Marlene Dietrich

Morocco (1930)

Morocco 1930When nightclub singer Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich) arrives in Morocco, she’s already lived and loved a lot and it’s left her exhausted.  The last thing she wants is to fall in love and be hurt yet again.  But when she spots Legionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) in the audience during one of her performances, she can’t resist him.  She gives him a key to her place and he comes to visit her.  As they get to know each other, Amy really takes a liking to Tom, but is still hesitant to get too involved.

Before meeting Amy, Tom had a reputation for being quite the ladies man.  He had even been carrying on an affair with his superior officer Caesare’s (Ullrich Haupt) wife, but broke things off with her to be with Amy.  However, Caesare knew what had been going on and sends Tom on a mission that could very well cost him his life.

Before Tom leaves on his mission, he overhears Amy rejecting a proposal from Kennington La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou).  Kennington is a rich man and can offer Amy so many things that Tom simply cannot.  Even though he loves Amy, he believes she would be better off with Kennington and decides to take himself out of the picture.  While he is gone, Amy agrees to marry Kennington. But when she finds out Tom is back in town, reportedly injured, she can’t help but rush to be with him.  Recognizing who Amy really loves and wanting her to be happy, Kennington even gives her a ride to see him.

The critical consensus for Morocco seems to be that it’s one of the best movies Josef von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich.  Although I do like Morocco, it’s not one of my personal favorite Dietrich movies.  As far as the von Sternberg collaborations go, I prefer The Blue Angel and Blonde VenusMorocco just leaves me a little bit cold.  Dietrich herself is divine; she has such a commanding screen presence and she can work a tuxedo like nobody else.  The exotic locale is perfect for von Sternberg’s style.  The story just doesn’t pull me all the way in, though.

Fashion in Film: Berets

If you’re like me, you often find yourself watching films and seeing tons of fashion styles you would love to wear in real life.  I watch movies from so many decades and from so many different genres, if I actually did copy all the styles I like, I’d have one diverse wardrobe.  But if there’s one accessory you could easily get a lot of mileage out of, it’s a beret.  Berets have been a popular hat style for decades, so if you want to go for a Norma Shearer inspired look one day and a Faye Dunaway inspired look the next, a beret could easily work for both styles.

(more…)

Dishonored (1931)

After the death of her husband, Amy Kolverer (Marlene Dietrich) turns to walking the streets to support herself.  One night, she encounters a man who gives her the chance to become a spy on behalf of Vienna. The government is looking to get some information on Colonel von Hindau (Warner Oland), who they believe has been feeding information to the Russian Colonel Kranau (Victor McLaglen).  They know a woman would be much more likely to get the information they need than a male agent.  Amy accepts the offer and becomes known simply as X27.

Amy manages to find both von Hindau and Kranau at a masquerade ball and that night, she not only gets the information she needs from von Hidnau, she corners him so well that he would rather commit suicide than surrender to her.  She immediately goes to work on Kranau, but Kranau isn’t about to go down as easily as von Hindau.  First, he escapes from her when she approaches him in a nightclub.  Then he sneaks into her apartment and finds her spy orders.

When Amy goes to Poland to carry out her next mission, she gets the information she needs by posing as a maid and coding her findings as a music composition.  But then Kranau finds her, destroys the music she’s written, and threatens to have her executed.  For her last request, Amy asks to spend the night with Kranau, and he agrees to it. But then Amy drugs his wine, escapes, and reveals all of her findings to the Austrian government, which leads to several Russian officials being arrested, including Kranau.  Amy gets permission to interrogate Kranau privately and allows him to escape.  This is the end of the line for Amy and she is executed for treason.

Of all the Dietrich/von Sternberg collaborations, I feel like Dishonored is the most under-appreciated of the bunch.  Perhaps the fact that it was only recently released on DVD for the first time has something to do with that. But now that it’s more available, hopefully more people will rediscover it because it’s really worth a look.  It’s not the best of their teamings, but it’s very interesting. I prefer Dishonored over Garbo’s Mata Hari.

