a party with more confetti and streamers than I’ve ever seen in one place. She acts interested in Russian Mustache Spy and retires back to his place, where she discovers his secret spy stash, all the while acting super-fucking-cool while he creeps away and kills himself.

The colonel is Victor McLaglen, Lon’s strongman sidekick in The Unholy Three who’d win best actor for The Informer a few years later:

With a distinctive smile like Victor’s, what use is a mask?

Off to unveil the secret identity of the dead spy’s undercover colonel friend from the costume party, which is simple since he has the most excellently recognizable sinister smile. And a cute little mustache – every man has a mustache.

The colonel is onto her spying ways – she’s got him, then lets him escape. She goes to Russia and acts as a timid housekeeper at enemy headquarters, then back home where she sees the grinning colonel again and lets him escapes. Sentenced to death, she asks only for a piano and “any dress I wore when I served my countrymen instead of my country,” so gets killed by rifle squad in her feathers and veil.

Pre-execution, at her piano:

The Blue Angel (1930, Josef von Sternberg)

A much weirder movie than I’d expected. Emil Jannings seems drawn to humiliating roles. In The Last Laugh he was fired from his respectable job, laughed at by his neighbors. In The Last Command he has a shocking fall from military/government power, ends up a deflated Hollywood extra. But he’s never fallen further than he does here, from an esteemed professor to a cuckooing cuckold clown, crowing for a crowd.

Little pleasures of early sound films: I love that doors and windows are completely soundproof in this movie – closing one interrupts noise from the adjoining room suddenly and completely. On the other hand, the extreme strictness of employers in Hollywood movies has always bothered me. “I’m sorry friend, but you’ve left me no choice. I must request your resignation,” the principal tells Emil, because the kids made noise and drew on the board, and Emil had a flower in his lapel. And it’s the start of the Depression, so losing your job is a big thing.

Emil discovering Marlene:

Anyway, Emil tries to catch his giggling slacker kids at the local nightclub, as if it’s any of his damn business where they go after class. There he sees dancer Lola (Marlene Dietrich in her star-making role) and falls for her. Emil tries to whisk her away from this sordid life, but instead gets pulled into it himself. A few years later the touring troupe returns to the town where he once lived, and the townspeople flock to see the sad professor, after which he crawls back to his old classroom and apparently dies of shame.

I watched the English version – I think the German is more well-known. Remade a bunch of times, including once by the director of Porno Holocaust.

Sternberg turns in a more assured sound film here than Thunderbolt, though it was supposedly Germany’s first talkie. Acquarello: “Sternberg’s use of stark, hyperbolic imagery to symbolize moral degradation is derived from the German expressionist cinema. The Blue Angel was filmed during the Weimar Republic when the German government, caught in a stranglehold over war reparations, was on the verge of collapse. The film echoes the cynicism and hopelessness of the times.”

Buy from Amazon:
The Blue Angel DVD

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.

Rancho Notorious (1952, Fritz Lang)

I followed up Fritz Lang’s early sound stinker Liliom with this real good western. More of a musical than Liliom, every few scenes we get a troubadour singing the Chuck-a-luck song.

This came after Secret Beyond The Door and House By The River, and right before The Big Heat and The Blue Gardenia, square in the middle of that great ten-year period for Lang. Just like in Big Heat, our hero’s wife gets killed at the beginning, but this time it’s not part of any conspiracy, just mean ol’ thievery and rapery and murderry. Our hero is Vern (Arthur Kennedy from Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Sam Fuller’s Shark, Bright Victory and Lawrence of Arabia) and when the townsfolk and lawmen won’t help him hunt the baddies past the county line, he goes undercover-vigilante and dedicates his life to revenge.

He follows clues across the country to Chuck a Luck, Marlene Dietrich’s secret baddie hideaway ranch, and fakes being bad long enough to figure out who’s the sumbitch what killed his wife. He thinks it’s this slick-shooting shifty guy for the longest time, but in the end it turns out to have been some cowardly sideman, who gets what for. But Marlene dies trying to save our guy. So heroic and good natured is our guy that even selfish Marlene would die for him!

Cool as hell movie, with Marlene in her early 50′s still looking good and a buncha actors I don’t recognize doing a fine job too. Somehow I missed both Jack Elam and George Reeves (who was already Superman when this came out). Best part is the first few scenes of Vern seeking out the ranch, hearing legends about Marlene via not-necessarily-true flashbacks. That Herr Lang could make a tight little revenge thriller when he wanted to.

TRIVIA: Lang wanted to call this movie “Chuck a Luck” but the studio forced the title “Rancho Notorious”. Both titles, of course, are stinky.