director Josef von Sternberg
A couple years back I got really into Pre-Code Hollywood films and binged through several of them. Since then, they sprinkle along in my viewings. But I never got around to watching any Marlene Dietrich films, though I’ve had them in my queue for some time. Since then, I’ve also come to really like the films I’ve seen by director Josef von Sternberg, like Underworld (1927) and The Docks of New York (1928), though those were from the silent era.
von Sternberg and Dietrich made several films together, including her breakthrough German film The Blue Angel (1930). Morocco was her first American film and features some of her most famous images and moments.
It’s an odd film, at times full of bloated cliche, featuring some stiff-sounding dialogue from some very American-sounding actors, including star Gary Cooper. And then it has flashes of brilliance. Dietrich is by far the film’s real star, powering every scene she is in with an aura of cool.
Her key moments, appearing in a man’s tuxedo, is still a fresh and striking image, so much so it’s probably very hard to appreciate how audacious it was in 1930. If the suggested sexual identity play wasn’t potent enough, she plants a kiss on the lips of a woman in the scene, and a gay and lesbian icon forevermore. It’s fantastic. She’s fantastic. It’s a great moment still.
She’s great in it throughout. When we first see her, a passenger on a ship, she is approached by a man who is interested in her and she blows him off with a world-weary nonchalance, affirming her independence. It’s a subtle but significant moment of power.
And of course she sings, echoes of the era just passing.
My favorite image, though, is perhaps at the very end. The story is about a love affair between Dietrich and Cooper, set in Morocco (of course). He’s with the Foreign Legion, trooping all around the country, followed often by a team of women and children, the lovers tailing the soldiers. And Dietrich takes off her shoes and walks forth in the sand, following the troops and her love. It’s a wonderful image and she’s perfect in it.