I was not a fan of Victor McLaglen at all in this, but the teaming of Dietrich and von Sternberg absolutely can’t be beat.  First of all, you have got to see Dishonored if only to see Dietrich meowing like a cat.  No, seriously. There is a scene in this movie of Marlene Dietrich meowing and it is hilarious.  Marlene seemed to enjoy playing Amy and it’s a lot of fun to just watch her work.

Marlene Dietrich’s image, especially when she was working with Josef von Sternberg, was always extremely polished.  She was always lit to perfection, quick witted, and exceptionally glamorous, never a strand of hair out of place. So I was very fascinated by the fact that in Dishonored, there are moments when von Sternberg let her not be seen as supernaturally perfect. Early in the movie, there’s a scene where Marie walks into her apartment and takes off her elaborate hat and veil to reveal her very mussed hair underneath. I absolutely loved that moment, it was just so not how we typically picture Dietrich.  Later in the movie, when Marie is posing as a maid, not only does she wear very minimal make-up and an unflattering hairstyle, she acts pretty silly, too. Before seeing Dishonored, if you had told me that there was a Marlene Dietrich movie that involved a scene of her wearing little make-up and meowing, I probably would have laughed. But, believe it or not, it actually does happen here.

Paramount in the 1930′s

Times were tough for just about everyone during the 1930′s, including Paramount Studios.  In the early 1930′s, Paramount was on the brink of financial disaster and with the Great Depression, audiences needed darn good reasons to spend what money they had on movie tickets.  Paramount was facing some pretty tough competition, too.  MGM had Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, and Joan Crawford;  Warner Brothers had their gangster flicks and Busby Berkley musicals.  But Paramount rose to the challenge and created some of the most definitive movies of the decade with some of the best talent in town.

(more…)

What’s on TCM: December 2011

We’re down to the last month of 2011 already!  TCM will be closing out the year in top form.  December’s star of the month is William Powell, which I am very excited about since I’m a big fan of his.  It also means we get two nights of movies featuring him with Myrna Loy, one night being the entire Thin Man series and another night featuring their other collaborations.  His movies will be showcased every Thursday night this month.  TCM will also be celebrating the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens a little early (his birthday isn’t actually until February) by devoting Monday nights to showing various film adaptations of his work.  And of course there are Christmas classics galore to look forward to!

(more…)

Shanghai Express (1932)

Nobody causes a bigger commotion by getting on a train than Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich).  Shanghai Lily is one of the most notoriously loose women in China, so when she gets on a train from Beiping to Shanghai, all the men are excited to be on the same train as her.  Well, everyone except for Captain “Doc” Harvey (Clive Brook).  He’s apparently the one man who has never heard of Shanghai Lily.  After the train leaves the station, is surprised to run into his former girlfriend, Magdalen.  They hadn’t seen each other in five years and things have changed quite a bit in those five years.  Specifically, Magdalen has changed her name to Shanghai Lily.  Lily never stopped loving Doc, but he has a hard time accepting the girl he once loved now has such a reputation.

But as the trip goes on, Doc and Lily spend more time together and it becomes clear that Doc still loves her.  He even still carries the watch that she bought for him.  One night, while the passengers are having dinner, the train is suddenly stopped by Chinese Army soldiers and the passengers are questioned.  After a spy is arrested, Henry Chang (Warner Oland), a passenger on the train, immediately sends out a mysterious telegram.  The train takes off again and the passengers get ready for bed.  But later that night, they are stopped again, this time by rebel troops.  Unbeknownst to them, fellow passenger Chang is a rebel leader who had ordered his troops to stop the train.

Chang isn’t happy about one of his spies being arrested and now is looking for a passenger powerful enough to hold hostage to get his spy released.  When they question Lily, Chang asks her to spend the night with him, but she turns him down and he has other passenger Hui Fei (Anna May Wong) brought to him for companionship instead. But since Doc is traveling to perform an operation on an important government official, he’s the unlucky one to become Chang’s hostage.  Desperate to get Doc out safely, Lily offers to go with Chang if Doc is released unharmed.  He agrees, and Doc is set free.  But Doc doesn’t realize why he’s been set free and is devastated that Lily would even consider going off with Chang.  Luckily, Lily is able to escape with a little help from Hui Fei and they get back on the train and leave again.  Doc wants nothing to do with Lily and won’t listen when a fellow passenger tries to convince him she was doing the right thing.  He struggles with his feelings about Lily all the way to Shanghai.

Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg made several movies together, but Shanghai Express is probably their signature collaboration.  It’s a wonderful movie and is the ultimate example of what an expert von Sternberg was at making Marlene look utterly fabulous.  The cinematography is exquisite and Shanghai Lily is easily the most spectacularly dressed traveler I have ever seen.  Marlene has some great line deliveries in this, I especially love the way she says, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily,” and, “There’s only one thing I wouldn’t have done, Doc. I wouldn’t have bobbed my hair.”  I liked the chemistry between Marlene and Clive Brook, the only thing I wish the movie had more of is the wonderful Anna May Wong.

What’s on TCM: November 2011

If you’re a fan of blonde bombshells, this is the month for you!  Rather than having just one star of the month, TCM will be spotlighting two classic blondes every Monday and Wednesday this month.  All the classic blondes like Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, Jean Harlow, and Jayne Mansfield (just to name a few) will be getting their time to shine.  And in preparation for the TCM Classic Film Cruise, they’ll be playing a night of movies set on ships every Thursday.  Lots of fun stuff to look forward to, so let’s get to my picks for the month:

(more…)

Fashion in Film: My 10 Favorite Costumes

10.  Rita Hayworth’s “Put the Blame on Mame” dress from Gilda

On a lot of other women, that gown would have been pretty unremarkable.  But Rita Hayworth had so much charisma in that movie and had such an incredible screen presence that she turned what could have been a forgettable gown into the most iconic costume of her career.

9.  Elizabeth Taylor’s white slip from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

This right here is proof that Elizabeth Taylor could take the simplest garment and turn it into a definitive screen costume.  Nobody worked a white slip better than Elizabeth Taylor.

8.  All of Norma Shearer’s gowns from Marie Antoinette

I’d be very hard pressed to pick just one favorite costume from Marie Antoinette.  Adrian put an enormous amount of time and effort into designing all those exquisite gowns, no detail was overlooked.  They are all works of art.

7.  Debbie Reynolds’ “Good Morning” dress from Singin’ in the Rain.

Plain and simply, she looks absolutely adorable in it.  She had a lot of wonderful costumes in Singin’ in the Rain, but whenever I think about her in that movie, this is the first costume that comes to mind.

6.  Myrna Loy’s striped party dress from The Thin Man

I just think this dress is pure Nora Charles.  It’s fun, but classy.  She looks like the life of the party.

5.  Grace Kelly’s black and white outfit from Rear Window

This just epitomizes Grace Kelly to me.  It is so clean and simple, it’s not bogged down with a lot of accessories or jewelry, but it’s one of the most elegant dresses I’ve ever seen.

4.  Jean Harlow’s party dress from Dinner at Eight


It’s slinky and ridiculously glamorous.  This is Jean Harlow at her finest.

3.  Marlene Dietrich’s tuxedo from Morocco

In an era when women rarely wore pants, Marlene Dietrich went all out and donned a tuxedo.  Not shocking by today’s standards, but it’s no surprise that her tux caused a commotion when Morocco was released in 1930.

2.  Gloria Swanson’s outfit from her first scene in Sunset Boulevard

This outfit tells us right off everything that we need to know about Norma Desmond.  She looks rich, she looks like a movie star, and she’s definitely got some issues.

1.  Charlie Chaplin as The Little Tramp

As far as I’m concerned, this is the most iconic movie costume of all time.  It doesn’t just represent one movie, it represents Chaplin’s entire body of work and it’s a symbol for that whole era of film history.  When you see that hat, the cane, those shoes, that mustache, there’s no mistaking him for anybody else.  Even when people who don’t know silent films try to describe silent films, odds are they’re going to describe Charlie Chaplin and what he wore.

