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DVD SAVANT

Marlene Dietrich:
The Glamour Collection


Universal

Morocco, Blonde Venus,
The Devil is a Woman, The Flame of New Orleans,
Golden Earrings


Starring Marlene Dietrich

B&W
1:37 flat full frame
Street Date
April 4, 2006

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

With Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection Universal taps into one of the biggest stars of the 1930s and one of the truly most glamorous women of the 20th century, a mysterious creature of a million male daydreams. Marlene Dietrich became the Trilby to Josef Von Sternberg's Svengali for a series of exotic romances. Along with Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford she was declared box-office poison, but bounced back by reinventing herself in a more humorous guise. And she was one of the most beloved figures of WW2, reportedly associated with the song Lily Marlene by soldiers on both sides of the conflict in Europe.

Von Sternberg refashioned her from a plump pumpernickel girl into a svelte goddess; Billy Wilder described her as a hausfrau who was most happy cooking for crew and friends alike. And unlike other film-factory creations, Marlene retained an earthy simplicity and a sense of humor about her self. According to personal accounts, she didn't put on an act. 1

The set features five Dietrich movies: Three by Von Sternberg, one by René Clair and one from Mitchell Leisen. There are no extras of note, but these low cost multiple feature sets are bargain just the same.



Morocco
1930 / 91 min.
Starring Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Adolphe Menjou, Ullrich Haupt, Eve Southern, Paul Porcasi
Cinematography Lee Garmes
Film Editor Sam Winston
Original Music Karl Hajos
Written by Jules Furthman from the play Amy Jolly by Benno Vigny
Produced by (Hector Turnbull)
Directed by Josef von Sternberg

Marlene hit big with The Blue Angel in Germany and came back to Los Angeles with her mentor-director Von Sternberg. In Berlin it had appeared that she had struck out several times, while actresses like Brigitte Helm, Greta Garbo and Louise Brooks nabbed choice roles from her left and right. But Dietrich's breakthrough in voluptuous Lola-Lola part made news even before it showed in America; Von Sternberg and Paramount chose to premiere her to the American public in Morocco instead.

Synopsis:

Hard-luck French entertainer Amy Jolly ends up in Mogador, Morocco performing her provocative act in the shabby nightclub of Lo Tinto (Paul Porcasi). She falls in love with Legionnaire Tom Brown, a footloose and unpredictable womanizer who at first has no use for her independent airs. Wealthy artist Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou) falls head over heels for Amy. She tries to take La Bessiere's proposal of marriage seriously, as he loves her and represents the security she needs. But Amy discovers that her heart is directed by deeper female instincts.

One gets the distinct feeling that Paramount gave Dietrich the big build-up in Morocco to set her up as their answer to MGM's Garbo. Hollywood had been selling the supposed allure of European sirens from almost the beginning of the studio system, a game that even Josef Von Sternberg knew how to play: The "Von" was a gimmick.

Dietrich got a pretty good handle on English right away, making an English-language version of The Blue Angel that wasn't released until after Morocco. American audiences saw a more sophisticated Marlene playing against top Paramount stars. As if to keep everybody guessing, the pre-Code movie has Amy Jolly appear in a man's tuxedo for her first song, prowl through the audience ignoring the men, and give actress Eve Southern a big kiss full on the mouth. America had heard lots of stories of, uh, permissive attitudes toward sex in Berlin, and that moment was definitely planned to make people talk. Pretty risqué stuff for 1930.

Von Sternberg was the top American 'art' director, having started with a gritty drama of down-and-outs in San Pedro called The Salvation Hunters. By the time of Morocco he'd refined his visuals into a mode even more gauzy than Paramount's low-contrast, high-glamour style -- the images are sometimes so hazy that they look out-of-focus. Morocco is less cinematic but also less mannered than some of his later work, although he manages a sultry atmosphere that 1930 viewers found irresistible.

