Scarlet Empress (1934): Marlene The Great

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In the case of his excursions into historical drama, director Joseph Von Sternberg only used the past as a kind of malleable tableau on which to impart his own creative vision. Once more the cornerstone of this vision is Marlene Dietrich, and she is poised to become the greatest monarch of her time: Catherine The Great.

A nice bit of tribute finds Dietrich’s daughter (Maria Riva) portraying Sophia in her youth. Her movie mother’s only desire is to find a fine husband for her to marry to improve the family’s stability. Her father is a far more benevolent figure (C. Aubrey Smith).

Very early on there is the juxtaposition of ghastly torture mechanisms reminding us how dastardly humans can be with their cruel devices. Contrary to this is the sheer opulence and in this regard, The Scarlet Empress is all but unparalleled in its generation of period dramas. Historical accuracy be hanged.

The story continues with pace which is usually a welcomed addition when it comes to the often sluggish genre of period drama. Marlene plays her opening scenes wide-eyed, with a kind of spaced-out innocence. Because she is still a creature of adolescence as she gets sent to Russia as the betrothed of Peter III.

Her husband to be (Sam Jaffe in his debut) is vacuous, head on a swivel with a dopey incredulousness plastered on his face. Meanwhile, her demonstrative Queen Mother (Marie Dressler) remakes the impressionable girl to her liking — with a new name, new clothes, and all the expectations that come with her new station. More than anything else, she is expected to bear a son, an heir to the throne, and this is her primary usefulness. This is her only agency.

It’s almost gluttonous how indulgent the wedding sequence and all the subsequent sequences are in their pomp and regal showmanship. With the nation still dragged down by the Depression, one questions if the common man was taken with the escapism or was nauseated by the sheer extravagance.

While the images are visually splendorous, initially there are far too many title cards interspersed. However, they do begin to make their purpose more evident as the movie never seems to get unnecessarily bloated by dialogue. In some respects, they do set a kind of narrative precedent and use that to create a rhythm throughout the movie. It’s almost more like a silent picture, more concerned with a sweeping overview of a life — the impressions left behind — than honing in on every significant moment.

The sheer scale is staggering in the most extraordinary manner because there is no CGI. Von Sternberg has manicured and incubated this entire consolidated world inside the palace that’s without equal.

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The lighting, the ornate touches, gossamer canopies veiling Dietrich’s face in her chamber, and then outside the inner court hosts of ghoulish gargoyles, statuettes, and iconography of the Pantokrator fill the halls. It gives this uneasy sense of orthodoxy mixed with German Expressionism, but Von Sternberg utilizes it well. The Scarlett Empress really does feel like an exhibition for his skills as a wizard of mise en scene and environment. The costuming certainly is another extension of this.

Dietrich doesn’t really come into her own until a good hour and 10 minutes into the movie. From thenceforward there’s no stopping her consolidation of power. With his mother on a sharp decline and then on her deathbed, the king (Jaffe) is ready to marry his mistress and cast his wife out as he makes his long-awaited ascension.

But Catherine is no longer that ignorant girl she once was who merely avoided her gawky husband. She now knows how to play the political game — the kind of nepotism a station like hers relies on, and she readily uses all the means at her disposal.

Her feminine wiles mean she has the army in her skirt pocket bent to her whim. One of her greatest allies and lovers is the dashing rapscallion Count Alexei (John David Lodge). She has a secret passageway in the back of her chambers where she can usher her lovers in and out so they realize they aren’t totally indispensable.

What’s intriguing about the movie is not distinct plot points but growing to understand the textures of the world and how they form and shape the people in their midst. The Scarlet Empress becomes as much about how people look and how they carry themselves as much as anything else.

Marlene Dietrich might be altogether unmatched in this department. Purportedly she requested her iconic fur hat to be created especially for her, and it met with some resistance from the costuming department. Whatever the qualms, who could ever doubt her?

She only wears it momentarily. Maybe for a mere scene. Is it too frivolous? Certainly, but as she walks through the chambers inspecting the troops, looking as smart as she ever has, she’s totally inimitable. In that moment, she feels like one of the greatest cinematic royals hands down. Images are powerful. We know that.

It has little to do with policy or even action. All these things come later and that’s why we read our history books. No, here in The Scarlet Empress it’s about posture and presence and all those intangibles making the greats great and all the others merely peons and subsidiaries in the game of life.

Amid the clamoring bells and rapid montage, as she charges up the steps triumphant, flanked by her newfound army, Von Sternberg aids in The Scarlett Empress’s ascension to the epoch and with it the ascension of Marlene Dietrich as a star. It takes someone with true magnetism to fill up such a role promising so much, and she handles it with her usual aplomb. You can’t well forget her. She won’t let you. She embodies the Scarlet Empress. She is Marlene The Great.

4/5 Stars

Dishonored (1931): Marlena Dietrich, The Sultry Spy

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The premise is established in broad strokes. It’s 1915 and the remnants of the Austrian empire are caught up in war. This can only have meaning if we see some of the chaos in front of us. In this case, a prostitute lies dead in the street — with a host of onlookers crowded around — a mysterious mustachioed man eavesdropping and poking about. He’s looking for someone, listening to their conversation.

As the people walk through the streets, the sensation of rain sounds almost tinny and fake but this is part of the marvelous illusion. Because this is Joseph Von Sternberg, the famed spinner of bounteous tales offering so much to their audiences in the form of sensations and palpable milieu.