The Lady is Willing (1942)

It’s not unusual for Liza Madden (Marlene Dietrich) to go out shopping and come back with fancy new dresses, hats, or jewelry.  After all, she’s a glamorous actress and she’s got an image to maintain.  Imagine her assistant Buddy’s (Aline MacMahon) surprise when Liza goes out shopping one day and comes back with a baby.  She had found an abandoned baby while she was out and decided on a whim that she wanted to adopt it.  The first thing she does is find out who the best pediatrician in town is and has him come over to check the baby over.  Dr. Corey McBain (Fred MacMurray) comes right over and even though the baby is fine, the doctor corrects her belief that she’s got a baby girl.  She names the baby Corey and is determined to be the best mother she can be.  She buys silk pajamas for him and even has the bar removed from her apartment so it won’t be a bad influence on him.

But however much Liza wants to keep Corey, she has to face the fact that in 1942, nobody was going to let an unmarried woman with lots of debt adopt a baby.  Since she figures it would be easier to find a husband than it would be to get her finances in order, she starts looking for someone willing to marry for platonic reasons.  A solution comes one night when little Corey gets a rash from his silk pajamas and she calls Dr. McBain.  At first, he’s unamused by Liza’s cluelessness about how to care for a baby, but can’t help but be touched by how much she clearly loves that baby.  Liza starts talking to Dr. McBain and finds out that he’d rather be in the research side of medicine, but doesn’t have the money to do it.  She talks him into marrying her so she can adopt Corey and she can let him use part of her apartment to do his research in.

Even though this was intended to be a marriage of convenience, deeper feelings quickly develop and Liza gets jealous when she and Dr. McBain run into his first wife Frances (Arline Judge) and Dr. McBain gets jealous of the leading man in Liza’s show.  All seems to be going well in their marriage, though, and Dr. McBain comes to the rescue one night when two people and their lawyer show up claiming to be Corey’s parents.  They either wanted the baby or $25,000, but they didn’t count on trying to extort money from someone who could easily do a blood test to disprove parentage on the spot.  They go out the next night to celebrate their victory over scammers, but also to celebrate Dr. McBain being granted a $5,000 research grant.  The two of them have a wonderful night and a lot of true feelings are revealed.

But by the next morning, word of Dr. McBain’s grant has hit the newspapers and his ex-wife Frances shows up wanting a piece of it.  Liza is furious when she goes to bring him breakfast and finds Frances in their bedroom.  She locks Dr. McBain in his part of the apartment while she cancels her show and gets ready to take it to Boston immediately.  She won’t even let him come examine Corey when he isn’t feeling well.  Liza has another doctor examine Corey and is told that he only has a cold, so she goes on ahead with her plan to go to Boston.  But once she gets there, it becomes clear that Corey actually is very ill and needs surgery.  The only person she trusts to do the operation is Dr. McBain, so she flies him out to Boston.  When he arrives, she begs for forgiveness and even though he has reservations about operating on Corey, Liza promises to love him no matter what.  Dr. McBain gets to work on Corey and Liza anxiously awaits the results.  When it’s time for Liza to get to the theater for her show, Dr. McBain encourages her to go ahead and do her show.  She can barely keep her mind on the show, but by the time the show is over, Dr. McBain is waiting for her with good news about Corey.

It seems like people either like The Lady is Willing or hate it and I happen to be in the camp that likes it.  This is a rather unusual movie for Marlene Dietrich since she didn’t really do much comedy during her career.  Marlene Dietrich was never going to be another Carole Lombard or Myrna Loy, but The Lady is Willing happens to be the right type of comedy for her style.  I got a kick out of her clueless but well-intended character and it’s fun to see her play with the baby and poke a little fun at her glamorous image.  Watching Fred MacMurray try to see around Dietrich’s extravagant hats definitely made me smile.  Fred MacMurray was pretty charming as well, but I wasn’t feeling much chemistry between him and Dietrich.  I thought the baby and Aline MacMahon had better chemistry with Dietrich than Fred did.  As for the story, it’s pretty fluffy and nonsensical, but at least it’s fun nonsense.  I got a lot of laughs out of it and it’s a refreshing change of pace from the usual Marlene Dietrich fare.

What’s on TCM: August 2011


It’s that time of year again!  Let Summer Under the Stars commence!  I love this year’s line-up.  Even though there are plenty of the usual SUTS suspects like Bette Davis, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart, more than half of this year’s stars have never been part of SUTS before.  And many of those who have been featured before, haven’t been featured in quite a few years.  Let’s take a look at the full list of stars:

(more…)