Audiences took immediately to Dietrich's style: Quiet and reserved in public around strange men but secure in her independent sexuality. Minor player buzz around her and leading men marvel at her beauty while trying to figure her out. Dietrich's Amy Jolly is the first in a long line of women with dark pasts, forever falling in love. Her cool exterior hides a mass of contradictory emotions, and the big surprise is that she's actually far less in control of herself than she thinks.

Some of the sparse dialogue is practically hard-boiled, with Amy telling Gary Cooper's lively trooper that women belong to an army too, but they don't wear uniforms. Amy, Cooper and the smitten Menjou play a civilized game of "Who does she love," until Amy makes her near-absurd choice. Von Sternberg tells the story so straight, it doesn't have time to become absurd, and the lack of a musical score to tell us how to react is a positive artistic choice.

Dietrich's complex appeal comes off well, while Cooper shows an uncommon ease with his girl-bait Legionnaire character. Both of them are forever contemplating drastic romantic action and changing their minds. Menjou has a role that repeats in Von Sternberg movies, the loser in love who doesn't care that he's being made a fool of. In this case his La Bessiere earns our respect.


The transfer of Morocco looks great, with only a few optical sections adding grain. Audio polishing reduces hiss and improves the soundtrack as well. An original trailer shows what passed for movie advertising way back then -- one of the titles (barely seen) assures the audience that the film is an all-talkie.



Blonde Venus
1932 / 93 min. /
Starring Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, Cary Grant, Dickie Moore, Gene Morgan, Rita La Roy, Sidney Toler
Cinematography Bert Glennon
Art Direction (Wiard Ihnen)
Written by Jules Furthman, S.K. Lauren
Produced by (Josef von Sternberg)
Directed by Josef von Sternberg

Dietrich and Von Sternberg went on to do Dishonored, a good spy film, and Shanghai Express, probably their best film together for both characterization and visuals. Blonde Venus is an ornate but essentially silly exercise that Von Sternberg cooked up when he didn't like the scripts he was getting. The story is ridiculous and Dietrich's playing of her character barely makes sense beyond whatever set piece happens to be on the screen. But several of the individual scenes in the film are certainly exotic, if not erotic.

Synopsis:

German entertainer Helen is married to Ned Faraday (Herbert Marshall) an impoverished researcher in New York. They're happy with their little boy Johnny (Dickie Moore) until Ned needs 1500 dollars to go to Europe for a cure for radiation poisoning. To get the cash Helen goes on the stage as Helen Jones and meets the rich Nick Townsend (Cary Grant) who advances her money to send Ned off right away. While he's gone Helen and Nick have an affair, which Ned discovers when he returns early, cured. Ned threatens to take Johnny away so Helen goes on the run, appearing in clubs when she can but dogged by cops and private detectives. One of them, Wilson (Sidney Toler) catches her; she gives up Johnny and goes back to Europe where she becomes a stage sensation. Nick finds her there and bring her back to New York. But will Ned (still penniless) let her see Johnny again?

Blonde Venus really doesn't hold together in story terms, as Dietrich's many changes of heart and romantic allegiance are neither sufficiently explained or acted. Her dedication to her family doesn't fit with her willingness to take up with Nick Townsend and her fiery love life is taken as some kind of 'given' about women in show biz not being able to stay faithful to their husbands.

Helen Faraday lurches from one characterization to another almost with each new scene. She's the perfect mommy, then the sacrificing female, the scorned hussy, the fallen floozy, the triumphant star and finally the hopeful woman who wants her family back. Herbert Marshall's Ned grumbles and fusses bitterly through most of the picture, and Cary Grant's one-note playboy isn't all that great either. In many cases requiring Dietrich to act, she simply twitches nervously, as if nobody really worked out the story at all.

That's mainly because Von Sternberg has conceived the film only in terms of individual sequences that appealed to him. The movie starts with a delightful 'water fairy' scene in which Dietrich is one of six nymphs that catch the eye of some students on a walking tour. Lee Garmes lays on the gauze and the nude maidens (this is still the pre-Code era) frolic in double-exposures through hanging foliage.

