1930/31 / Best Director

Film #635: Morocco (1930)

In a prior post, I discussed how Clarence Brown was entrusted in turning Greta Garbo from a silent star to a movie star in the talkie era; something he did wonderfully with Anna Christie. Another example of this director/actor relationship comes courtesy of our next nominee Josef Von Sternberg; the man who has the honour of being the director of Germany’s first ever talkie The Blue Angel. During the production of The Blue Angel, Von Sternberg worked with a then unknown revue-artist by the name of Marlene Dietrich, somebody who he encouraged to become the legend she did. Following The Blue Angel, Dietrich and Von Sternberg worked on a further six movies including the previously-reviewed Best Picture-nominated Shanghai Express and the star’s introduction to American audiences in Morocco.

As Dietrich was an unknown in the states at the time, it was Gary Cooper’s name on top of the poster and indeed his character of miserable legionnaire Private Tom Brown is presented as the movie’s protagonist. It’s his face that we first encounter as his legion return from a campaign and he sullenly slips back into his routine of womanising and boozing. Although Cooper is the big name, as soon as Dietrich’s Amy Jolly boards a boat bound for Morocco we the audience are completely entranced by the actress who holds your attention every time she’s on screen. Dietrich’s first scene also introduces us to the film’s other main player; Adolph Menjou’s wealthy La Bessière who declares his interest for the cabaret singer the moment he appears on screen. The film’s most iconic moment comes early on when Amy delivers her first performance at the Moroccan nightclub where she’s the new headliner wearing a top hat and tails. Her clothing choice is met with boos however Tom begins a round of applause that gathers around the club until everybody starts paying attention to Amy’s performance. The subsequent scenes between Tom and Amy in the later’s apartment are some of the film’s most intimate as the pair discuss previous relationships and an attraction begins to grow between the two. However, Tom’s already complicated life threatens to derail their burgeoning romance when his boss’s wife appears in the shadows wanting to continue their clandestine relationship behind her husband’s back. When the wife sees Amy with Tom she hires two locals to beat up the couple but, when the private takes them down with ease, he is brought up on a court martial by his boss who secretly saw the whole thing play out. From here, the film gets quite episodic with scenes of Tom’s new mission on the Amalfi Pass being shown alongside La Bessière’s attempts to court Amy even though she’s still clearly smitten by the erstwhile soldier. The conclusion goes on far too long and I personally felt it lacked a certain sense of finality but in some ways, it had the sort of ambiguity that’s often lacking in films of the 1930’s.

There was a lot to like about Morocco, with most of the movie’s positive elements coming from the screen presence of Marlene Dietrich which was perfectly enhanced by Von Sternberg. This was a perfect introduction to Dietrich to American audiences, starting with a small scene on the boat before showcasing her talent during the nightclub scene. It does feel that Von Sternberg let Dietrich loose here with a sultry top hat performance concluding with her kissing another woman. Dietrich also displayed a vulnerability in the scenes opposite Cooper, this was especially true of their first interaction which was utterly believable as these two lost souls tried to find each other. Dietrich’s performance in the final scene, in which Amy decides to join the women who trail the legion during their secondments, is understated and makes for an interesting if long-winded ending. Apart from getting the most out of his leading lady, I thought that Von Sternberg also showed his strengths directing some of the on-location French legion scenes. A perfect example of this is the scene in which Cooper’s Tom and his boss Caesar embark on what is seen as a suicide mission in which the latter is indeed killed as it the director built up the tension before delivering the big action scene. However, I didn’t really find Cooper that engaging a presence here, which might have something to do with the fact that he and Von Sternberg didn’t get along at all. In fact their off-screen feud culminated in Cooper picking up Von Sternberg and telling him to speak English after the director shouted at him in German. Another issue I had with Morocco was that there was nothing really holding Amy and Tom back apart from their own personal problems and therefore the story was weaker for it. I personally felt that La Bessière would be the man preventing the relationship between Tom and Amy whereas in reality he was encouraging the woman he loved to visit the Private. This was a real waste of Adolphe Menjou, an actor who I’ve found in the past to make a great slimy antagonist, who here played a character who was ineffective and ultimately had no issue with his fiancée traipsing across the desert to follow the foreign legion around.

Despite these feelings, I think that Morocco deserved a Best Picture nomination at the fourth Academy Awards as did the other Best Director movie that I’ve already reviewed; A Free Soul. It’s hard to say what movies they should have replaced though partly as I’ve only been able to see four of the five nominees, thanks to their being only one available copy of East Lynne in the world. Oddly I found both films more satisfying that the winner of that year’s Best Director award, Norman Taurog’s comic book adaptation Skippy, and would probably have taken that movie from the Best Picture field. Despite its faults, Morocco was an interesting exploration of a doomed relationship and the perfect launching pad for the outstanding talents of Marlene Dietrich who shone throughout the course of the movie.

A bit of housekeeping before I finish the post as I’ve recently looked into the availability of the final seven films that will complete this leg of the blog. Of these seven, there are two movies that are impossible for me to watch as only one or two complete prints exist and none of them are readily available. That means that I’ll be unable to watch Frank Lloyd’s Drag or Herbert Brenon’s Sorrell and Son which will be added to the list of unwatched nominees. However, it’s onwards and upwards with only five movies left to go and next up is the only movie in Oscars history to win the main Best Director prize without garnering a Best Picture nomination.

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