Femme Fatales. Wannabe Femme Fatales. We’ve all encountered them at some point or other. Some of us still bear the scars. For which reason, such creatures are best confined to the Silver Screen. None more magnificently than Marlene Dietrich. That miraculous, unrepeatable face… those eighth and ninth wonders of the world, her legs… the “mocking smile” that “says it all”… the er, interesting vocalese (ah well, nobody’s perfect!)
Powerhouse / Indicator’s splendid limited edition (6,000 copies) box set covers the six films in which Josef Von Sternberg sanctified his muse after Universum’s Der Blaue Engel (1930) had brought both of them to the covetous attention of Hollywood.
In Morocco (1930) MD is Mademoiselle Amy Jolly… the original Jolly good time, had by all? Whatever, she’s on the run from some hassle or heartache, wowing the locals and colonial types in Mogador with her top-hat-and-tuxedo cabaret drag routine. The French Foreign Legion march into town, a platoonful of kindred spirits each attempting to escape something or other in their own pasts. Légionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) immediately hits it off with Amy but is he prepared to reform his womanising ways? There’s an additional complication in the respectably bourgeois shape of Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou) who’s offering Amy a comfortable married life. Despite all the moths fluttering around her flame, Amy’s not a bad girl like Lola Lola, but there’s only so much of her to go around. Who will finally win her? Without wishing to give too much away, I’ll just say that even though she ultimately follows the dictates of her heart, Von Sternberg’s beautifully mounted denouement puts Amy in pretty much the same position as Lola had placed Emil Jannings’ character at the conclusion of The Blue Angel…
Von Sternberg’s big anti-war statement Dishonored (1931) kicks off with Marie Kolverer (MD) plying her trade as a streetwalker in post WWI Vienna (if the gratuitous shot of her adjusting her stockings in the rain doesn’t get your attention, its difficult to imagine what might) until she’s offered the chance to serve her country as “Agent X27”. Marie takes to the espionage lark like a duck to water, deploying a bewildering array of fab outfits and alternative identities, alongside her irresistible physical charms, to flush out the agents of foreign powers and send them to their deaths… all from her sense of honour and patriotism rather than to feed any personal vanity. She meets her match with – and sacrifices her all for- roguish Russian agent Colonel Kranau (Victor McLagen). Marie goes to the firing squad in stubborn pursuit of her heart’s desire but again, one wonders if this is a fitting outro for a femme fatale…
Back in the far flung corners of Empire, things are looking more promising in Shanghai Express (1932). “It took more than one man” to make Dietrich’s character Shanghai Lily, as she famously purrs, but the one who really counts is Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook). She snubs him for dastardly Henry Chang (former Fu Manchu, current Charlie Chan Warner Oland) but only to dissuade the latter from inflicting a fiendishly gruesome fate on Captain Don. When the latter cottons on to what’s happening, things resolve themselves in an unalloyed happy ending… bah!
As well as his genius for lighting (like Mario Bava, this is a director who often took over his films’ cinematography from the credited technician… though I’m not sure that Bava ever physically removed a DP from any of his sets), JVS here demonstrates his knack for packing the screen with layers of busy action, tantamount to a kind of quasi-3D.
Marlene’s Helen Faraday is another good girl gone bad, but for the noblest of reasons, in 1932’s Blonde Venus. When her physicist husband Ned (Herbert Marshall) comes down with cancer as a result of his pioneering experiments with radium, Helen packs him off to Europe with monies ostensibly earned from her nightclub act (her emergence from a monkey suit topped only by opening scenes which anticipate Hedy Lamarr’s celebrated bathing scenes from Ecstasy, the following year) but actually stumped up by her admirer, smoothie politico Nick Townsend (Cary Grant). Ned returns with his cancer cured (just like that) to learn exactly how Helen earned the dough, withdrawing his affection and their son Johnny (Dickie Moore). Helen goes on the lam and into destitution with Johnny, before a further series of improbable plot twists see the story concluded on an awkward note of tentative reconciliation.
JVS complained that his original vision of Blonde Venus had been watered down on the insistence of producers but worse was to come. By 1934 the Hays Production Code (inaugurated in 1930) was implemented in full force and effect. No chance, then, of his Catherine The Great biopic The Scarlet Empress including any (but the most oblique) reference to CTG’s alleged dalliance with a stallion (if only Joe D’Amato had been around to direct this one…)
We do witness MD’s transformation (and a neat, actorly job it is, too) from naive German Princess Sophie Frederica of Anhalt-Zerbst to the ruthless, man-eating “Messalina of the North”, contextualised by Von Sternberg and co-scripter Manuel Komroff (allegedly adapting Catherine’s own diaries) by her need to survive and eventually supplant her batshit crazy husband, the Grand Duke Peter (briefly Czar Peter III). Gore Vidal tried for something similar with his original screenplay for Tinto Brass’s Caligula (1979), before producer Bob Guccione wrung very drop of subtelty out of that project. Sam Jaffe’s magnificent, scenery-chewing portrayal of Peter nearly steals the show, but the real star here is Hans Dreier’s grotesque, gothic set design, around which Von Sternberg’s camera sinuously prowls. The film’s closing montage features a triumphant Catherine stroking her horse, presumably to elicit a laugh or two from those in the know.
So far, Dietrich’s characters in these films have been a source of fascination and probably peril for men but all have been depicted with redeeming features or accompanying insights into what made them the way they are, as though JVS was struggling to justify to himself his own fixation on the actress. By the time we get to 1935 and the contract filler The Devil Is A Woman (co-written by John Dos Passos, no less), he’s had it with Paramount, with Dietrich and her relentless faithlessness. In the way she uses and abuses such dogged devotees as Lionel Atwill and Cesar Romero, her Concha Perez manages to outbitch even Lola Lola (Philipp Blom’s characterisation of the latter holds equally true for her: “Unashamedly sexy… a typical creature of interwar hardship who does not give a damn about titles and bourgeois rituals and is only interested in making a buck, having a little fun and living to see tomorrow” *) And don’t they just love it…
JVS’s son Nicholas touches discretely on his father’s relationship with Dietrich in his useful filmed introductions to each of the films, together with insights into Von Sternberg the insatiable traveller, Art collector and Naive Artist in his own right. The beautiful 4k restorations and audio clean ups are further complimented by other extras in the kind of abundance we’ve come to expect from Indicator / Powerhouse. Documentary features and featurettes delve deeper into the romantic ups and downs of Dietrich and her Pygmalion. Audio commentators on the main features include such luminaries as Tony Rayns, David Thompson, Adrian Martin and the dynamic duo of Ellinger / Deighan. There’s a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Morocco (“The Legionnaire and the Lady”) from 1936, with Dietrich and Clark Gable as Tom Brown… Harry (Daughters Of Darkness) Kümel’s 1969 feature-length TV doc on von Sternberg, incorporating rare interview footage… Jasper Sharp’s examination of the life and career of Shanghai Express co-star Anna May Wong… The Fashion Side of Hollywood (1935), a Paramount promotional short featuring MD’s preferred costume designer Travis Banton (@rachael_nisbet. I was thinking about you while watching this one) … the inevitable Dietrich, a Queer Icon (2019)… and that’s barely the half of it.
Most intriguingly, there’s The Twilight of an Angel, Dominique Leeb’s acclaimed French television documentary from 2012, which concerns itself with Dietrich’s reclusive later life, during which she shielded her fading physicality from public view, allegedly spending her last 15 years in bed, a prisoner of her own iconic screen image.
(*) Fracture: Life And Culture In The West, 1918-1938