The Faraday household is a domestic paradise, with mommy Helen singing German nursery rhymes to little Dickie Moore (his 30th film; he later appeared as a teenager in Out of the Past) while dad fumbles with his deadly chemicals in another part of the house. The business about getting cured for radiation overexposure is a real hoot; I'm sure the characters of On the Beach would have been interested in learning about the treatment.

The demure Helen turns into a scandalous attraction on the stage, appearing as a pre- King Kong gorilla complete with dripping nostrils. She pulls off a simian striptease (aped with a spacesuit in Jane Fonda's Barbarella) to reveal herself in a blonde 'Afro as a cannibal queen to sing a number called "Hot Voodoo." What she lacks in singing ability, Dietrich makes up in personality -- most of her deep-voiced lyric lines in English, French or German all sound like they're really saying, "This way to the bedroom."

I've heard some pretty desperate ideas that Blonde Venus is trying to make a statement about the Depression, but Von Sternberg just likes to show Dietrich flopping around drunk and disorderly in steamy flophouses, and playing a trick on Sidney Toler's flatfoot by pretending to be a prostitute. For all we know Von Sternberg is hinting that she Is a prostitute, but the film is all suggestion. It's also held together by an awful lot of stock shots of trains, boats and other 'traveling montage' devices. When all is said and done, we like Blonde Venus because (sigh) Dietrich is just so dreamy. We don't care what she is, and if she wants to hug the baby boy, that's fine too.

Along the way we get good bits from Clarence Muse, Sterling Holloway and Hattie McDaniel. Robert Emmett O'Connor from The Public Enemy is a jaded nightclub manager.


Blonde Venus is also in terrific shape, with again only a couple of optical sequences looking too dark and contrasty - perhaps they are replacement dupe footage. The transfer really catches Von Sternberg's lighting schemes; in some shots of "Hot Voodoo" it looks as though Dietrich has reflection highlights on her skin, her hair, her eyes.



The Devil is a Woman
1935 / 75 min. /
Starring Marlene Dietrich, Lionel Atwill, Edward Everett Horton, Alison Skipworth, Cesar Romero, Tempe Pigott, Francisco Moreno
Cinematography Josef von Sternberg, (Lucien Ballard)
Art Direction Hans Dreier
Film Editor (Sam Winston)
Written by John Dos Passos, S.K. Winston from the novel La femme et le pantin by Pierre Louys
Produced and Directed by Josef von Sternberg

The last Dietrich-Von Sternberg collaboration is this fanciful adaptation of a scandalous book that ended up being made into several sexy European films, among them Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire. The role of the female as a cruel manipulator of over-eager males finds its strongest expression in this story; Von Sternberg's version isn't as perverse as other, and opts for a sentimental ending, but we immediately sympathize with whomever Ms. Dietrich has on her amorous hook at any given time.

Synopsis:

Spanish Captain Don Pasqual Costelar (Lionel Atwill) meets the coquettish, predatory Concha Perez (Marlene Dietrich) and is systematically fleeced, film-flammed and humiliated by her -- until the money runs out and she comes back for more fun. She flouts her power over him and even makes it known that she has other lovers, like the bullfighter Morenito (Don Alvarado). Don Pasqual eventually has to resign his commission over the scandal. He meets handsome Antonio Galvan (Cesar Romero) at Carnaval and warns the younger man away from Concha ... advice that doesn't take.

The Devil Is a Woman would be a satire in any other hands, but Von Sternberg's direction and the earnest playing of Lionel Atwill (one of his best performances) and Cesar Romero keep it on the rails. Edward Everett Horton is a semi-comic Governor but serves a serious purpose as well. The only message here seems to be that irresistible women are irresistible, and when they know it they can get away with anything. As in the other versions Concha Perez allows her suitors to shower her with money and gifts only because they foolishly think they're buying her. By not giving in she maintains her self-respect. Being able to luxuriate in her power is an added bonus.

