A magnificent exploration of passion, featuring iconic gender fluidity
If there were ever a film in which aesthetics are as important as the narrative, it’s “Morocco”. Heavenly visuals, symbolism, and unnatural pauses manage to capture thoughts and emotions while forwarding the story. This film is cinematic poetry. A prime example of the phrase "give pause", a slowed and stylized pace allows the viewer to drink in atmosphere, faces, and situations - and to feel. Once in tune with its distinct tempo, a powerfully visceral portrait of passion emerges, not set in reality, but in a ravishingly veiled dream world. Don’t be misled by my assertions, as this film is not esoteric or cryptic. This artistic achievement is very much an early sound, Pre-Code Hollywood film with a simple story, movie stars, and even some songs. ”Morocco” earned four Academy Award nominations: Best Director (Josef von Sternberg); Best Cinematography (Lee Garmes); Best Art Direction (Hans Dreier); and Best Actress (Marlene Dietrich). It also made it to #83 on AFI’s list of “The 100 Greatest Love Stories Of All-Time”. Every time I watch this film I am awestruck.
The first scene exemplifies the film’s unique pacing and style. After exotic music plays over the opening credits, we begin to see and hear Foreign Legion troops marching in the distance. As they approach and enter the town, the camera dwells on the walkways and the locals' reactions before giving us a chance to clearly see the troops. After about two minutes, we get our first good look at them with a close-up on the handsome “Légionnaire Tom Brown”, who’s flirting with a local woman. With virtually no dialogue, director Sternberg has already cinematically painted portraits of locale, ambiance, and emotion, while informing us about “Tom”, and the contrast of two distinct cultures. As the camera lovingly lingers over the men praying in the street, shadows breathtakingly move over them as they kneel, bow and walk. It is quite an extraordinary and daring opening, and just one example of the wondrous use of tempo, shadows, and visuals that define this film.
“Morocco” charts the story of cabaret singer “Amy Jolly”, caught between a Légionnaire for whom she has fallen (“Tom”), and a frightfully wealthy gentleman, “Monsieur La Bessiere”, who has fallen for her. What emerges is not so much a fight between the two men for “Amy’s” affections, but an exposé on desire and love, and what one is willing to do for them. It is also a rumination on the power of women shown through the seemingly pansexual and extremely independent protagonist, “Amy”. Made during the Pre-Code Era (which I explain in the “Red Dust” post), this film casually contains a lot of implied sex as well as some gender fluidity. I’ll mention more about this in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section to read after you see the film.
“Morocco” is very much the brainchild of its director, Josef von Sternberg, one of early cinema’s true artistic geniuses. Through his films he sought to capture abstractions like thought and emotion rather than physical action, by using tools such as symbolism, lighting, sets, costumes, and dissolves. He summed it up best in his first feature film, “The Salvation Hunters”, in which an intertitle reads “Our aim has been to photograph a thought”. “Morocco” came about a dozen films later, and by this point he was combining his abstract style with mainstream filmmaking. That’s what makes “Morocco" stand out all these decades, along with it having given birth to its star, Marlene Dietrich. Known for his exceptional composition and lighting, each frame of this film elicits enough emotion to hang in a museum's photo exhibition. Sternberg’s use of symbolism is subtle, whether showing “Tom” engulfed by women’s bracelets, using a pair of dolls as surrogates for self, or the destruction of a pearl necklace delineating the end of a lifestyle. Sternberg places wall, hanging wires or other objects in the foreground to add emotion and flavor. Even the way he superimposes maps over marching troops to show distance is arresting. He is a master of artistic entertainment.