Eventually, the clandestine man — actually the chief of Austrian secret police — settles on a woman, but not just any woman. It is Marlene Dietrich in all her glory. They settle on a romantic rendezvous.

Not only does Dietrich give us so much, as is her habit, but her apartment itself is cluttered with all the sorts of trinkets that allow us to make sense of a person or at the very least appreciate them more fully.

There’s the piano. Sketches up on the walls. The place where she stashes her shoes. The little dancing figurines suspended from the ceiling. The empty bottle of wine. However, more crucial than anything else she proves her own character — she might live a meretricious lifestyle, and yet she’s a staunch loyalist and a war widow. Her allegiances are unmistakable.

It’s immediately evident Marlene is a woman in a man’s world, but she sure has her pick of the litter. Because everyone is bending over backward to escort her, to be with her, to get to know her. Her new superior is well aware of her assets supplying her a new alias — X-27 — and an assignment of vital importance to her homeland.

There’s a casual nonchalance to her when being propositioned spy work. But this only works if there’s a brazenness in the face of certain danger. She has both in equal measure. It’s true the subject matter plays as surprisingly lithe and modern for Von Sternberg as he casts his muse as a Mata Hari-inspired spy with steely poise and a touch of class. She’s an inscrutable beauty fit to play the game.

What’s lovely is how everything is delivered in between the lines. Heroes. Villains. Friends. Enemies. What’s the difference? For these people, it’s their business and so they find time for romance whatever the scenario might be. There are no hard feelings because the current climate has bred this kind of immediacy. Nothing beyond the here and now can matter. One must make the most of the moment.

Dietrich is brilliant at the masquerade party. It’s our first chance to see her in her new regalia — plumed and sequined, teeth smiling from under her disguise — and she’s only one of a myriad. It’s the most gloriously decadent party I’ve ever seen. You’ll have to see for yourself if it’s hyperbole or not.

However, X-27 has other business to attend to. Her first mark is Warner Oland a high-ranking General who’s also subsequently purported to be a turncoat. She must use the art of seduction to implicate him. But he’s not the only one.

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Captain Kranau (Victor MacLagen) was also present at the party and equally taken with the woman’s allure. He’s a Russian Agent playing the same game of cat and mouse she is. In the service, of Ford, MacLagen always felt broadly Irish. Here he seems toned down and well-fitted for the role if only for the fact he hardly tries to upstage Marlene. It’s better not to have Coop. She needs no equal in this picture and it’s true no one can outdo her. This is her story more than anyone else’s.

What more can be said as they joust back and forth globetrotting across borders and meeting under all varying degrees of circumstances? X-27 does her finest impression of a cleaning woman and a kitty cat all in one sequence. He finally has her cornered. We think this spells the end and yet she riggles free. Her wealth of secrets transcribed into music and memorized. She wins another round.

This is what becomes so riveting because the movie is constructed out of these kinds of jocular bits of leisure, but they are a pretense or a visual projection or smokescreen over a very harsh even cutthroat subject matter. He tells her in one interchange, “the more you cheat the more you lie, the more exciting you become.” It’s like a harbinger of Bond decades later.

However, lest anyone misconstrue his intentions, Von Sternberg is vehemently critical of unyielding military protocol. In fact, in a gut-wrenching final scene, it makes a young soldier blubber. He witnesses the utter cruelty of war when it comes to the rule of spy and counter-spy. Still, Marlene takes it with her usual poise — stalwart to the end — and frankly, she’s unforgettable. As she waits out her final days, her last requests are authentic to her character from the beginning. She requests her piano and the black dress she used to wear in her previous life. These are her identity. This is her uniform.

The ultimate irony of the movie is its title. Against the vociferous objects of Von Sternberg, the studio settled on “Dishonored.” But this cut-and-dry analysis of her station in life fails to understand the intent of the entire film. It’s tantamount to saying Sophie Scholl was dishonored in standing up to the Nazis or that the figure of Christ was dishonored for standing up for what he believed in, what he was called to. In X-27’s case, her guiding light was love — even love precipitated in momentary encounters — it can still be a driving source behind any human heart.

We have a fair amount of modern spy movies now anchored by female stars. Their main objective seems to be an exhibition in showing women as powerful entities, capable of kicking butt. This is fine, but sometimes there is no illusion left. No added depth of character. Dietrich is unparalleled, feeling exciting and aloof until the very last frame. We want more of her not less, but she leaves us while she’s still ahead. What a run she had with Von Sternberg, in her third picture following The Blue Angel and Morocco, with still more to come.

It’s less heralded but might just be the best of the lot. It comes quietly and then ambushes you with all its many assets — thoroughly exquisite to look at and also thematically resonate. What’s more, it has a genuine sense of fun and intrigue which isn’t always the easiest combination to come by. Its range of surprises is the kind you relish as a moviegoer. They stay with you.

4.5/5 Stars

Angel (1937): A Mature Lubitsch Love Triangle

For those familiar with Trouble in Paradise, Angel has a  sublime outside-the-window tracking shot in its own right to bring us flush into the world of Parisian soirees. Thusly, we become acquainted with Russian Grand Duchess Anna (Laura Hope Crews), who facilitates meetings between men and women. 

