Friday, 30 December 2016

Film Friday: «Morocco» (1930)

In honor of Marlene Dietrich's 116th birthday, which was on Tuesday, this week on «Film Friday» — the last one of 2016 — I bring you one my favorite of her films so far.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Josef von Sternberg, Morocco (1930) tells the story of Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich), a disillusioned cabaret singer who becomes attracted to a womanizing Foreign Légionnaire named Tom Brown (Gary Cooper). After one of performances, Amy arranges a secret rendezvous with Tom in her apartment, but asks him to leave before anything serious happens. As he goes into the street, Tom meets Madame Caesar (Eve Southern), the wife of his adjunct officer (Ullrich Haupt), with whom he has been having an affair. Meanwhile, Amy changes her mind and follows Tom, interrupting his conversation with Madame Caesar, who then hires two street ruffians to attack the singer. Tom manages to seriously wound both, allowing him to flee with Amy.

The following day, Tom is brought before Adjutant Caesar, who is aware of his wife's involvement with the Légionnaire, on the charge of injuring two allegedly harmless natives. Instead of a court martial, however, Tom is released from detention and ordered to report to a desert outpost. Enamored with Amy, Tom tells her that he is going to quit the Foreign Legion so they can be together, but ultimately decides that she would be better off without him and leaves on his mission. Heartbroken, Amy turns to a wealthy friend, Kennington La Bessière (Adolphe Menjou), and accepts his offer of marriage. At the engagement party, Amy learns that the troops have returned from the desert, but without Tom, who was appearently left behind to recuperate from his battle wounds. She immediately leaves to the post, only to discover that Tom has not been injured at all, but has instead been faking an injury to avoid combat. Amy begins looking for Tom and finally finds him in a cheap bar with a native woman. He claims he does not love her, but she does not believe him. As Tom is about to depart with his new unit, Amy notices women standing at the city gate, wanting to follow their men wherever they go. She joins them, taking off her high heels as she follows Tom into the desert.

Tom Brown: I've told women about everything a man can say. I'm going to tell you something I've never told a woman before: I wish I'd met you ten years ago.

Born to an affluent Berlin family, Marlene Dietrich began her professional career in 1922 as a violinist in a pit orchestra that accompanied silent films in a cinema in the German capital. Fired after only four weeks, she soon found herself working in Max Reinhardt's theatres as a chorus girl and playing small parts in dramas, making her film debut in The Little Napoleon (1923). By the late 1920s, she had moved on to co-starring roles in such pictures as Café Elektric (1927) and I Kiss Your Hand, Madame (1928). Dietrich's breakthrough came when director Josef von Sternberg cast her as the sexy cabaret singer Lola Lola in the UFA-Paramount co-production The Blue Angel (1930). The film was a massive international success, prompting Paramount to sign Dietrich and market her as a German answer to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Swedish sensation, Greta Garbo. Leaving her husband and six-year-old daughter in Germany, Dietrich arrived in Hollywood in mid-April 1930.

Before Dietrich's departure to the United States, von Sternberg had given her a book to read, Amy Jolly, Woman of Marrakesh, which he wanted to make into a film starring her. Written by French-German author Benno Vigny and published in 1927, the racy novel told the story of a cabaret singer and a Légionnaire who fall in love during the Rif War in Morocco, in the early 1920s. Von Sternberg had already sent a copy of Amy Jolly to Paramount studio head B. P. Schulberg, asking him to purchase the rights to the book from German producers Hermann Fellner and Josef Somlo. They had envisioned it as a vehicle for French actress Lili Damita, but she frustrated their plans by embarking for Hollywood at the invitation of producer Samuel Goldwyn. Dietrich was initially unenthusiastic about playing Amy Jolly, calling Vigny's novel «weak lemonade.» Believing that this was «a story that could be peeled to the bone,» von Sternberg eventually persuaded Dietrich to accept the assignment.

Gary Cooper, Adolphe Menjou and Marlene Dietrich
Although an English-language script already existed, written by playwright Vincent Lawrence, Jules Furthman was hired to adapt Amy Jolly to the screen. The novel's controversial subject matter required a significant amount of laundering to make the story acceptable even before the Production Code was implemented in Hollywood. For instance, the title character is originally an unrepentant prostitute and drug addict, who decides to leave her loving Foreign Légionnaire and the wealthy artist who offers her marriage for what she hopes will be a triumphant cabaret engagement in Buenos Aires. In Furthman's final screenplay, however, Amy Jolly abandons her rich fiancé to trudge barefoot through the desert after her Légionnaire.