Josef von Sternberg was born in Vienna, Austria, to a poor Orthodox Jewish family. His father went to the US to find work, and he and his family followed when Sternberg was seven years old. While living in New York, at about twenty years old he entered the film business in Fort Lee, New Jersey (the film capitol of the world from about 1909 to 1918), fixing damaged films at the World Film Company. He soon took other jobs including editing, writing, film lab supervision, set design, and assistant director, learning everything he could about filmmaking. After serving in the United States Army Signal Corps during WWI and traveling, he moved to Hollywood where he worked as an assistant director. Sternberg directed his first feature in 1925, the silent film “The Salvation Hunters” (he also wrote, edited and oversaw the film’s set design). Being a bit avant-garde, the film didn’t score at the box office but was a critical success, catching the eye of Hollywood heavies Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin. Little did he know it would be the start of rocky times in a struggle to maintain his view that film was an art form and not simply a business. Pickford hired him to write and direct her next feature, but then rejected his script feeling it was too “experimental”. MGM hired him and he made “Exquisite Sinner”, only to have the studio reshoot, rework and reedit his work because they felt it was artistically beautiful but confusing. Lacking creative control over his next MGM film, “The Masked Bride”, he walked off during production. Next, Chaplin hired him to direct “A Woman of the Sea” in 1926. It was shown once, then Chaplin refused to release it, feeling it was too expressionistic. After moving between Europe and Hollywood, in 1927 Paramount Studios offered him a position as a technical advisor for lighting and photography. He accepted and was given three days to rework a Clara Bow film (also with Gary Cooper) titled “Children of Divorce”, which he managed to salvage. His next film as advisor was “Underworld”, and through a series of events, he ended up as the film’s director. After so many rejections over not being commercial, he finally managed to combine his aesthetic approach with more commercial type storytelling. “Underworld” was a resounding success, forcing theaters to stay open all night to accommodate crowds, and it has since become a classic (and has the distinction of being noted as the first gangster film). He made four more silent films for Paramount over the next two years, including the classics “The Last Command” and “The Docks of New York”.
In 1929 he was summoned to Germany to direct film star Emil Jannings in a German sound film, “The Blue Angel”. Jannings had starred in “The Last Command” (and won a Best Actor Oscar for it) and requested that Sternberg direct his first sound film. German and English versions were simultaneously filmed, and "The Blue Angel” is often considered Sternberg’s masterwork. Sternberg cast German actress Marlene Dietrich as the female lead, and it made her a star (though it wasn’t yet released in the US). With the success of “The Blue Angel”, Sternberg returned to Hollywood, and Paramount gave him more control over his films - the first being “Morocco”, also starring Dietrich. It too was a critical and box office success, and earned Sternberg his first Best Director Academy Award nomination. Sternberg would follow it with five more collaborations with Dietrich, all continuing his aesthetic directorial approach. They include the equally astounding classics, “Shanghai Express” (for which Sternberg earned his second and last Oscar nomination) and “Blonde Venus”, both in 1932, and “The Scarlet Empress” in 1934. The latter, along with their next and last collaboration “The Devil is a Woman” in 1935, were box office failures and Sternberg was no longer considered one of Hollywood’s top directors. His films with Dietrich were the zenith of his sound film career. He made about a dozen more films (all without Dietrich), including "Crime and Punishment", "The Shanghai Gesture", "Anatahan" (which he considered his greatest film), and his final film "Jet Pilot" in 1957. Known as Dietrich’s Svengali, their creative relationship extended to a sexual one, which ended his first marriage. He was married three times, divorced twice. In 1965 he published his autobiography, “Fun in a Chinese Laundry”. Josef von Sternberg died in 1969 at the age of 75.