It’s possible to barely catch the subtext here. What’s apparent is by the sheer serendipity of cinema Marlene Dietrich and Melvyn Douglas wind up in a drawing-room together. Dietrich feels particularly laid back. Normally, she’s beautifully aloof; here it’s a bit different because she’s not looking to maintain an aura at all. It makes her all the more genial.

Joseph Von Sternberg always cast and projected Dietrich as a screen goddess. Working with Lubitsch, Dietrich feels like a far more relatable human being albeit a beautiful, refined one. She doesn’t totally overwhelm with her sensuality remaining mostly reserved. 

Tony Halton (Douglas) is in town for the day and is looking for a time. She offers up the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower (that big steel thing sticking up in the air), and Notre Dame. No offense to “The City of Light,” but none of them pique his interest. The lady in front of his eyes is far more incandescent. She’s a bonafide angel.  

It’s true there’s something fresh and appealing about their interaction. They don’t know one another’s names nor does she bother to correct the mistaken identity, and it doesn’t matter. In fact, it even augments what they have because they are so fascinated by one another. It means a dinner invitation and spending the night together. This could be the movie right there. 

Then, Sir Frederick Barker (Herbert Marshall) is shown aboard a screeching steam engine 20 minutes into the picture. We almost forgot about him, and we take a total about-face toward events that remain interrelated. Before we ever meet the man, we learn he must be a gentleman of some renown because he’s all over the papers. 

He is served faithfully by his fastidious manservant (Edward Everett Horton), Graham, who has the ear of a very powerful man. He’s seen his fair share of diplomatic affairs: dinners, white ties, and tailcoats. They make him quick to judge the merits of international diplomats. Because his master is one of the finest, single-handedly standing up to 21 countries in The League of Nations (not including the U.S.). 

Barker returns home late one evening to be reunited with his wife Maria (Dietrich). It’s obvious they have affection for one another — they care deeply about their marriage — but before she fell for another man, there was already a third party in their relationship: his work. 

To grasp at obvious metaphors, there’s a tinge of Casablanca married with a kind of Melvyn Douglas Ninotchka romance and the stuffy propriety of Cluny Brown. Take, for instance, the melange of servants headlined exquisitely by Horton and Ernest Cossart.

In perfect Lubitschian fashion, a dinner is viewed from the kitchen’s point of view as they perceptively observe two of their dinner guests are out of sorts. They didn’t touch their food. They weren’t hungry. Although it’s never said outright, Lubitsch allows us to put two and two together. One can only surmise it’s due to lovesickness. 

Because there is only one way this movie can get more complicated and more painful. The men must meet. However, far from being antagonistic, they are old friends meeting on a whim. Once upon a time, they shared a French girl all the way back during the war years when they were both still young. Whether they know it or not, they also share another girl: Angel. They have no idea the beehive that’s been kicked. Lubitsch only gives that to us. We are resigned to watching the outcomes. 

The hourglass structure of the movie means we must end where we began. We know time is running out. We are back in Paris, back with the Duchess, and she performs her narrative duties a bit like a maestro. Unwittingly or not, she has all the main players stashed away in different drawing rooms. It’s inevitable that they find each other. The situation calls for it. There is no other possible resolution. 

In the olden days, you have a sense this film would have been lithe and effervescent as only Lubtisch could offer up. Standing before us are all his penchants for drawing rooms, the affluent classes, and their servants. 

But what sets Angel apart is the tone and the profound solemnity Lubitsch often brings to the proceedings. The melancholy of the central love triangle is unmistakable even in the final minutes of the film. In this case, it’s difficult to totally dismiss the extravagance. Still, we’ve come to understand these people, both their passions and their nobility. Because Lubitsch’s films somehow compel me the most when they grab hold of such feelings, where the emotions cut far deeper than the surface ironies. 

As far as Dietrich’s concerned, it might be one of her greatest performances. In the place of ostentatious allure, there stands a quiet dignity comfortable with silence. The whole movie is made in such a mode where these interludes develop the longing. In a quiet encapsulation, husband and wife walk out of the giant estate both together and apart. Their marriage still standing but on the verge of dissolution.  It’s not so much a paradox as it is an indication of the tenuous nature of their lives moving forward.

3.5/5 Stars

Stage Fright (1950): Hitchcock and Dietrich

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It’s true that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” However, dress it up with murder and life becomes a series of stages and varying performances you’re putting on for different audiences — trying your best to play your audience — while not giving yourself away.

Stage Fright feels very much like Hitchcock getting back to his roots; there’s something simpler and yet still charming about the milieu he’s able to drum up evoking the British Isles. In reality, it was a convenient excuse to spend more time with his daughter Patricia currently away at school in the U.K. She even earned a small role. It’s also propitious he seems to be having good fun with the conceit: the combination of play-acting and murder with actors trying their hands at amateur sleuthing.

We are thrown into an almost instantaneous thriller. It dispenses with the lead-up altogether by showing a couple on the run in a car. A fledgling actress, Eve (Jane Wyman), is the complicit accomplice and Richard Todd is a man fleeing the authorities. Through an extensive flashback, he relates how he was pulled into the web of murder spun by his lover — the famed and gorgeous prima donna Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich).

He tries to touch up the crime scene she’s left behind only to get spooked by her maid turning up on the scene. The murder investigation commences in earnest including a respectable detective named Smith (Michael Wilding).

