Today is Joseph von Sternberg’s birthday, so it feels right that I spent one hour and a half last night rewatching his Morocco, an exotic melodrama featuring Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou.
The film was shot in 1930 and caused quite a stir, for a number of reasons.
While not my favorite Dietrich/von Sternberg collaboration, it’s still worth a look.
And despite the desert location, this is probably not a Tits & Sand movie, but… who knows?
The plot: cynical but maybe not so cynical cabaret entertainer falls in love with cheeky American legionnaire and refuses the advances of a more settled, wealthy gentleman. Passions flare, tragedy ensues.
It’s safe to say that one does not watch Morocco for the plot but for the set-pieces, starting with the legendary first musical number, in which Dietrich appears in male dress and famously (or infamously) closes her song by kissing a woman.
Dietrich is beautiful, and von Sternberg knew how to work his audience.
The post-WW1 years had a thing about legionnaires – they were featured in pulp magazines and portrayed in movies, and in the 1930s Gary Cooper was the go-to star to play Foreign Legion soldiers.
In the movie, he is taking a break during the Rif War – a seven years conflict that pitched the Spanish and French forces against the Berbers, between 1920 and 1927.
The war provides the drama/action angle, and a suitably tragic finale.
I am not a Cooper fan, and I always found him particularly insufferable in his younger roles. Marlene Dietrich is excellent, but nobody ever expected anything less.
Adolphe Menjou is a strange antagonist for Cooper, in a movie in which, basically, there are no bad guys.
The film looks gorgeous, von Sternberg is a genius at producing breathtaking vistas in black and white, and the end result is so impressive the Moroccan government used it to advertise its beauty to perspective American tourists. Never mind that the film was entirely shot in a backlot in California.
And yes, this is the movie in which, in the end, Dietrich marches off into the desert in high heels.
But she was Marlene Dietrich, and she could do that.