Von Sternberg inially wanted John Gilbert to play Légionnaire Tom Brown, but MGM refused to loan him out. Paramount contract player Fredric March was second choice, but studio executive David O. Selznick wanted him for the male lead in The Royal Family of Broadway (1930). Ultimately, the role was given to Gary Cooper, who had been signed by Paramount after his success in Henry King's The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926). Apparently, Cooper lobbied Selznick for the job, reminding him that he had already played a Légionnaire in Beau Sabreur (1928) and had briefly worked with von Sternberg when he had re-directed several scenes in It (1927) and Children of Divorce (1927). Cooper, who received top billing in Morroco, initially regarded the film as his own, saying, «As I was then well-known to audiences from The Virginian, [it was thought] I would be the sort of partner who would make Marlene, as it were, popular by association.» Once he signed on, however, he feared that the story focused to much on Dietrich and pressed the studio to change the title of the picture. Von Sternberg, who thought Cooper «harmless enough not to injure the film,» decided to simply call it Morocco.

Adolphe Menjou and Marlene Dietrich
The role of millionaire-asthete Kennington La Bessière was earmarked for English character actor Holmes Herbert, but von Sternberg — without consulting Schulberg — hired Adolphe Menjou instead. A graduate of Cornell University, Menjou began acting in 1914, working as an extra and bit player for various film studios based in New York.

After serving as a captain with the Ambulance Corps in France during World War I, Menjou moved to Hollywood and finally broke into the top ranks with substantial roles in The Three Musketeers (1921) and The Sheik (1921). His performance in Charlie Chaplin's A Woman of Paris (1923) earned him a contract with Paramount, where he was shaped into a suave and debonair matinée idol. With the coming of the «talkies,» however, Menjou's career faltered and he was dropped by Paramount, working in France for the next few years. Von Sternberg's confidence in Menjou's abilities helped the actor re-establish himself in Hollywood.

Filming on Morocco took place between July and August 1930. Although Dietrich was married to German production assistant Rudolf Sieber and Cooper was in a relationship with Mexican actress Lupe Velez, an affair soon developed between the co-stars. Cooper's romance with Dietrich exacerbated his conflict with von Sternberg, who lavished all of his attention on his leading lady and directed mostly in German. According to Furthman, Cooper was annoyed by von Sternberg's «compelling the whole cast to stand around him in hushed silence while he was thinking.» One day, Cooper «just grabbed him around the neck by the coat and lifted him,» saying, «You goddamned Kraut, if you expect to work in this country you'd better get on to the language we use here.» Despite the dislike that developed between them during production, Cooper and von Sternberg would always speak highly of each other.

Marlene Dietrich on the set of Morocco
Von Sternberg, who went on to direct Dietrich in five more pictures — including the Academy Award-nominated drama Shangai Express (1932) did in fact control every aspect of her performance and appearance. He placed the actress on a strict diet, made sure her on-screen voice had the desired throaty, sexy timbre and, apparently, he even oversaw the plucking of her eyebrows to ensure that her eyes would be properly framed.

Von Sternberg also worked very closely with cinematographer Lee Garmes to devise the ideal lighting for Dietrich. She later recalled, «the light source created my mysterious-looking face with hollow cheeks, effected by putting the key light near the face and very high over it.» The director was equally famous for continually correcting Dietrich's heavily accented English. At one point during the production, Dietrich fainted from the intense heat created by the lights and had to be carried from the set. While lying on a stretcher, she asked von Sternberg if he needed another «cloze-up.» Ignoring her fatigue, he instantly corrected her pronunciation.

Morocco premiered at the Rivoli Theatre in New York on November 14, 1930. Paramount invested fortunes in the film's publicity campaign, running billboards and full-page ads promoting the studio's new star. Even before the film opened there, The New York Times had published a long article with the headline «MARLENE DIETRICH EXPECTED TO BECOME SCREEN STAR OVERNIGHT.» The paper noted that «if Miss Dietrich does the expected it will be the first time in the history of the talking screen that any foreign actress has won her way to stardom 'overnight.'» Morocco broke every box-office record at the Rivoli and received positive reviews from critics. Photoplay, for instance, considered that «[Josef von Sternberg] not only gave the picture to Marlene; she took it.»

The premiere of Morocco at Grauman's Chinese Theatre

On November 24, Morocco opened at the prestigious Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, in a spectacular event attended by such illustrious personalities as Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and even Prince Gabeshi Lall of India. Once again, the film proved a critical and commercial success. Louella Parsons did not spare Dietrich of compliments, writing in her column, «We have to admit Paramount's superlatives are not misplaced in the case of Miss Dietrich. She has a poise, a calmness and a subtlety that are fascinatingMorocco ended up making Paramount a $2 million profit and was named by the National Board of Review as one of the top ten best films of the year. At the 4th Academy Awards, the film garnered four nominations: Best Director, Best Actress, Best Art Director and Best Cinematography. Von Sternberg lost to Norman Taurog for Skippy (1930), while Dietrich lost to Marie Dressler for Min and Bill (1930). Still, the provocative poise of «Paramount's New Star» had enchanted every filmgoer of the time.

Gary Cooper: American Hero by Jeffrey Meyers (Cooper Square Pres, 2001)
Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend by Steven Bach (University of Minnesota Press, 2011)
Marlene: Marlene Dietrich, A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler (Simon & Schuster, 2011)
Von Sternberg by John Baxter (The University Press of Kentucky, 2010)
TCM's article on Morocco by Felicia Feaster 

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