Eve sets the fugitive up with her father, out of harm’s way, before turning right around and hatching a plan to get to the bottom of the whole thing. One minute she’s trying to get close to the aforementioned policeman to somehow pump him for information with her damsel in distress act. The next moment, she’s putting her thespian training to good use posing as a cockney maid (and temporary replacement) for dame Charlotte herself.

It has some of the dynamics of an All About Eve between actresses though it’s admittedly hinging on cloak-and-dagger antics opposed to true backstage drama. Because it’s on this plane of performance that Hitch seems most intrigued — where acting becomes a conduit for understanding the mystery at the core of this movie.

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If there were any undisputed secret weapon, my bet is up for Alistair Sim. He was always a mirthful co-conspirator if I’m to recall a movie like Green for Danger. He’s eminently likable, though the spark in his eye suggests he’s ever prone to mischief. This accords him all the prerequisites to play a fine father figure opposite Wyman if only for the primary reason they both seem to relish the game and being a part of it together.

They have the most instantly vibrant relationship within the picture, and they give it the comic underpinnings one comes to expect from the director. Sim himself meets the macabre of Hitchcock thanks to a bloodstained dress on a carnival doll used to shock Dietrich out of her performance of “La Vie en Rose.” It mirrors the ugly token of her secret transgression.

In another sequence, the wanted man shows up during her performance — a particularly saucy rendition of Cole Porter’s “The Laziest Gal in Town.” Before this interruption, the scene is pulled out of the Hitchcockian world momentarily. It’s an individual moment where an auteur like Hitch gets totally overpowered by Dietrich or, in many ways, he acquiesces allowing her to be her scintillating self in the golden limelight before the mechanisms of the plot are meant to take over once more.

Stage Fright feels perfectly comfortable being so theatrical. However, the ideas never feel fully wrought; it’s a bit scattered and inconceivable — nor is Jane Wyman the most compelling Hitchcock lead. Mind you, I’m not expecting her to be a Hitchcock blonde or Ingrid Bergman, but she’s not quite on par with even someone like Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt.

Likewise, the theater finale is terribly abrupt though it functions on the tenets of many of Hitchcock’s grandest setpieces by taking a novel environment and turning it into a thrilling locale for drama (Donen would rehash a similar sequence in Charade). The scenes in the build-up are of all shapes and sizes as Wyman rather coincidentally juggles a double life. It’s all highly circumstantial.

As it turns out, the lynchpin scene is right at the very beginning. Of course, we don’t realize that until the end, but right there is Hitchcock’s point. To see it any other way is a mistake. Because obfuscation and chicanery are the building blocks of not only acting but murder as well. Perceptions can change so quickly, and he was one of the greats at visual audience manipulation. In Stage Fright he takes it a step further. He lies to us outright on the screen.

3/5 Stars

A Foreign Affair (1948): Billy Wilder and Post-War Germany

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What A Foreign Affair offers is a curious mix of Billy Wilder’s brand of gleeful satire with docudrama. In this regard, it stands alongside the likes of The Search (1948) as one of the earliest American films to explore the world of post-war Europe with so much rebuilding to do both physically and emotionally. It plays as a precursor to One, Two, Three (1961) certainly, offering contemporary observations of the new world order. Still, one cannot even consider these films without acknowledging Wilder’s own background.

He was an exile from Nazi Germany who was welcomed into the American film industry with a myriad of emigre filmmakers, who, subsequently, helped fashion Hollywood into the worldwide powerhouse it would become. He was eternally grateful but never allowed that to totally cow his pointed barbs aimed at America’s inherent flaws.

During the dwindling days of the war, he even served with the Psychological Warfare Department to help develop propaganda material about the concentration camps. His time abroad and the securing of funding launched A Foreign Affair as his latest project.

In the opening moments, a Senate Committee is preparing to make their official visit to observe the current climate. The script’s aims are twofold, setting up the story while also bringing audiences up to speed about the bombed-out world below.

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Jean Arthur is more repressed than she’s ever been in her life with some license for her typical comedic chops written in as the narrative progresses. For now, she is a methodical taskmaster very cognizant of her constituents’ tax dollars. Perhaps we need more like her, but for the butt of a comedy, she’s an easy target. The congresswoman entreats her venerable colleagues that they must eradicate moral malaria once and for all as she’s increasingly wary of what they might uncover.

Col Rufus J. Plummer (Millard Mitchell) shows them the sights, stroking his cheek with bemusement (a recurring gag), as he catches everyone up on current events with his wry bent. Meanwhile, serving under him is Captain John Pringle (John Lund), one of the brave boys from home who has taken it upon himself to help rebuild the new world order on the liberating tenets of capitalism.

His typical hobbies include fraternizing with black marketeers to haggle for mattresses using chocolate cakes as collateral. As it turns out, it’s for a girl who drops her key out of the window every time he honks the horn of his jeep. Suddenly the film’s title has become an overt double entendre, and we have our movie.

John Lund is not without charisma and yet somehow the way he goes about this characterization feels all wrong. There’s nary an ounce of genuine charm conjured up by his faux tough-guy persona. It seems ill-fitting. At least he was likable in The Mating Season. Here he can barely hold a candle to the luminary talents of Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur no matter how different they might be.

As the Americans make the rounds on their carefully curated sightseeing tour, the representative from Iowa is positively scandalized by all the soldiers with their German gals. She makes a brazen decision, going undercover and winding up at a Hofbrau with a couple of lug head G.I.s,, posing as a reticent German fraulein named Gezeuinheidt.

