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.”