Apparently the opulence of the previous year's The Scarlet Empress was out of reach, after that movie didn't perform at the box office. The Devil Is a Woman has the same feeling for atmospheric visuals on a smaller scale, and didn't do well either. The Spanish settings are ornate, with plenty of those wrought iron gates that figure so strongly in the other versions of the story.

Von Sternberg uses an extremely modern flashback structure. Atwill tells his story to Romero, and we keep bouncing back to new episodes in the past. There are no 'wavy glass' oil dissolves, only straight cuts between past and present, with audio cues sometimes preceding the cut. It looks and plays like something from at least the 1960s, and I wonder if 1935 audiences had any trouble following it.

Although she's a knockout in the lace-and-mantilla Spanish costumes, Dietrich is about as Spanish as a peach strudel. She says one accented word ("Sevilla") and is content to bat her Teutonic eyes from behind a fan.

Von Sternberg decided not to work with Dietrich any more after The Devil Is a Woman, which according to biographer Homer Dickens didn't sit well with his leading lady. Reaching for new challenges, Von Sternberg was also possibly jealous of the attention given Dietrich's contribution to the films. The director lit his own pictures and his films tended to omit credits for other cameraman (like Lucien Ballard) along with some art directors. It's as if he wanted the spotlight for himself. Dietrich went on to work for other top directors.

It's only a guess, but I'd say Von Sternberg's brand of exotic erotica wasn't in tune with the country in 1935; audiences were rejecting remote females with breathy foreign accents. A major distributor called Dietrich, Crawford and Hepburn 'Box office poison' in 1937 or so, and started a critical backlash that threatened all of their careers. Hepburn retreated momentarily to the stage and Crawford lost whatever pull she had at MGM to get choice roles. After a costly unfinished 'jinx picture' called Hotel Imperial Dietrich made movies with David O. Selznick and Alexander Korda (Knight Without Armour) and sat out 1938 before bouncing back strongly in 1939's comedy western Destry Rides Again. The solution was to spoof her previous imperious image as a sultry siren, and her greatest hits from now on would have an element of comedy.

Hints in casts lists indicate that Joel McCrea may have been the first choice to play Cesar Romero's part.


The Devil Is a Woman looks even better than the previous two titles, perhaps because it's less well known and revived less frequently. Considerable lighting care is taken with Dietrich's costumes; we get the feeling that every glint from a silver thread is part of the visual plan.



The Flame of New Orleans
1941 / 79 min. /
Starring Marlene Dietrich, Bruce Cabot, Roland Young, Mischa Auer, Andy Devine, Frank Jenks, Eddie Quillan, Laura Hope Crews, Franklin Pangborn, Theresa Harris, Clarence Muse, Melville Cooper, Anne Revere
Cinematography Rudolph Maté
Art Direction Jack Otterson
Film Editor Frank Gross
Original Music Charles Previn
Written by Norman Krasna
Produced by René Clair, Joe Pasternak
Directed by René Clair

Combining Dietrich and René Clair results in a delightful and unpretentious romantic comedy that compares well with The Devil is a Woman. Dietrich stars as a wandering adventuress in 1841 New Orleans who has no trouble snaring beaus, but doesn't find it easy to sort them out. She's come a long way from her basic acting in her early Von Sternberg films --- he sometimes used her as just another piece of fancy scenery -- and is even a more accomplished presence than she was in Destry Rides Again.

Synopsis:

"Countess" Claire Ledoux breezes into New Orleans and sets her sights on a wealthy banker, Charles Giraud (Roland Young). He's smitten but has to convince his snooty family that she's worthy, an effort complicated when playboys Zolotov (Mischa Auer) and Bellows (Franklin Pangborn) arrive to spread gossip about Claire's scandalous past in St. Petersburg. Making things even stickier is Robert Latour (Bruce Cabot), an impoverished sailor-captain who falls for Claire as well. To explain the St. Petersburg scandal, Claire invents an uncouth look-alike cousin, Lili, to take the blame. But even though the disguise succeeds, the romantic bind isn't resolved so easily.