In the process, she gets the poop on the sultry songstress formerly purported to be in cahoots with Goebbels or Gohring — one or the other. Her gabby companions surmise she still has big brass running interference for her. They’re not too far off and her Phoebe’s detective work brings her even higher up on the totem pole. The very top actually. The Fuhrer himself.

In danger of being ousted in his little arrangement, Captain Pringle starts romancing the congresswoman to keep her off the trail. If the dilemma’s not already obvious, it becomes even clearer in time.

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Unfortunately, A Foreign Affair drags a bit in the middle, and the plot doesn’t always maintain the usual self-assured zip of a typical Wilder picture. There are lulls and distractions, which can be enjoyable in their own right, though hardly bolstering the drama. The core issue is a lack of emotional investment in the characters. I love Jean Arthur to death, but her role flip flops too easily on its axle. Dietrich is striking as she ever was, but, again, she is larger-than-life, while the contours of the role itself feel ill-defined and uninteresting. At the very least, the stars the one making it worth it.

There was some talk that Dietrich got all the attention and the favoritism of from her director. And it’s true that she is beguiling even in this latter portion of her career. Arthur felt undercut. It starts with how the script is laid out. However, as she becomes more daring and uninhibited, one could argue Arthur gets the most out of her performance, even down to her always hilarious facial expressions.

Certainly, the camera loves Marlene Dietrich, her sleepy eyes, the husky yet sensual quality to her singing voice. That was her persona. Still, she’s the one playing mistress to an ex-Nazi so that’s not exactly the most flattering part.

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Consequently, the denouement doesn’t quite sit right with me. It feels like a muddled conclusion where events just happen, winding up in a manner that tacks on a convenient rom-com ending, instead of leaving us with something that feels truly cynical in the vein you grow accustomed to with the director.

What’s most compelling is the intersection of Billy Wilder and the world of post-war Berlin. Others could have told this story, but he seems uniquely positioned to offer a very personal perspective. The curious clashing of his typical tone of trenchant comedy somehow matched with the war-torn panorama. And there are intermittent moments where this is the case.

Namely, how he’s not squeamish about showing the aftermath, nor poking the beehive of Nazism with his stick. In one scene a heel-clacking father is having trouble with his little tyke who can’t stop habitually chalking swastikas on everything. For a brief moment, we are given a reprieve and license to laugh at such a horrible ideology. It’s almost cathartically hilarious.

In another scene, Colonel Plummer notes in passing how there is rubble of all kinds, be it mineral, vegetable, or animal. We know it to be true, but what an opportunity it would have been to see more of it. I’m reminded of the scenes in the Hofbrau with song and dance and cigarette smoke or the bombed-out streets crowded with black marketeering types. I recognize these are spliced together scenes between Berlin and a Hollywood backdrop.

But this is the exact reality that feels like such a ripe birthing ground for Wilder’s comedy. I never thought I’d be the one to say this; the roots of his romantic comedy all but got in the way of what could have been.

3.5/5 Stars

Rancho Notorious (1952): Chug-a-Lug

Rancho-Notorious-poster.jpgThe legend goes that the ever-meddling megalomaniac of RKO Pictures, Howard Hughes, insisted the film’s title be changed to Rancho Notorious because European audiences wouldn’t know what a “Chug-a-Lug” was. Director Fritz Lang, who was himself a European emigre, snidely replied they definitely knew what a “Rancho Notorious” was.

Regardless, Rancho Notorious doesn’t miss a beat with an opening close-up of a couple’s tender embrace. The lovers are pried apart reluctantly as Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) goes back to work as a ranch hand, leaving his best girl, Beth (Gloria Henry), to mind her mercantile store.

As he leaves, two strangers ride into town scowling around and leering at the pretty gal waving her love off on his way. One of the two thugs enters the shop to inquire about the contents of the safe, glowering over her lecherously as she reveals its contents. It doesn’t take much to extrapolate what’s next. You can fill in the blanks.

This sequence alone is a testament to the fact that the menace of Fritz Lang can even encroach on the colored palette of the western through music and foreboding shadow. With a woman now ruthlessly ravaged and murdered, it sets her man off on the trail seeking vengeance. But being the snake in the grass that he is, one of the marauders shoots his accomplice in the back before absconding with their cache.

Haskell makes it to their encampment just soon enough to induce the dying man to let out his final breath. The only tidbit he has to go on is the phrase, “Chug-a-Lug” so he goes on the trail again sticking his nose anywhere and everywhere people might have a lead.

More often than not it leads to a near-mythical lady named Alter Kean (Marlene Dietrich), tall tales of her exploits being spread all across the territory. Everyone from neighborly townfolk to old acquaintances gladly spin myths and regale the interested passerby with their recollections. Because while he’s interested, so is the moviegoing audience.

There were her days as a saloon floozie, racing with all the other gals on the backs of eligible young men and she had the pick of them all. In those days she worked for Baldy Gunner (William Frawley) though her employment was terminated prematurely. She was too rough on the customers and they were too fresh so she got the boot.

But not before running off with most of Baldy’s money thanks to the even-keeled strong-armed tactics of Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) who holds that often touted distinction of being “The Fastest Gun in the West.” He, like Alter, could easily be cast as a mythical figure. Everyone wants to see him and take him down. He just wants to be left alone instead of having to shoot his way out of every town he wanders into. Their reputations precede both of them and in that regard, they are kindred spirits. They seemingly understand each other. Romance might be in the air as well.

