20 July 2008

The Set Up

(Spoiler Alert)
Okay I'm watching a movie I've never seen before: Golden Earrings (1947). All I know going in is that it stars Marlene Dietrich.  From the opening credits I learn that Ray Milland co-stars. The rest of the cast is unfamiliar to me.

I'm going to look for how the story is set up.

It's London, 1947, a foggy night and we enter a gentleman's club. Not an uncommon opening.
At the front desk the clerk gets a young lad to deliver messages to two members, one described as an American. The American receives his message and learns he must catch a plane to Paris on urgent business. The other message goes to Milland. What's this? He's got streaks of white in his hair, this suggests that we'll soon be going into a flashback as Milland hadn't grayed yet in real life. Milland has received a package with two golden earrings. He seems quite delighted.

So far so good.

Milland goes to the front desk walking by the American who is in the company of two others. The American is immediately intrigued to note that Milland has two holes in his ears as for earrings. In 1947;  this is curious indeed. The American asks his companions about this abnormality. They can shed no light on it. They do say that Milland's character is a fine fellow, a war hero who before the war was a bit of a stuffed shirt.


At the front desk Milland is told that he can indeed get on the next flight to Paris.  He's overjoyed.  This all obviously relates to the earrings he's received. We know the American will be on the flight so more will be revealed. We can guess that Dietrich sent the earrings and Milland is going to meet her. We've got many questions and look forward to their resolution.

Nice start.

The next scene is on the plane and, of course, the American finds himself sitting next to Milland. After a bit of hemming and hawing the question about the earlobe holes comes up. To answer the question Milland will have to tell a story.  Now we'll get the lead-in for the flashback.  Flashback movies offer an air of romance.  A character remembers a happier time, nostalgic for a time and place where there was perhaps adventure and almost certainly romance. The audience relates to the these sentiments and is easily hooked.

Milland's flashback takes us to Germany on the eve of the second world war. He and a mate were on a spying mission for the military and they'd been caught. We start the flashback as they plan their successful daring escape. The two get away from the evil Nazis and are on the run in the heart of Pre-war Nazi Germany.


They split up with plans to rendezvous. Fifteen minutes into the movie we're most intrigued and antsy to see Marlene. We are introduced to her from behind with her familiar voice humming a tune as she sits by a river. She is a "gypsy" and it is obvious to even the most causal movie goer that she'll be aiding Milland and there will be love.

The story has been beautifully set up.  I'm ready to sit back and enjoy an  adventure romance set during a key moment in history with the exquisite Marleen Dietrich at the center of the story.

Well done, director Mitchell Leisen and writers Frank Butler and Helen Deutsch.  This has been an absolutely textbook set up for a movie.

Unfortunately, the movie as a whole stunk. Dietrich and Milland had no on screen chemistry. The pacing was poor, the cinematography unimaginative, the story line weak and many of the actors playing Nazis positively chewed the scenery. One wonders if Josef von Sternberg saw the manner in which Dietrich's beautiful face was slighted by Liesen's camera. He likely had a fit.

Leisen had been good with Claudette Colbert in Midnight (1939) and No Time for Love (1943). But I've gotten spoiled seeing the manner in which von Sternberg shot her. It's amazing to note that Dietrich was 46 when Golden Earrings was made and absolutely stunning–hell, she was stunning over ten years later in Touch Of Evil (1958).

So let's go back in time and have Fritz Lang  or Robert Siodmak direct Golden Earrings with Cary Grant or Michael Redgrave as the male lead.

Keep  the set up though, it was bloody good.

1 comment:

R. D. Finch said...

Do you think this movie had anything to do with Dietrich's rather Gypsyish getup in "Touch of Evil"?

You're certainly right that nobody made her look as good as von Sternberg. Even in "The Blue Angel," where she looked chubby and almost cuddly (in contrast to the evil personality of her character), she was lighted and photographed with loving care. When she went to Hollywood and slimmed down, those incredible cheekbones dominated her face, and she looked like a goddess.

One of her beauty secrets that kept her looking so young was revealed by Shelley Winters, who also used it. Dietrich, who in later years always wore her hair long, would lift her hair at the back. Then she would make a slender braid right behind each ear, pull them tight, tie them together, lower her hair back into place, and voila! instant facelift.