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 Blue Angel (1930) Review

Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) (1930) Director: Josef von Sternberg

★★★★★

Starring Emil Jannings (of The Last Command and The Last Laugh) and Marlene Dietrich, The Blue Angel tells the tragic story of a Weimar high school teacher’s fall from grace. At the time, Jannings was hailed as the world’s finest actor (he was the first winner of an Academy Award for Best Actor). In the title, the word “blaue” has a double meaning – both for ‘blue’ as well as ‘drunk’ – hinting at the drunken nature of his love for Marlene Dietrich’s character. The Blue Angel was one of the first German sound films, and it is also known for being the film that brought Marlene Dietrich to international stardom, a fame which soon led to an ongoing partnership between Dietrich and Sternberg for six further films. The plot for the film is based on a novel by Thomas Mann’s brother, Heinrich Mann.

In the story, Professor Rath is a teacher of high school boys, but the boys mock him and play ceaseless pranks on him. He is a bumbling, calculating man yet he also carries a commanding presence. The students call him Professor ‘Unrat’ (meaning “filth” or “garbage”). At the beginning, he is a well-established and respected teacher, at least by his peers. One night, he punishes several boys for their obsession with a racy local singer named Lola Lola. He follows them to “The Blue Angel,” a nightclub where Lola Lola sings in an attempt to chase the boys away from this alluring licentiousness, but once he sees Lola Lola he quickly falls in love with her. Each night, she sings songs like: “Beware of Blondes.” He returns the next night to see her, and he is so captivated that he spends the night with her. While getting lost in their romance, he forgets about his teaching job and shows up late to an already chaotic and undisciplined classroom – the boys have drawn a graphic picture of professor Rath dancing. As the classroom becomes unmanageable, he is promptly fired. He then flees to the arms of Lola Lola and proposes marriage to her but without any financial prospects he then joins her traveling show on the road. He eventually dons the appearance of a clown for the show where he is embarrassed every night. At the same time, he is driven mad with envy for Lola Lola who is a “shared woman.” In the end, he witnesses Lola Lola go upstairs with another man. He is dragged onstage to perform his little clown show while back in his hometown where the audience mocks him and we see his fallen station in life on full display – the former professor is laughed at for his empty mind and he is forced to crow and lay eggs for entertainment. He flees the stage in a fit of madness and tries to strangle Lola Lola (now his wife) before running out of the theatre. He wanders across town back to his old school at night, his figure becomes transformed into a hunched and deranged form. At the conclusion of the film he dies clutching his old desk at school.

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The Blue Angel incorporates elements of Expressionism, with odd shaped shadows and buildings in true Germanic fashion. Josef von Sternberg initially filmed two versions of this movie: one in English and one in German. The German version is generally more accepted today. The Blue Angel is a marvelous and horrifying film. Following on other German films of the time, it highlights the downfall of a once great man –the collapse of a middle class academic at the hands of a pretty young cabaret singer.

The Last Command (1928) Review

The Last Command (1925) Director: Josef von Sternberg

★★★★★

Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command showcases the apex of Emil Jannings, the controversial silent film actor won the first Academy Award for Best Actor – and deservedly so – for his unique performance in this film. Additionally, William Powell was a featured star (it is unusual to see him in a silent film, considering his wonderful performances in the 1930s in The Thin Man series and My Man Godfrey). The Last Command is a horrifying character study of a former commander who is given one last chance to return to his former glory through the magic of movies.

A poor Russian extra with an odd head twitch comes to Hollywood. He is an older man called in to star in a movie. Immediately, the director (played by William Powell) recognizes him. Now, the bulk of the film transforms into a flashback hearkening to the days of Czarist Russia, wherein our protagonist, Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings), was once a powerful commander and cousin of the Czar of Russia. We watch him publicly whip a young revolutionary across the face. The young man’s companion, however, falls in love with the commander and helps him escape from a train when the Bolsheviks take over. However, shortly after jumping off the train, he turns to watch in horror as the train falls from a collapsing bridge, killing everyone onboard. This causes him to develop an unusual head twitch.

Ten years later, he is in Hollywood and as it turns out the director recognizes the former Russian commander. He was the one who whipped him across the face in Russia years before. To humiliate him, he casts Alexander as a Russian general, and Alexander has a genuine moment of confusion as he relapses back to believing himself to be that Russian commander again, and as such, he delivers a stunning performance, one complete he promptly dies. The director, played by William Powell, remarks on how Alexander was a great man. Thus concludes the film.

Later, Ernst Lubitsch went on to claim that the story for this film was based on a partially true story: a former Russian general fled Russia upon the eve of the revolution and moved to New York and opened a restaurant and later in Hollywood tried to work as an extra.

Shanghai Express (1932) Review

Shanghai Express (1932) Director: Josef von Sternberg

“You’re in China now, sir, where time and life have no value.”

★★★★★

In Shanghai Express, Marlene Dietrich delivers a highly memorable and seductive performance (her fourth of seven films with Josef von Sternberg). She struts about from scene to scene in expensive furs surrounded by gorgeous and hazy imagery created by Von Sternberg. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Cinematography (winner). It outperformed the famous Grand Hotel at the box office and was also remade into two later films in the ’40s and ’50s.

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The story is taken from a Henry Hervey story called “Sky Over China.”

We are dropped into the midst of the Chinese Civil War as several Westerners board a three-day train from Peking to Shanghai which is stopped and inspected by government officials, but it is later hijacked by a revolutionary leader. The story is based on true events that took place in 1923 when a warlord successfully ransomed 25 Westerners and 300 Chinese individuals in a similar scenario. The Hays Office kept a close watchful eye over Shanghai Express for its portrayal of Western and Chinese politics. In the film, the revolutionary leader is Henry Chang (played By Swedish actor, Warner Orland) who coldly remarks, “you’re in China now, where time and life have no value” as cattle are removed from the train tracks. One of the Westerners is “Shanghai Lilly” (played by Marlene Dietrich) a notorious Western escort in China also called the “notorious White Flower of China.” Aboard the train, she happens to meet her former lover Captain Donald Harvey (played by Clive Brook), a medical doctor. The two rekindle their love for one another after five years apart -the Captain had previously left her out of petty jealousy. However, the other Western passengers despise Shanghai Lilly for her illicit prostitution.

“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lilly…”

The revolutionary Henry Chang ambushes the train at midnight hoping to use one of the Westerners as ransom in exchange for one of his captured compatriots. Chang offers Shanghai Lilly the chance to be his mistress in his palace but she refuses. Captain Harvey tries to defend her by punching Chang him in the face, but Chang then rapes Lilly’s associate who is a Chinese woman named Hui Fei (played by Chinese actress Anna May Wong). When Chang threatens to burn out Dr. Harvey’s eyes, Shanghai Lilly strikes a deal to depart with Chang as his mistress, however Hui Fei then shockingly kills Chang, and they all flee the scene, but Harvey does not forgive Lilly for choosing Chang, not knowing her decision was made to save him from torture. Eventually, Lilly and Harvey embrace in love at the close of the film.

Shanghai Express is a beautiful but dark (almost noir-styled) film that is replete with excellent acting from Marlene Dietrich, an enticing plot, and wonderful cinematography. Shanghai Express is a classic example of all the glamor and decadence of the Golden Age of Hollywood amidst luxurious and ornate costumes contrasted with the hanging haze of smoke and mirrors.