Why does this matter in Vern’s quest? For that, we must look to the Election Day taking place in a wild and wooly western town where Frenchy is currently being held along with a trio of crooked politicians. The three men are all set to be hung the very same day if their political party gets overturned. The trills of democracy haven’t really reached this far west yet. Anyway, Vern gets brought in on some minor charge to get close to this outlaw and gain his confidence.

Finally, his assiduousness pays off, and he follows Frenchy to an oasis for wanted thieves, lascivious vagabonds, and societal outcasts. He makes it to Chug-a-Lug, an isolated horse ranch now run by none other than Alter Kean, in all her glory.

He now has a group of men to begin whittling down because, if his suspicions are correct, then his culprit is undoubtedly among them. For now, it’s just Marlene and the boys of the range and she whips them pretty darn good, around the card table and otherwise.

Theatrically, Rancho Notorious has the relatively unique distinction of being an interior western. Certainly, there are exterior shots but due to budgeting at RKO and what he was given to work with, Lang is forced to go the cheaper route. However, he leverages that handicap which does often give way to a fake and garish looking mise en scène to nevertheless create an unnerving world of tension and claustrophobia.

The space is crowded with thugs just ready to go off like sticks of dynamite. They just need a match to light them off and Arthur Kennedy is precisely that. Of course, Dietrich is quite the firecracker in her own right and always the focal point.

The main themes highlighted in the title song of “Hate, Murder, and Revenge” would be returned to time and time again throughout the western canon but they also tie nicely into Lang’s own filmography.

One moment that Lang’s camera brings these themes to light most blatantly occurs when Kennedy spies the broach he gave his dead girlfriend on another woman. His gaze jumps down the gallery of leering thugs (maybe they’re only grinning) all around him with each successive cut. It’s jarring and also makes it supremely evident what Vern thinks of each and every one of them. The rage burns red hot. But he keeps it under wraps for now.

For now, the only progression that seems evident is Vern slowly moving in on Frenchy’s turf. Relations all down the line get continually testy. What follows is a contentious bank job that suggests there is no honor among thieves. Meanwhile, Alter is selling her ranch and ready to pick up and leave the territory. The end is nigh. We must have the Gunfight at Rancho Notorious or better yet The Gunfight at Chug-a-Lug to wrap up all the loose ends.

While not quite on par with Johnny Guitar, Dietrich, like Joan Crawford, more than holds her own, still strikingly alluring and fiercely independent. She also earns herself an ending that evokes and, in some ways, surpasses Destry Rides Again (1939).

In full disclosure, I rather like the title Rancho Notorious because not only is it slightly provocative but it gives some indication of the people who reside right at its heart. People driven by vice, rage, greed, jealousy, and passion. Because regardless of the location or the genre or the characters, Lang’s pictures were always about these intense emotions and innate urges at the core of human beings.

One of them is a purportedly good man who turns callous. Thus, we must question if the very same proclivities don’t rise up within ourselves. Could it be we’re all capable of a little notoriety? We all require a place to hide out one time or another and we all desire a second shot at redemption. Of course, the Chug-a-Lug wheel of fate is not always so forgiving.

4/5 Stars

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry-Rides-Again-1939Destry Rides Again is integral to the tradition of comedy westerns–a storied lineage that includes the likes of Way Out West, Blazing Saddles, and Support Your Local Sheriff. It takes a bit of the long maintained western lore and gives it a screwy comic twist courtesy of classic Hollywood.

The rambunctious town carries the fitting name of Bottleneck which runs rampant with guns, beer, floozies, and more beer. The town’s mayor has a permanent seat in the local saloon playing solitary games of checkers while turning a blind eye to many clandestine activities. Meanwhile, the bar’s proprietor and local hot shot (Brian Donlevy) keeps grips on numerous shady dealings including dirty poker and murder, if you want to get technical. Though he does put on a good time with a floor show courtesy of his best girl Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) who has the whole town swooning with her knockout looks. That’s the way the world works in Bottleneck and it’s a fairly crooked operation.

After the latest sheriff is laid waste the banjo-playing drunk is christened the town’s next lawman. It certainly is a fine joke but he does something somewhat admirable. He resolves to lay off the sauce and sober up. Calling in the grown son of one of his buddies from the old days to be his deputy.

Now he’s no longer a drunk. Just a blustering old fool who no one takes seriously for one moment. Still, when Destry comes into town he believes he will have the hulking spitting image of the boy’s father, a man who will instill fear in every local troublemaker. After all, that’s how things have worked in Bottleneck as far back as anyone can remember.

But instead of a leering heavy, he finds himself face to face with gangly Tom Destry Jr. who makes a memorable first impression on the town holding a woman’s parasol and a cage of parakeets as he helps a young lady off of the stage. However, in those opening moments he does a seemingly dangerous thing, instead of exerting his dominance he seems oddly comfortable in his skin. The townsfolk think he’s a pushover and he strings them along rather well. After all, he doesn’t carry any guns. He spends a great deal of time whittling and there’s a good-natured affability to his demeanor in nearly all circumstances. Added to that he has the oddest quirk of supplying an ever-ready stream of anecdotes for any given situation.

