August 16, 2018
Morocco – US, 1930
I suspect that for many film aficionados the name Morocco conjures up a single scene, one moment of bold cinematic imagery the likes of which would not be seen for quite some time once the Hayes Code began to be enforced. I’m referring, of course, the one in which Marlene Dietrich makes her singing debut at a somewhat seedy club frequented by a number of spoiled wealthy patrons, as well as some rough and uncivil members of the Foreign Legion, men whose own sergeant opens the film by declaring, “This time you’re going to behave yourself.” Fat chance of that happening. But I digress. So out steps Dietrich dressed in a fine gentleman’s suit and a top hat, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. Soon she begins to sing; it is a German song, one that apparently has so little connection to the film that no one deemed it necessary to provide a translation. But I digress again. Soon Dietrich is strolling among the crowd, so alluringly that some men can resist reaching out to touch her. She gently defies their advances and finds herself at a table with two men and one woman. She takes the woman’s flower and then plants a passionate kiss onto her surprised lips. In slight embarrassment, the woman hides her head in the palms of her hands, while the rest of the crowd roars with rapturous approval.
Chances are that if Dietrich is ever referenced at the Academy Awards, it is while showing this scene, for it is both risqué and reveals quite a lot about the lengths the actress would go to for a film. The scene was also included in the documentary The Celluloid Closet, which proclaimed it to be an early example of homosexuality in film, an interpretation I believe to be erroneous. The scene’s longevity may also be due to the fact that Dietrich was a contralto, which according to Wikipedia is the “lowest female voice type,” as well as being “fairly rare.” It is perhaps this quality that made her rendition of “Falling in Love Again” so well received in the 1930s. I know, another digression, but bear with me, I’m getting to the point.
So, the scene is a rather famous one. The problem is that it accomplishes nothing narratively. It is the only scene in which Dietrich’s character dresses or acts that way in the entire film, so one has to assume that it was shot this way just to be memorable. This was Dietrich’s American film debut after all, and by filming it this way, the makers of the film assured that the audience had something to talk about while leaving the theater. Well, mission accomplished. If only the rest of the film worked.
In Morocco, we get one of those film in which a cabaret singer named Amy Jolly meets and is pursued by two men. The first one, Kennington La Bessiere (played memorably by Adolphe Menjou), is, of course, a gentleman, and while his initial interest in Amy may be based more on physical attraction than real love, it soon morphs into something both stronger and more genuine. The second man is Tom Brown, a member of the Foreign Legion who has made a habit of loving and leaving women every place he’s gone. He’s bombastic, rarely says the right thing, and has likely left a rather long trail of tears in his wake. In other words, he’s the kind of jerk that women always seem to go for in movies, even when there is a better option right in front of them. The film compounds this error by giving Amy and Tom so little time to develop the kind of bond that the film insists they have.
Tom is played by the legendary Gary Cooper, yet it is immediately clear that Cooper was still finding his way as an actor. He seems unsure of his character and has surprisingly little rapport with Dietrich. Their conversations are littered with awkward pauses, and at key points they seem to talking past each other. I never sensed anything close to the deep-seeded connection that the film insists they establish in their early scenes together.
Just three years earlier, Cooper had appeared briefly in William Wellman’s Oscar-winner Wings. In a key scene, Cooper had caught the audience’s attention with his depiction of a pilot about to embark on a deadly mission. While facing the camera, Cooper began what looked like a military salute, only to give it a slight flip toward the end. It was the mark of a character unwilling to give in to despair, yet also conscious that the impending flight could be his last. If this was indeed his final dogfight, he was going to depart with his head held high and with no evidence of fear or hesitation. The moment was truly memorable and endeared him to audiences all over the United States. I mention this because Cooper makes the same gesture repeatedly throughout the film, and immediately it is diluted of all relevance. Instead of being a show of Tom’s resolve, it eventually becomes a personality quirk, something done out of habit and instinct, yet with nothing behind it. At one point, Amy even does it to him, and by the middle of the film, it’s practically a joke.
The film also marked the American debut of German director Josef Von Sternberg, who had made a splash earlier in the year with the German film The Blue Angel, also starring Dietrich. I won’t say that he was finding his way, but it seems clear that his choices were limited somewhat. He seems to be working on a small set and without the means to present the story in the way he probably wanted. For example, in one key scene, an unseen enemy keeps opening fire on a squad of advancing Legionaries, yet Von Sternberg is never able to establish just how real the threat to the men is. There are a few sound effects of bullets firing, but no one reacts in a way that makes us understand the peril they are in. One of them even cracks a joke about some money that Tom owes him. The insertion of comedy into serious moments was an all-too-common aspect of many early films, and the end product is a scene that doesn’t seem to respect the situation it is trying desperately to depict.
There’s a somewhat interesting subplot involving the repercussions of an earlier affair that Tom had with a married woman, yet its conclusion is telegraphed too far in advance, thereby draining it of much of its emotion. By the end of the film, I didn’t care whether Amy and Tom ever saw each other again. In fact, had the filmmakers had any guts whatsoever, the film would have ended with Amy living out her days in Morocco in wealthy bliss. Alas, it cannot. After all, what’s the point of von Sternberg focusing so much camera time on the local Moroccan women who follow their Foreign Legion boyfriends into the punishing desert if not to teach Amy what someone in love really does? Luckily, her French boyfriend has so much affect for her that he’ll do the very things that lead to his own heartbreak. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like the actions of someone who deserves a happy ending. (on DVD and Blu-ray as part of Criterion’s Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood box set)
2 and a half stars
*Somehow Morocco was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Actress and Best Director. Even more surprising, the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1992. It was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Go figure.