The Flame of New Orleans shows Dietrich as an accomplished comedienne with a side business in glamour; she wears the usual knockout wardrobe but also makes fun of herself in one scene by being dumped in the mud. Filmgoers fed up with fair damsels in period pictures are treated to Dietrich's fancy trickster who, when cornered, uses fainting as a last resort. Clair's deft handling of the script brings out a few sneaky double-entendres, and we're told that more references to sexual hi-jinks didn't pass the censors and were deleted. She's also terrific in the double role as Lili. Not contented to fool her suitors with her 'great lady' act, she also gets to play a saucy tramp.

Roland Young is better than usual as the slightly stuffy suitor; he isn't made as much of a buffoon as usual. The big surprise is Bruce Cabot (of King Kong) who we're used to seeing in undemanding buddy and character parts. Here he takes on a regular Clark Gable-type role, and does quite well. Clair introduces him when his monkey's leash gets tangled in Dietrich's pony cart, and he further proves himself an amiable hero by walking a tightrope on a bet, and rebounding well from Dietrich's contradictory messages: Caught red-handed in a lie, she shuts him down with the observation that his pointing out the lie is ungentlemanly.

But Cabot's character sees through both versions of Dietrich to win in the end, and The Flame of New Orleans turns out to be as satisfying a comedy as Clair's next film, the terrific I Married a Witch. Both pictures involve flashbacks to a tall tale, and end with interrupted weddings.

Mischa Auer has a fine bit as a skirt-chaser even more cowardly than Roland Young. Andy Devine and Frank Jenks are among Cabots crew as light comedy relief. Laura Hope Crews, Dorothy Adams and Anne Revere are unpleasant prospective relatives. People who know pre-war European operetta will get a (quick) chance to see Gitta Alpar, a big Hungarian star associated with director Steve Sekeley and actor Gustav Frölich. She's heard singing on stage early in the picture. Beautiful Theresa Harris (a camp-follower in Morocco) adds a great deal to the comedy proceedings as Dietrich's maid and co-conspirator. Genre fans will recognize her immediately from I Walked with a Zombie and Out of the Past.


Once again, semi-obscurity results in a better-looking transfer than we might expect. The Flame of New Orleans not only is in perfect shape, the improved 1941 film stock gives it a different look. It's a Universal film and nowhere near as artsy as the earlier Von Sternbergs; some viewers will see this as a plus.



Golden Earrings
1947 / 95 min. /
Starring Ray Milland, Marlene Dietrich, Murvyn Vye, Bruce Lester, Dennis Hoey
Cinematography Daniel L. Fapp
Art Direction Hans Dreier, John Meehan
Film Editor Alma Macrorie
Original Music Victor Young
Written by Frank Butler, Helen Deutsch, Abraham Polonsky from a novel by Yolanda Foldes
Produced by Harry Tugend
Directed by Mitchell Leisen

Jump ahead six years past WW2 and we have this pleasing romance that gets by almost completely on the charm of the Dietrich - Ray Milland pairing. Fresh from The Lost Weekend, Milland received top billing. Dietrich had been in serviceable but non-classic Universal movies during the war, starring opposite John Wayne and Edward G. Robinson. By 1947 audiences remembered her best when she was painted gold in MGM's 1944 Kismet. She made a French movie in 1945 by extending a USO tour, but censors chopped it by a third for American release.