It’s such displays that earn the glee of the local thugs and hoodlums and the ire of not only his sheriff but the folks who feel he’s aiding their enemies. And yet in certain moments, he surprises them, proving to be an incredibly humble marksman (a precursor to Atticus Finch), breaking up a vicious catfight between two women with a pail of water, and getting buddy-buddy with the town’s rebels only to turn on them.

He seeks to bring law and order to the town on his terms looking to pin a murder on Kent in order to put him away for good. Of course, he’s not about to take it lying down and the town blows up into a scatterbrained finale that equals any of the zaniness in any of its aforementioned brethren of western comedy. As the menfolk fight it out with guns, Frenchy with a new resolve gathers all the womenfolk in an assault on the opposition using all blunt instruments imaginable from rolling pins to gardening tools. It’s sheer madness.

That’s not to say that Destry does not have its share of tragedy and that might be its greatest fault. Sometimes it doesn’t quite know where to fall between the lines of comedy and drama. Still, with the two legendary icons as luminary as James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, it’s hard for this one not to be a winner though they seem so diametrically opposed to each other.

However, Cooper and Dietrich worked surprisingly well in Morocco and so Stewart and Dietrich work in a pinch here.  There’s also an abundant stock company including future stars like Brian Donlevy and Jack Carson not to mention small time funnymen like Billy Gilbert, the long-suffering bartender, and Mischa Auer, the man who unwittingly loses his pants in a poker game. Moral of the story is, don’t gamble. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Destry would come in with a story right about now.

4/5 Stars

 

Morocco (1930)

Gary_Cooper_and_Marlene_Dietrich_in_Morocco_trailer_2.jpgBefore the exoticism of Casablanca, Algiers, or even Road to Morroco, there was Josef Von Sternberg’s just plain Morocco but it’s hardly a run-of-the-mill romance. Far from it.

Although it involves soldiers, it’s also hardly a war film but instead set against a backdrop that presents an exotic love affair as only Sternberg could. With a sultry Marlene Dietrich matched with a particularly cheeky Gary Cooper, it instantly looks to be an interesting dynamic because they couldn’t be more different.

She, a radiant German beauty with an evocative pair of eyes to go with a somewhat sullen demeanor. He, America’s ruggedly handsome ideal of what a man should be. And it in Sternberg’s film neither of them is what we’re used to.

He’s a renegade soldier in the French Foreign Legion. She’s a cabaret singer (that hasn’t changed) but she also manages to be French, not German. Somehow it’s easy enough to disregard because it’s not necessary to get caught up on the particulars.

All that matters is that they both find themselves in Morocco. He is traipsing through town with his division and spends some free time taking in her floor show along with the rest of the rowdy masses. Neither one of them has found someone good enough for them — they’re equal of sorts. He’s a gentleman cad if you will and she’s hardly an upstanding woman, making a living in a dance hall but there’s more to her. It’s hinted that she once had love, perhaps.

It takes so long for them to actually speak to each other but they’re flirting from the first moment they lay eyes on each other. They say so much through simple expressions all throughout the cabaret show. Things proceed like so. She slips him a flower, then an apple, and finally a key. At this point, he gets the drift and we do too.

Later that evening he winds up at her flat and they spend their most substantial time together. It’s full of odd exchanges, meandering conversations that run the risk of sounding aloof. In fact, their entire relationship is replete with oddities.

Another man (Adolph Menjou) is smitten with Amy but he’s never driven to jealousy. He’s good-natured and generous in all circumstances. People like him must only drift through the high societies.

She holds onto some wistful longing for the tall dashing Legionnaire who drifted through her life. But she’s slow to act. Meanwhile, he hardly seems to take it as a blow to his love life when she resigns to stay behind. After all, he’s quite the ladies’ man. He probably doesn’t need another woman. He’s always got several draped over each arm.

Morocco is a film interesting for the spaces that it creates and not necessarily for the story it develops. Visually, by the hands of the director and then simultaneously by Cooper and Dietrich as they work through their scenes both together and apart. Though it might in some ways lack emotional heft, its stars are still two invariably compelling romantic stars of the cinema.

Somehow it still manages to be quite lithe and risque when put up next to its contemporaries. It exudes a certain mischievousness of the Pre-Code Era. It’s not so much licentiousness and debauchery but it wishes to suggest as much. It can be implied without actually going through all the trouble of showing it.

Dietrich sums it up perfectly in her little diddy about Eve (What am I bid for my apple/ the truth that made Adam so wise? On the historic night/ when he took a bite/ they discovered a new paradise). In essence, the world got a lot more exciting when sex and deceit were brought into the equation. Maybe she misses the implications the Fall of Man but that’s precisely the point. Still more Pre-Code sauciness case and point.

In the final moments, where Dietrich abandons her heels and goes slinking across the sand chasing after her man, it feels less like a romantic crescendo or even a tragic turn and more like a ploy by the director to make his leading lady the focal point of his story one last time. She is granted the final bit of limelight. Because in many ways Gary Cooper could not win when it came to upstaging Marlene Dietrich orchestrated by her devoted partner/director Sternberg. Thus, Morocco turns out to be a rather curious love story different than some of the more typical Hollywood fare.

