Morocco (1930) Review

Morocco (1930) Director: Josef von Sternberg

“Every time a man has helped me, there has been a price. What’s yours?”

★★★★★

Based on a German novel called Amy Jolly by writer Benno Vigny and adapted for the screen by Jules Furthman, Morocco is a brilliant and alluring picture. It was to be 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. Morocco was Dietrich’s introduction to the American screen and for it, Josef von Sternberg would go on to secure a nomination for Best Director from the Academy Awards. Along with Dietrich, Morocco also features the “The Tall Glass of Water” of early Hollywood, Gary Cooper.

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 who serve 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. Apparently, Marlene Dietrich and Gary 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 but nothing else. Meanwhile, von Sternberg obsessed over Dietrich while filming –her accent, lighting, angles, pronunciation of English words and so on. He even went so far as to monitor the plucking of her own eyebrows to get the lighting just right. She was an ordinary German girl born Maria Magdalena von Losch who von Sternberg had plucked out of obscurity (she previously appeared in small unknown German films), and was turned into the world’s most mysterious, exotic, and sexual star of the early 1930s.

Morocco is another tremendous movie from Josef von Sternberg. The plot plays out as if in a hazy dream though it is Marlene Dietrich whose screen presence permeates the film. 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, reminding me of Casablanca, another hazy noir-esque film about two jaded yet star-crossed lovers in Morocco.

The Virginian (1929) Review

The Virginian (1929) Director: Victor Fleming

★★☆☆☆

The Virginian is a classic Gary Cooper western, an adaptation of Owen Wister’s 1902 western play and novel of the same name. An important film in Cooper’s career, he plays the titular role of a man from Virginia who becomes a Wyoming foreman (though the movie was actually filmed in California). He gets into a scuffle with a cattle rustler named Trampas (Walter Huston) who routinely tries to thwart him. A new schoolteacher moves to town, Molly, and they fall in love. On their wedding day, Trampas returns for a shoot-out, but the Virginian outdraws him and shoots him dead.

Gary Cooper later called The Virginian his favorite film, though it is unfortunately less than memorable in my view, despite the capable direction of Victor Fleming. I’m not really sure why it made it onto my list. Through no fault of its own the sound quality has been terribly preserved (though there have been enormous efforts undertaken in the 1990s) and it makes the film often difficult to follow. Gary Cooper is entertaining despite the script’s many cliches. I would not recommend this film to any but true devotees of historically important western films. Perhaps I will revisit this one in coming years and come to a different opinion.

A Farewell To Arms (1932) Review

A Farewell to Arms (1932) Director: Frank Borzage

“The Greatest Love Story of the War”

★★★☆☆

Frank Borzage’s interpretation of Hemingway’s famous novel stars Gary Cooper -who also starred in the 1943 version of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls– and Helen Hayes. The film won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Sound. A Farewell to Arms is a classic, however it fails to capture much of Hemingway’s novel, and so it falls a bit short in my eyes. Whereas Hemingway’s novel was a sorrowful tragedy, the film focuses exclusively on the undying love between Henry and Catherine.

A retelling of the plot will not do justice to the magnificent novel, however a terse summary here will suffice. Lieutenant Frederic Henry is an American ambulance driver in Italy during the First World War where he meets Catherine Barkley, a nurse. They fall in love and are married while Henry lies wounded and recovering on a hospital bed. Shortly thereafter, their love is discovered and Henry goes derelict from his unit on the Italian front in order to return to Catherine only to find that she has disappeared to Switzerland. She was sent away from her job as a nurse when it was discovered she was pregnant. Henry arrives at her hospital just in time to find her dying while in labor and the child also tragically dies. She dies with Henry by her side.