Morocco (1930) Director: Josef von Sternberg
“Every time a man has helped me, there has been a price. What’s yours?”
Morocco is a classic film – the first of six collaborations between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich in Hollywood (1930-1935) not including the German The Blue Angel which was also released in 1930 but didn’t appear in American theaters until 1931. This was Dietrich’s introduction to American audiences and von Sternberg would go on to secure a nomination for Best Director from the Academy Awards. Along with Dietrich, Morocco also starred Gary “The Tall Glass of Water” Cooper. Morocco was based on a novel called Amy Jolly by German writer Benno Vigny and adapted by Jules Furthman.
Morocco tells the story of the French Foreign Legion in Morocco during the Rif War (1920-1927), a war between tribal North Africa and the colonial powers of Spain, which is later joined by France. Gary Cooper plays a disillusioned legionnaire who is openly disobedient. Dietrich plays a jaded night club cabaret singer who arrives in Morocco and is offered help by a wealthier gentleman, which she refuses. She completes a performance that evening dressed in a top hat, coat, and tails; and she controversially kisses a woman in the audience on the mouth. Later, she delivers a more feminine performance. She slips Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) her room key. That night, Tom encounters Caesar’s wife, Tom’s head commanding officer (they have had a past relationship) but he decides to go to Jolly instead. They develop a mutual affection, until Tom is later caught out at night and his commanding officer discovers of the past liaison with his wife. Meanwhile, the rich man from the beginning of the film returns to Jolly to offer a proposal of marriage but she is ambivalent. Tom leaves with his company and they are followed by a trail of women who fawn over the departing men, and commanding officer Caesar is killed by machine gunfire. Jolly seeks out Tom and discovers him drinking in a bar. He has carved her name with a heart into the table. She decides to follow him in the end, trudging in high heels over the sand, and in doing so, she becomes one of the many women following the men they love in the French Foreign Legion.
The film was shot entirely in Southern California, however that didn’t stop the Moroccan government from issuing an invitation for tourists to come visit their “pristine” beaches as a vacation destination just like Gary Cooper. Dietrich and Cooper developed an off-screen romance as a result of the film, but she would later go on to characterize Cooper as unintelligent and un-cultured, a great actor primarily for his all-American physique if nothing else. Meanwhile, von Sternberg obsessed over Dietrich -her accent, lighting, angles, pronunciation of English words and so on. He even went so far as to monitor the plucking of her eyebrows to get the lighting just right. She was an ordinary German girl born Maria Magdalena von Losch who von Sternberg had snatched out of obscurity (she previously appeared in small unknown German films), and turned her into the world’s most mysterious, exotic, and sexual star of the early 1930s.
Morocco is a duly well-celebrated picture -another tremendous movie from Josef von Sternberg. The plot plays out as if in a hazy dream though it is Dietrich who ultimately makes the movie a success. Gary Cooper is somewhat forgettable (apparently, he and a von Sternberg were arch enemies during filming). As with other Dietrich-von Sternberg collaborations, Morocco was shot in a unique and exotic location in the Middle East. It contains the early seed of Casablanca, another film of two star-crossed yet jaded lovers escaping to Morocco.