4/5 Stars

Shanghai Express (1932)

shanghaiex2The same year as Grand Hotel there came another film, that while still boasting an ensemble cast felt far more intimate. In its day it was christened “Grand Hotel on wheels” and its narrative does unravel aboard a train. However, Josef von Sternberg’s film opens with a faceless atmosphere spilling over with the bustling commotion of a railway station. It takes a few moments to lock onto the characters we will be making the journey with, but we won’t soon forget them.

The always reputable Eugene Palette, perpetually gambling his way to Shanghai. The invalid opium dealer is rather an annoying fellow, and the man of faith appears conventionally narrow-minded, although he does make a turn for the better. Warner Oland takes on a more menacing iteration of his Charlie Chan character, while Anna May Wong gets a well-deserved role as a fellow passenger who shares a room with the famed Shanghai Lilly, the fastest lady in the East. Yes, Marlene Dietrich is Lilly, a woman of notorious reputation, but she also carries a distant, wistful love affair in her memories. The train to Shanghai brings all that hurtling back in the form of Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brooks).

All this is set against the backdrop of a Chinese nation fraught with unrest. When the engine isn’t impeded by a stray cow or chicken, Chinese soldiers board it to apprehend an enemy agent. But that’s just the beginning. The rebels retaliate by holding up the train as well and questioning all the passengers on their financial and political capital. It’s a tense sequence of events that has no simple resolution.

shanghaiex1It is in these moments that are two female heroines must act. Hui Fei (Anna May Wong) so that she might defend the honor of herself and her country. Lilly so that she might express the great, expansive depths of the love she still holds for “Doc.”

Shanghai Express exhibits a simplistic view of religious faith as well love, but perhaps that’s actually one of its strengths. It suggests that faith and love go hand and hand whether it be Christianity or romantic relationships. It’s true that there’s no greater act of love than someone laying down their life or putting their life on the line for friends. There’s nothing overly melodramatic here, but everyone ends up where they are supposed to and justice is dealt. It’s an eventful, passionate, perilous train ride indeed.

Ironically enough, this is a film for the masses that completely disregards their class in favor of the first class club car. Except you could make the argument that they rather preferred the sumptuous extravagance of the upper classes to their own Depression-filled lives. Movies most certainly were the grandest of escapes from reality. Shanghai Express undoubtedly quenched their desire. At the same time, it’s simultaneously a story of exotic intrigue and human drama that blends the prodigal and the personal in high fashion.

To its credit, the film makes comment on Warner Oland’s complete lack of ability to look Asian, although he does fall into some other stereotypical potholes. Also, it acknowledges the preconceived expectations of Asian women that Anna May Wong resoundingly rebuts with her performance. She represents everything pushing back against the Yellow Face of Oland’s numerous portrayals. The effort by Asians to get more complex, multidimensional, and sympathetic. The path is still yet to be fully paved, and representation in media for any class or race is never going to be fully realized. We can never expect it to be perfect or overly politically correct. Because humanity is inherently broken and always and forever incorrect.

You can certainly say that Marlene Dietrich unequivocally overshadowed the career of her longtime lover and collaborator Joseph von Sternberg, but Shanghai Express belongs to both of them. He as her director. She as his muse. Despite, its meager running time, it’s a fine achievement and an enduring Pre-Code classic. 

4/5 Stars

The Blue Angel (1930)

blueangel1The Blue Angel is the name of a nightclub and it turns out to be a very fateful nightclub indeed. It just takes us a while to figure out why. Although Josef Von Sternberg’s film is known, rightly so, for making a star out of Marlene Dietrich — in the first of their 6 collaborations — this early German sound film is nevertheless about the decline and fall of Emil Janning’s character. Immanuel Rath begins as a professor at the local college, and although his pupils are unruly, he commands the utmost respect. He sees it as his prerogative, and he is quick to bring order and discipline to these young lads. But boys will be boys and they become corrupted by the beautiful cabaret singer Lola-Lola (Marlene Dietrich). One evening the professor drops into the seedy joint to look out for some of his troublemakers and talk with the proprietor. Of course, he unwittingly ends up meeting the gorgeous girl backstage and returns the following evening with a seemingly very flimsy excuse.

Ironically, his boys are not the only one who take a liking to her. The once restrained and reserved man of learning begins to change. He becomes a man obsessed and infatuated beyond the point of logic. But what does he care? He enjoys being in Lola’s company and the idea of a marriage proposal makes complete sense in the reverie that he is swimming in. So they do get married. The professor leaves all the common sense behind and goes on the road traveling with his wife and their promoter.

blueangel2But by this point, he is a sorry figure, so pitiful and bedraggled in every way. He reluctantly parades himself in front of audiences as a clown just to make some money for him and his wife. It is, of course, inevitable that he return back to his old stomping ground, and it does eventually happen. He reluctantly goes onstage and it is difficult to watch this final chapter. Lola is no longer his. He’s completely ruined. Completely destroyed. Oh how far the man has fallen, as he winds up keeled over on top of his former desk in the gymnasium.

I think I enjoyed Emil Janning’s in The Last Laugh more and yet to its credit The Blue Angel does not cop out in the end. It has a tragic trajectory that in some ways feels like a precursor to such noir as Scarlet Street and Nightmare Alley. It’s understandable how Dietrich became a star because stars have the capability of drawing your attention. Janning’s gives a wonderful performance certainly, but the allure of Dietrich is too much to discount. She steals the show just like she steals the Professor’s heart. We’re just “Falling in Love Again and we Can’t Help It.”

4/5 Stars