28 March 2010

She Did More Than Just Kiss a Woman: Marlene Dietrich in 'Morocco'

The most powerful force I've ever encountered is the human female. The repression of women by men throughout history is evidence of the massive insecurity at the heart of the male psyche. Men have employed all the powers at their command, beginning with physical force, to keep women in positions of servitude whenever possible.  Woman is a force of nature that men, in all our simple mindedness, have never been able to fully comprehend.

Yet a woman will at times fling reason and her God given gifts to the wind and devote herself to a man literally willing to follow the lucky bloke to the ends of the earth. This is part of the total incomprehensibility of women.

As a measure of its extreme stupidity, Hollywood, a male dominion, has turned its back on powerful women and their stories for most of the last half century. Today our female leads are either naifs barely out of adolescence, or silly comic actresses, or pretty but vapid faces whose sole function is as arm candy for hunky leading men.

While actresses like Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Penelope Cruz and Charlize Theron are ready willing and most able, modern day producers and directors don't know how to utilize them. They get some good roles, but rarely as stars.

To see a truly transcendent female performance you need a to look back -- way, way back -- to the days of Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck and of course, Marlene Dietrich.

Dietrich had a series of incredible performances that made mediocre films good, good films great, and great films masterpieces. The list include Der blaue Engel (1930), Blonde Venus (1932), Shanghai Express (1932), The Devil is a Woman (1935), Scarlett Empress (1934) and of course Morocco (1930).

All these films were from director Joseph von Sternberg who know how to direct a woman, at least Dietrich who he loved, literally, physically and most important to us, cinematically. (All but one of these films came before the enforcement of the Production Code which did far more more harm to women's roles than to men, effectively denying their sexuality, keeping them out of bedrooms and boardrooms.)

Morocco is an utterly ordinary story that is elevated to classic status by Dietrich (with an enormous assist from von Sternberg). Gary Cooper is French Legionnaire Tom Brown and Dietrich is chanteuse Amy Jolly who arrive in the title city almost simultaneously. Brown catches Jolly's opening night performance and the two go gaga for one another. Jolly's first number features her in a tux taking a rose and stealing a kiss from a female in the audience. Sadly this is often all anyone knows about the film and it has been analyzed ad nauseum at the expense of the rest of Morocc's many attributes.

Both Brown and Jolly are avildy pursued by others and their situations are further complicated by their repsective lines of work But this is one of those loves that is "special" in the way so many in films are. Yet this is different than most film story loves. There is a remarkable restraint in what we see of the two together and even what is hinted at. We do not need steamy scenes of passionae love making. Indeed the couples' first scene alone together is a whole lot of talk and the chatter is not all that racy either. But when the female lead is blessed with so much seductive conviction, you don't need a whole lot more to get the idea.

Dietirch was a woman who could (what am I saying she, thanks to the magic of film, still can) turn a man to butter just by crossing her legs. What legs!

Like Willie Mays chasing down a flyball she made it all seem so bloody effortless. There is something so wonderfully natural about her movements, her facial expressions, that combined with some very calculated mannerisms make her the ultimate seductress.
And we haven't gotten to the voice, both spoken and singing and in any of three languages. It has such a stength and conviction to it. Combined with how slowly each word is formed this has the effect of making each word wrap itself slowly around a man's ear, lovingly caressing his eardrums. Surely english being her second language (or third) and her accent enhanced the effect of her speech. The words had to be though through as spoken making them carefully and wonderfully rendered.

What makes Morocco so fascinating is that she's got all of this going for her and then throws in desperation. Despite the employment of all her charms, Legionannaire Brown plays it pretty close to the vest. He loves her but isn't it going to make a spectacle of himself about it. For a woman of such magnetism to have to work so hard for a man gives her a vulnerability that can make male viewers wan to pitch forward and beg the heavens to be with her. Now, today, as she is then, in a movie from 80 years ago. This is aprt of the feminine mystique, to be so powerful yet to fall so hard for one of us. These powerful creatures exposing their hearts and souls and losing not a wit of dignity in the process. No wonder we men fear women.

*Spoiler Alert* In the end the heroine follows the dope and his troop into the vast desert, leaving all behind, kicking off her high heels, helping pull another female follower's goat. It can be viewed as the ultimate act of abasement for this woman to surrender everything for a man. But in this story, with this star it is just an incredibly deep manisfestation of true love. This is her chocie. And her willingnes to leave behind a man who promises wealth (Adolph Menjou) not to mention a career is a declaration of independence.

Morocco is at times stitled, slow and some actions seems unmotivated or over the top. But the effect of Dietrich as this incredibly powerful creature is not to be missed.

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