Sunday, March 04, 2007

Marlene on the Wall

I love Netflix. With one click of the mouse, I got three DVDs with five Marlene Dietrich movies, four of which I'd never seen and three of which I'd never heard of.

Last night I watched Morocco, which pairs Dietrich as a world-weary cabaret singer with Gary Cooper as a Foreign Legionnaire and local Lothario. After one night, although they don't seem to like each other much, these two scarred people form a bond indissoluble by time, deserts, or the attractions of an insanely wealthy and adoring rival.

Much has rightly been made of Marlene's ambiguous sexuality; the scene where, clad in a tuxedo, she kisses a female nightclub patron and then throws a flower to Cooper is almost breathtakingly hot. But Gary is rocking some ambiguity of his own, with his high cheekbones and big doe eyes. I'm not a big fan of his; his demeanor is often stiff and his delivery stilted. But here he is startlingly young*, fresh, and flexible; despite his macho attitude, he could easily be the submissive one in this relationship. He also has some very amusing business, including his saucy little salute (charmingly imitated by Dietrich) and continual ducking to avoid being beaned by doorways too low for his lanky frame.

Adolphe Menjou also contributes his customary suavity to the proceedings as a rich painter also in love with Dietrich. I kept waiting for him to show his true colors as a bad guy, but he never does; good guy or bad guy, he always presents the same starched urbanity and dapper mustache.

As a whole the movie is only fair. I'm not that familiar with Josef von Sternberg's work, so I can't say if this movie is typical, but the direction is off throughout. For a picture filled with sex, exotic locales, romance, adventure, violence, and sex, the pace is unbearably slow, and the action is often confusing. For example, the wife of the legion commander pleads for Cooper's attentions; Dietrich comes looking for him and Cooper escorts her home; there is a fight outside her apartment, in which Cooper fends off two Moroccans. Were they sent by Capt. Caesar, who has been spying on his wife's extracurricular activities? Cooper sends Dietrich inside before the authorities arrive and Mme. Caesar scurries off, still veiled; yet how does Caesar know they were involved, without admitting he was present?

Morocco also reminds me of one of the most deeply perplexing and persistent questions in the history of Hollywood: what on earth ever convinced Marlene Dietrich that she was a singer, and who kept encouraging her? Her harsh, grating, thoroughly unmusical voice could work to her advantage in films like Destry Rides Again, where she sings only rough barroom ditties and you can imagine she's not supposed to be that talented. But in this movie, as in so many others, she's clearly presented as a fabulous performer, and her post-war concert tours indicate that people actually liked and responded to her singing. *Shrug* I just don't get it.

I'm looking forward to the rest of the series. Netflix, keep 'em coming.

*Laugh of the evening: Cynical Cooper declares he wishes he had met Dietrich 10 years ago, before he lost his faith in women; the real Cooper was 29, and his character looks younger. Yeah, those cheerleaders can be like totally rough.

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