-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
Marlene Dietrich DVD collection:
Devil Is A Woman
Flame Of New Orleans
Follow The Boys
A Foreign Affair
Song Of Songs
The Flame Of New Orleans |
cast: Marlene Dietrich, Bruce Cabot, Roland Young, and Theresa Harris
director: Rene Claire
79 minutes (U) 1941 Universal Pictures DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
The Flame Of New Orleans starts with a bizarre moment of postmodernism. Set 100
years before the film's release, the film begins with a couple of Mississippi fishermen
pulling a wedding dress out of the water. We're told that there's a story behind this
wedding dress (and seeing as it's intact after 100 years in the Mississippi, you'd better
hope there is) and that we'd better hurry or we'll miss the beginning of the opera...
that took place 100 years ago. Such postmodern neural shagging aside, this is a pretty
much by the numbers formulaic rom-com that's about four parts romance to one part comedy,
directed by noted French wartime exile Rene Claire.
Marlene Dietrich plays an adventuress in the classic sense of the word. Hiding a shady
personal history in St Petersburg, she sets herself up in New Orleans as a countess and
tries to land a rich husband. Before long, the Countess has attracted the attentions of
a pompous old banker (that's not a typo) played by Roland Young. One day, when out posing
in the park, the Countess runs over the monkey of a virile young steamer captain, prompting
him to flip her entire carriage over into the mud. Upon learning the affront to his lady's
honour, the banker challenges the captain to a duel only for the Countess to realise that
he's quite dishy really and likely to kill her banker.
Caught in her attraction for the
two men, the Countess' life suddenly becomes far more complicated when a couple of residents
of St Petersburg turn up in town and instantly recognise her, forcing her to pretend that
she has an identical cousin who is a woman of loose repute. This ruse manages to protect
her reputation but it also makes her choice that much starker; does she choose to live in
loveless wealth as the Countess or elope with the steamer captain as Lili? It really is
not much of a challenge to work out which one she chooses.
Despite being seemingly quite well thought of, there's little to recommend this dated
vehicle for a Dietrich who was, at the time, struggling to return to the levels of fame
and success that she had enjoyed thanks to the films of her discoverer, the Austrian
director Josef von Sternberg.
Clearly, the disguises and multiple identities inspired Claire to try to turn this film
into something akin to a French farce. Indeed, while the film is not written as a comedy
or a farce, it is shot in such a way as to give it a tongue-in-cheek frothiness that does
admittedly manage to elevate the final product above the hideously earnest script.
Much like Blonde Venus
(which is also a part of the Marlene Dietrich collection), The Flame Of New Orleans
includes a number of weird moments that really date it. For example, at one point a black
servant tries to chat up another and asks her if she's "afraid of the dark."
There's also another moment where a fey European dandy from St Petersburg attends the opera
and laments being stuck at sea with only rough sailors for company, his companion points
out that there are plenty of male company at the opera but looks crestfallen when he points
out that they'll likely all have wives.
As with a number of her other films, Dietrich is the best thing in what is otherwise a
deeply strange production. She is still not the world's best singer and she is not the
world's greatest actor either but her otherworldly looks and sheer star power help her
muddle through a dated and largely uninteresting piece of 1940s' fluff.