Synopsis:

Colonel Ralph Denistoun (Ray Milland) returns to Germany after the war to keep a rendezvous with a gypsy woman, Lydia (Dietrich) who helped him on a secret mission back in 1939. With war breaking out, spies Denistoun and Byrd (Bruce Lester) escape the Nazis and continue in their mission to secure a formula for deadly gas from German scientist Otto Krosigk (Reinhold Schünzel). Denistoun is helped by Lydia, who dies his skin and passes him off as a gypsy. Denistoun defeats the gypsy chieftain Zoltan (Murvyn Vye) in a fight and wins their aid, and finds that the Nazi are so contemptuous of gypsy folk that he can easily slip through to make his contact.

Golden Earrings has a polished studio look that often makes everything look far too clean and neat at a time when movies were learning to be gritty. Dietrich provides almost all the interest with her earthy gypsy woman, rendered in depth: She's a superstitious Earth Woman who doesn't believe in hygiene, eats greasy fish and rubs cod liver oil into Milland's hair to "Make it smell good." She cleans fish on their mattress and considers Milland a beautiful find "fated" to be her man. The movie's surface is all Hollywood-fake, but Dietrich and Milland sell Abraham Polonsky's lusty script well -- the movie reportedly earned a 'Condemned' rating from the Catholic Legion of Decency because the vagabond pair of spies are obviously living together out of wedlock.

Fussy art director-turned director Mitchell Leisen was a top 1930s director at Paramount, and is most often remembered in acidic Billy Wilder quotes: Becoming a director was essential to keep Leisen from ruining Wilder's scripts. That's not completely fair, as Leisen did full justice to Wilder's script for Midnight (1939), another unsung classic. But Golden Earrings does seem old-fashioned. Not only does the production look behind the times with so many interior sets for the great outdoors, the story itself seems like a script held over from the middle of the war, with loud-mouthed but butterfingered Nazis.

The film presents Gypsies as primitives and hints that they do have psychic powers. At one point a reference is made to the entire Gypsy population being put in danger, an obvious nod to the fact that hundreds of thousands were liquidated by the Nazis during the war. Considering the light-romantic setting that sentiment seems in questionable taste. Dietrich's Lydia apparently camped out and lived by stealing and got by just fine, to rejoin with her lover in the end. The implication is that they're going to go back to being a Gypsy couple again; If I were Milland I'd take her straight to town and toss her in a bathtub. She might come out looking like Marlene Dietrich!


Golden Earrings is a Paramount film right on the dividing line between features that were sold to MCA (Universal) and the later library that stayed at home ( I keep forgetting if A Foreign Affair went to Universal; I think it did). The picture is in excellent shape, as is the sound.


Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection is a good cross-section of Dietrich films, with her first American feature, a couple of rarities and examples showing how she developed and 'matured' into a versatile comedienne. There's plenty of room for future additions, as her best movie Shangai Express is still up for grabs, along with more Von Sternbergs and glossy work with Rouben Mamoulian, Frank Borzage and Ernst Lubitsch -- always top talent.

Universal has come up with attractive packaging for its glamour line, a keep case with a sturdy translucent plastic cover that creates a pleasing graphic. The descriptive text is uninspired and needs some editing (Carnevale?) but there's no denying that this is a bargain for classic movie fans. They must be hurting for artwork, because most of the stills sampled on the package back are from Morocco.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Morocco rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer
Blonde Venus rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: None

The Devil is a Woman rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: None
The Flame of New Orleans rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: None

Golden Earrings rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Packaging: 2 discs in Keep case in translucent plastic sleeve
Reviewed: April 2, 2006


Footnote:

1. Matthew Yuricich, an effects artist and matte painter on Close Encounters told us that he lucked out in WW2 by spending a great deal of time fighting the "battle of Hollywood and Ivar." Matthew went to the Hollywood Canteen for the specific purpose of dancing with the movie stars. He said Dietrich was a trouper who would pick him out because he had a big smile and didn't step on her feet. We took Matthew's whole story with a grain of salt until a big docu came out about the Home Front in WW2 -- When they got to a section on the Hollywood Canteen, there was Dietrich, dancing with our Matthew, the lucky dog. It's a frequently repeated piece of newsreel footage and shows up in many compilations.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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