Gary Cooper stars as “Légionnaire Tom Brown”, the object of women’s affections. Having lost his faith in love, he escaped to Morocco to ditch his lovelorn past, only to be blindsided by “Amy”. Cooper brings a sublime and endearing youthfulness to the role. His awkwardness and boyish charm have never suited him better than in this role, and he is arguably more expressive than he’s ever been on-screen. In particular, his reactions are brimming with feeling, truth, and sex appeal. Just watch Cooper’s face as “Amy” sings - how it quizzically sizes her up upon her entrance, fills with lust as he smells a flower, bursts with life as she sings the song about her apples, and changes to desire as he devours her apple. His reactions are genuine, and it might be the only time I’ve seen the reserved Cooper express authentic joy. I love him in this film and feel it is his best performance. At the time, Cooper was already a star, though his career was needing a breath of fresh air. Sternberg revitalized Cooper with “Morocco”, bringing an intriguing sexually alluring spark to his screen image. He and Sternberg clashed on the set (perhaps because Sternberg’s focus was on his muse, Dietrich), and Cooper vowed never to work with Sternberg again (and never did). Cooper and Dietrich did get along and had a brief affair while filming, and the two reunited for the 1936 film, “Desire”. I wrote much more about Gary Cooper in my post on the classic film “High Noon”. Please check it out to find out more about him.
Marlene Dietrich stars as “Mademoiselle Amy Jolly”, a cabaret singer who also ends up in Morocco to distance herself from her past. Dietrich is gloriously startling in this star making performance. In many ways, “Amy” is the incarnation of passion itself, and Dietrich portrays her as strong with a somewhat ethereal quality. Sternberg integrated silence into his sound films, and here he presents it largely though “Amy’s” slow maneuvering and speaking. It suited Dietrich, who was fluent in German and French, but less so in English at the time. “Amy’s” unnatural pauses (often mid sentence) were at the explicit direction of Sternberg, and they create a mysterious quality and a feeling of longing. Throughout the film, “Amy” repeatedly looks at herself in mirrors, as if trying to find herself. It is a fascinating character study. Other than primal moments such as her reaction when hearing the Foreign Legion’s drums while at a dinner, “Amy” is most animated when onstage performing.
As we watch her confidently dress for her debut at the cabaret where Moroccan high society congregate, Dietrich immediately shows a fearless and inaccessible quality that both “Amy” and Dietrich herself seem to possess. When she enters and performs her first song in a tuxedo, this character becomes even more enigmatically captivating. And the way in which “Amy” eyes “Tom” before she sings, brilliantly begins the cat and mouse game that ensues between the two for the remainder of the film. This introduction to “Amy” was also a well planned introduction for Marlene Dietrich, whom US audiences didn’t yet know. While Cooper’s persona was still being refined by Paramount Studios, Dietrich’s was in the hands of Sternberg. Gary Cooper’s daughter said it best in an interview from a Turner Classic Movies promo, when she quoted her father as saying, “No player ever rises to predominance solely on talent. They are molded by forces other than themselves”. While his remark applies to every major movie star of the studio era, if there were to be one prime example, it could easily be Dietrich. She had the good fortune to be molded by a man whose art is filled with beauty and mystery - both of which he endowed upon her persona. Paramount was in on the game too. One cannot underestimate the Goliath nature of movie star Greta Garbo (who I wrote about in the “Camille” post). Every studio was looking for the “next Garbo”, and Paramount was hoping Dietrich would be it. As such, they held back the release of “The Blue Angel” (in which she played a harsh character), releasing “Morocco” first. It worked. While Dietrich was no Garbo (no one else could be), she was Marlene Dietrich - filled with her own brand of exotic mystery, sex, and glamour. She made such an impact with “Morocco” that she earned a Best Actress Academy Award nomination - her one and only. She became a top movie star, Hollywood icon, style icon, gay icon, and legend, known for her beauty, her husky voice (which she insured with Lloyd’s of London for $1 million), her unique singing style, her legs (which the studio insured), an aloof sophistication, and a smoldering sexuality. She overflowed with that one important and undefinable characteristic - star quality. When she’s on-screen, you can’t look anywhere else. Dietrich’s allure was so immense she was voted #9 of the women on the AFIs list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends”.
