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.

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.

Image result for shanghai express josef von sternberg

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.