Category Archives: Marlene Dietrich

Desire (1936)

“She can start a revolution with me anytime.”

In Desire jewel thief Countess Madeleine de Beaupre (Marlene Dietrich) pulls off the ingenious theft of an extremely valuable pearl necklace. Then she’s off to meet her fellow thieves in Madrid when she bumps into hardworking American engineer Tom Bradley (Gary Cooper). He’s on holiday for the first time in years, and he’s determined to really enjoy himself.

The film is interesting to begin with, and although Cooper plays the engineer with a great deal of charm, and Dietrich–as always–is fun to watch–the romance between these two characters lacked any sparks. It’s obvious that the film is trying to capitalize on the contrast between Dietrich’s exotic European presence and Cooper’s good-old-fashioned lack of sophistication. While this works, it works almost too well, and I couldn’t help wincing at the idea that the naive Bradley intends to unleash the sultry countess on the streets of his unsuspecting native city, Detroit. The prospect of such likelihood becomes a little absurd. Consequently, the film, while containing some marvelous dialogue, requires a whopping dollop of suspension of disbelief. The dynamic between the couple was at its best when Cooper spars with Dietrich’s fellow thieves and the conversation is laced with innuendo. Dietrich and Cooper fans will want to see the film–but it lacks the greatness of Dietrich’s Josef von Sternberg films. Directed by Frank Borzage.

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Blonde Venus (1932)

 “My conscience wants to take a vacation.”

Blonde Venus–a Josef von Sternberg film stars the incredible Marlene Dietrich. When the film begins, it’s Germany in the late 20s. American tourist and chemist Ned Faraday meets and woos German maiden Helen. After a brief courtship, they marry, settle in America and have a child. Years later, Faraday becomes ill and needs expensive medical treatment, but the Faradays are poor. Helen throws aside her apron and springs to action–seeking employment in a nightclub. Of course, she’s an immediate sensation and catches the eye of wealthy playboy Nick Townsend (Cary Grant). Nick gladly coughs up the money to send Helen’s hubbie off for the cure, and as soon as Ned takes a ship for Europe, Helen and her little boy move into Nick’s swanky mansion…

This film is a must for Dietrich fans. Dietrich performs an incredible number “Hot Voodoo” and transforms from a gorilla costume to her slinky, naughty self. Dietrich seems to play those roles in which she creates her own moral code–always contrary to the moral code of those around her, and in Blonde Venus she certainly does what she considers the right thing. As Helen, she has three loves in her life–her husband (and he’s a bit of a bore), dashing lover Nick (and he’s got the money), but her true devotion is to her little boy. The ending is extremely corny, but after all, the film was made in the 1930s, so what can you expect? Josef von Sternberg made several films starring Dietrich, and fans of either the director or the star should seek out a copy of Blonde Venus. It’s well worth watching.

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The Devil is a Woman (1935)

“How can you lose what you never possessed?”

In The Devil is a Woman, passion and jealousy are set against the backdrop of carnival week in Seville. When the film begins, revolutionary Antonio Galvan (Cesar Romero) takes advantage of a carnival mask to sneak inside the city. There he catches a glimpse of the beautiful, sensual Concha Perez (Marlene Dietrich). Antonio meets old friend Don Pasqual (Lionel Atwill) who warns him to avoid Concha at all costs. Over drinks, Don Pasqual tells his story of exactly how he met Concha.

Approximately 2/3 of the film is devoted to Pasqual’s reminiscences of Concha. He tells how Concha cleverly fleeced him again and again. Pasqual gives large sums of money to Concha’s ‘mother’ for example, but once the cash is handed over, Concha plays fast and loose with Pasqual or ‘Pasqualito’ as she calls him, and disappears for months at a time. Pasqual never learns his lesson. Concha takes him for large sums repeatedly, and in one outrageous scene, she takes money from Pasqualito’s pocket only to hand it over to a matador lover standing a few feet away.

Marlene Dietrich fans should love this Josef Von Sternberg film. She wears the most outrageous costumes–including hats with a 3-foot wingspan. With her exaggerated eyebrows, and suggestive looks, the film plays her role to the hilt. She’s at once a victim, a vamp, and a heartless seductress who claims she loved Pasqualito “for a minute.” Pasqualito claims Concha has “ice where others have a heart.” But all of Concha’s outrageous behaviour serves only to make Pasqualito more obsessed and Antonio fascinated.

The Devil is a Woman is a light, playful film. Most of the Spanish officials appear as stock buffoon characters–unable to resist Concha’s wheedling and cajoling. There’s one scene, for example, when Concha enters a room full of officials as they huddle around a desk. Silence falls on the men as she enters the room, and then immediately the men start falling over her for attention. In another scene, Concha sings a suggestive song in an open-air cafe, and the subject of the song is the manner in which she juggles three lovers. This song is, of course, a reflection of Concha’s life. All the men in her life must possess her completely, but that’s like trying to hold smoke in your hands. Concha is ultimately her own woman–the love ’em and leave ’em type. Always light–never faithful and forever elusive.

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Shanghai Express (1932)

“If you’re thinking of reforming me, you might as well save yourself the trouble.”

Chang: About two days journey from here into the interior I have a palace waiting to be graced by your presence. Could I persuade you to accept my hospitality until such time as you grow weary of me?
Shanghai Lily: I’m weary of you now.

Dr. Harvey: I wish you could tell me there had been no other men.
Shanghai Lily: I wish I could darling…but 5 years in China is a long time.

I have a weak spot for films set on trains, so since Shanghai Express is a combination of Marlene Dietrich, director Joseph von Sternberg and trains…well, I loved it. Set in the 1920s, the passengers take a literal journey to Shanghai, but the journey is also figurative: hypocrites, liars, and scoundrels are unmasked, and everyone’s moral stamina is sorely tested.

The film begins with passengers loading onto the Shanghai Express for the Peking-Shanghai trip. The country is on the brink of civil war, and there are rumours of revolutionary activity. The passengers feel a vague sense of unease, and they will be relieved to reach their destination.

The international passengers include: a Frenchman who’s going to visit his sister, pompous Reverend Mr. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), British army officer, physician Captain Harvey (Clive Brook), a mysterious Chinese woman Hui Fei (Dora May Wong), perennial gambler American Sam Salt (Eugene Palette), Mr. Henry Chang (Warner Oland) and elderly Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale) who’s traveling with her dog. When the infamous Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich) boards the train, some of the more strait-laced passengers express outrage at her presence. But Shanghai Lily connects with Hui Fei, and they share a compartment.

Shanghai Lily and Hui Fei are both ‘fallen women,’ and the other passengers are outraged that they are forced to share the same train. According to Dr. Harvey, Shanghai Lily has “wrecked a dozen men,” and she’s “riding this train in search of new victims.” It seems that Capt. Harvey and Shanghai Lily once had a passionate affair, so he isn’t very happy to see her again. It’s difficult to see just what the luscious Lily sees in such a stuffed shirt, but then again during some of their more romantic scenes, Dietrich takes a playful tongue in cheek pose that lightens the seriousness of the mood.

When revolutionaries commandeer the train, the true moral courage of the passengers is revealed. Some of those who were highly respected end the journey under a cloud of scandal, and some passengers are forced to reevaluate their opinions of Shanghai Lily. Dietrich is enchantingly luminous in this film, and many of her lines are loaded with sexual innuendo: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”

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