German born Marlene Dietrich originally set out to become a violinist. Seduced by the cabaret, nightlife and culture (and open sexuality) of 1920s Berlin, she began modeling, acting, singing and dancing in cabarets and theater. Dietrich made her way into German silent films beginning in 1923 with “The Little Napoleon”. She continued to appear in German silents, eventually landing lead roles beginning with “Cafe Electric” in 1927. In the 1928 film, "The Ship of Lost Men”, she donned mostly men’s clothes. Appearing in theater while making films, Sternberg saw her on-stage while looking for a female lead for “The Blue Angel” . Taken by her stage presence, he gave her a screen-test. She was an unlikely and unpopular candidate, but he saw something in her he thought he could mold, so he gave her the part. She played a sadistic femme fatale cabaret singer, a type new to the screen. It made her a star. In a way, Dietrich is responsible for “Morocco” becoming a film. After she finished “The Blue Angel”, she gave Sternberg a going away package for his voyage to America which included a copy of the book, “Amy Jolly” by Benno Vigny. Little did they know that from it he would envision a film and summon Dietrich to Hollywood as its star. The two had one of the most enigmatic and creative partnerships in Hollywood, as he created films specifically designed to showcase the Dietrich persona they both created, officially beginning with “Morocco”. Dietrich was openly bisexual, and she happily let it influence her image. On-screen she would cross-dress as well as look like a glamorous leading lady. Her ambiguous persona has been called sexual without gender, as she was both masculine and feminine. Sternberg took control over many aspects of her life, including negotiating contracts and having her lose weight. As she’s said publicly many times, he taught her everything. She learned how to stand for the camera, apply makeup, learned lighting, editing, and all she would need to know to maintain and protect the Dietrich image. It could be argued that her work in the Sternberg films were the zenith of her film career. In some ways, Dietrich was a casualty of the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934. With it, her femme fatale role of questioning femininity would no longer fly. Along with Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and Joan Crawford, by the late 1930s Dietrich was labelled box-office poison. Her comeback came with the 1939 classic western, “Destry Rides Again”. With the rise of WWII, she actively opposed Adolph Hitler, fascism, and racism, and turned down repeated invitations by the Nazis to return to Germany.
Dietrich became a US citizen in 1939, stood with the US in the war, was among the first entertainers to sell war bonds and to entertain the US frontline troops, and was awarded the US Medal of Freedom for her war efforts. The German press labelled her a traitor - a label that hurt her personally to some degree for the rest of her life. She was never anti-German, just anti-Nazi. After 1933 her films were banned in Germany. In 1945 she returned to Berlin to visit her family, and after learning that her sister spent the war entertaining Nazi officers, she never spoke to her again. Though Dietrich found a maturity and versatility in her post-Sternberg career, she never regained the heights they reached together. She did appear in later classics, giving some marvelously memorable performances, including "Touch of Evil", "Around the World in 80 Days", "Rancho Notorious”, "A Foreign Affair", "Witness for the Prosecution", "Stage Fright", and "Judgment at Nuremberg”. As she aged and could no longer sustain her screen image, she turned her focus back to cabaret, giving concerts around the world, including a stint in Las Vegas where she wore a famous “nude” dress designed by Jean Louis (who I wrote about in the “Pillow Talk" post). She also stopped in West Germany for a 1960 concert tour, and though it was attended by huge crowds, it was also met with bomb threats and protesters telling her to go home. She decided never to return. In 1975, after falling from the stage and breaking a bone, she moved to Paris where she lived out the rest of her life, mostly in isolation. She made one final film appearance in “Just a Gigolo" in 1978, and lent her voice to a 1984 documentary about her, “Marlene”. In 1924, she married assistant director Rudolf Sieber, and the two remained married in a mutually open marriage until his death in 1974. They had one daughter. Very sexually active, she publicly had many lovers, male and female. Among them were George Bernard Shaw, John F. Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, Jean Gabin, Mercedes de Acosta, and Frederique 'Frede' Baule. Dietrich was part of the underground “Sewing Circle”, a group of Hollywood bisexual, lesbian, and questioning women who would meet for gatherings (sometimes at the house of actress Dolores Del Rio while she was married to Cedric Gibbons). With her confident display of pansexuality, Dietrich was ahead of her time. Marlene Dietrich died in 1992 at the age of 90.
