Some of the most erotic films made came out of Hollywood in the short period immediately following the introduction of sound and before the censorial hand of the Hays Office came down. Fantastic legs in silk stockings… dancers in costumes that make UK glamour models at a premiere look overdressed. Sex and horror had a freedom during those few short years that continues to be immensely rewarding to anyone that retains the interest in investigating them. Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco from 1930 is hardly the most lurid or exciting of the age but it stars Marlene Dietrich. She is an actress your reviewer, and many others, had unfairly associated only with a husky voice and a sleepy aloofness, perhaps even an unattractive masculinity. Breaking into song, as she does in Morocco, that is what you can get. Like too many Hollywood legends in 2006 she has been reduced to a handful of images. It takes only one film to discover that there is pleasantly more to her. She plays Amy Jolly (also the title of the play by Berino Vigny, from which
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Jules Furthman adapted the script). She docks in the Moroccan port town of Modador where she has been brought in to perform as a chanteuse at a joint run by Lo Tinto (Paul Porcasi). Regulars at the tables include legionnaires in a perpetual fatalistic round of rucks with the enemy in a handy desert war. Amy is very popular. So is Tom Brown (Gary Cooper), the legionnaire, who does not so much have a girl in every port as every girl in port. Included amongst his conquests is the wife (Eve Southern) of his Adjutant Caesar (Ulrich Haupt).
He is invited to her lodgings and they flirt. “What are you doing with those fingers?” she asks … “Nothing yet!” The magnetism between the two of them is a reel of a dance, even when she is sending him away: “You’d better go now… I’m beginning to like you.” Madame Caesar is rejected and vexed enough to pay two rogues to set upon him but it is the two attackers who are killed by Tom Brown. This sees him up before the Adjutant, and Brown refuses drop the Adjutant’s wife in it even though it might result in his own execution. The Adjutant is no fool and publicly reveals knowledge of his wife’s involvement in the deadly commission. John Brown is besotted with Amy. He intends on leaving with her upon release from the cells but a second soldier reminds him that his voluntary arrival does not extend to a voluntary release. He is to join the march alongside Adjutant Caesar into the war zone. He tells Amy to forget him and leaves, and Amy becomes engaged to Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou), a popular local figure who had also instantly fallen for her on the day of her arrival. The Adjutant tries to lead Brown into a perilous situation, doubly treacherous, as the cuckolded superior appears also to take aim at the offending soldier. On Brown’s return, Amy deserts La Bessiere, insulted but accepting. But Brown is not to stay, must return to battle and on his departure she joins the other war wives, removing her high heels and following her amour into the desert.
A fabulously romantic fable is given an exotic treatment. The medina alleys and general production design are intrinsically detailed. Crooked window slats may be recycled but it all functions as a splendid backdrop to the action. The cantina scene is crowded with characters, an unnaturally big space but teeming and busy and somewhere you really want to be. The 27-year-old Dietrich had just arrived in Hollywood upon the American release of U.F.A.’s Blonde Venus. The director of that film, von Sternberg, re-joined her, and the success of Morocco would see the their professional relationship ensure over the next few years in more exotic romances, like Dishonoured and Shanghai Express. Cooper is another Hollywood idol one has dull expectations of but again surprises, natural and likeable. The Paramount contract was a ten-year that would entrap Dietrich with the studio until late into her thirties, what was then considered a starlet’s choicest years. The projects were good and she was never snared to make films that needed to embarrass her not by the standards of the age. Dietrich is stunning here and very much a real woman, supple and fleshy. Her voice is ordinary and she is all the more alluring for that fact. Although the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America existed at the time, the more adventurous films went instead through the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, a voluntary group, headquartered in New York. Morocco bears a credit of having been passed by the latter organisation and though it is far less daring than some of the time, it is still a simmering and sensual film. The picture quality is very good. They should return films like this to terrestrial television in the afternoon, or in the late evening slots, and dispense with those un-erotic ‘erotic’ thrillers of new that we normally have to put up with. Vintage years indeed…