Adolphe Menjou is perfect as “Monsieur La Bessiere”, the straitlaced gentleman who falls in love with “Amy”. Unmeasurably wealthy, “La Bessiere” can offer “Amy” all that money can buy, and is someone who would do anything for her. Yet unlike “Tom” and “Amy”, he never seems part of their dreamworld. His character moves more in reality, making for a very interesting contrast and raising the stakes for “Amy”. With his perfectly waxed trademark mustache and impeccable suits, Menjou epitomizes the suave upper class gentleman.
Adolphe Menjou began appearing in silent films in 1916, working his way to substantial supporting parts in such classics as “The Sheik”, “The Three Musketeers”, and a major role in the Charlie Chaplin film “A Woman of Paris”. He often played aristocrats or some sort of high class scoundrel. By the end of the 1920s he became a matinee idol, starring in such films as “His Private Life”, “Fashions in Love”, and "A Gentleman of Paris”. With the stock market crash he was forced to change studios, after which he rarely took a leading role. One exception was in the classic 1931 comedy, "The Front Page” (which was remade as “His Girl Friday”, another film on this blog), for which he received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination (his only). Menjou became known for his clothing and style, and was voted the Best Dressed Man in America nine times. If you watch enough classic movies you will definitely see Menjou, as he appears in many classics including "Stage Door", "A Star Is Born", "Golden Boy", "State of the Union", "Paths of Glory”, and "A Farewell to Arms”, just to name a few. He worked steadily through the 1950s, amassing about 150 credits which include a few television appearances. Infamously an enthusiastic and friendly witness before HUAC during the McCarthy Era (which I explain in the “High Noon” post), he named names of supposed Hollywood communists which hurt his reputation to a large degree. Sadly, you don’t often hear positive stories about him, which I guess is what prompted Dick Cavett to ask director George Cukor in a 1980 interview, “Why is it you never hear a good word about the late Adolphe Menjou?”. To which Cukor replied, “I don’t want to use a four letter word, but he was a dreadful creature, in every way… I thought he was a horror”. It has also been reported that Menjou and Katharine Hepburn (with whom he made four films) loathed each other, and over time only spoke to one another while acting. Despite his political leanings and disposition, Menjou gave some memorable performances and adds just the right flavor to “Morocco”. He was married three times. Adolphe Menjou died in 1963 at the age of 73.
This week’s film is a powerful, gorgeously stylized exploration of passion and love. You definitely want to see this one! Enjoy “Morocco”!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and keen knowledge of film will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday for every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
The section of “Morocco” in which “Amy” wears a tuxedo is perhaps the film’s most famous. Part of Dietrich’s appeal is her willingness to appear androgynous, and in an unusual way it titillated both men and women. When she unexpectedly kisses the woman smack on the lips after taking her flower, it is a bit shocking (and risqué at the time). The tuxedo and the kiss established the mystique of the character “Amy”, as well as that of Dietrich the star. Beginning with that song, the roles between masculine and feminine are somewhat blurred in the film, as “Amy” and “Tom” each struggle to be in charge, and keep switching roles as the pursuer and the pursued.
Every time I watch this film, the final scene takes my breathe away. Through its unstated power and emotion, it becomes deeply moving. A lot has been written about it, in particular, the shot of “Amy” leaving her shoes in the sand. Many people comment how she won’t last more than a few hours, and is marching to her death. Knowing this film isn’t always literal, I take it as a statement that she is leaving behind all reason and solid ground on which to stand, and completely giving herself over to love. Another thing that is striking about the ending is the length of the shot. The camera just holds and holds and holds, while they disappear. Her leaving through an archway creates a beautiful bookend, as the film starts with an equally lengthy sequence of people arriving though an archway.