Marlene Dietrich began her career as a cabaret singer in Berlin and made several silent movies in Germany before rocketing to international stardom in Josef von Sternberg's noirish masterpiece, The Blue Angel. Dietrich's portrayal as the amoral and treacherous Lola Lola set the pattern for femme fatales for decades to come and had American audiences panting to see what all the fuss was about.
Morocco was the second of seven movies (eight if you count the German and English versions of The Blue Angel separately) with director Josef von Sternberg, but the first released in America—Paramount Pictures held back The Blue Angel for a year until it could launch Dietrich's Hollywood career with a more sympathetic role. Morocco proved to be a perfect vehicle for her, fully establishing the Dietrich persona—exotic, jaded, daringly androgynous (for example, she wears a tuxedo and kisses a woman; to quote Robert Osborne, "very European!")—lacking only the humor and self-parody she would later display in films such as Destry Rides Again and Foreign Affair.
Adapted by veteran screenwriter Jules Furthman from the stageplay Amy Jolly, Morocco is the story of a romantic triangle between a cabaret singer, her wealthy patron and a Foreign Legion soldier, who between them have experienced every kind of love but true love, and when at last it happens for each of them, they hardly know what to do with it.
Dietrich is the cabaret singer Amy Jolly (pronounced "Jolie," ala Angelina Jolie), down on her luck and traveling to Morocco for a job. On the boat she meets a wealthy playboy (the always dapper Adolphe Menjou) who as much out of habit as lust dangles jewelry in front of her—as the captain of the boat implies, the stop after Morocco is prostitution and if you're going to go, you might as well go in style—but Dietrich's Amy Jolly is too proud to jump at such baubles. Nevertheless, she turns to Menjou at a critical moment of need.
And all would be well but for the young, handsome soldier (Gary Cooper) sitting in the cheap seats at Dietrich's first performance. Predictably, the two are drawn to each other, at first simply because they are accomplished bed-hoppers who know they will look beautiful in each other's arms, but soon after because they discover in each other a longing for a past they can never reclaim.
"There's a foreign legion of women, too," confesses Amy Jolly, "but we have no uniform, no flag—and no medals." For these two, the single greatest act of passion they can perform is to not perform at all and to the surprise of all involved, genuine intimacy and tenderness develops, not just between the singer and the soldier, as you might expect, but between the singer and her wealthy patron as well.
The result is the warmest of the collaborations between Sternberg and Dietrich, maybe the only film they made together that suggests that the union of a man and a woman can produce something other than misery and obsessive, fetishistic self-destruction.
Morocco was a smash hit, earned four Oscar nominations (for actress, director, cinematography and art direction) and landed Dietrich the most lucrative contract in Hollywood. I should take time to mention the work of cinematographer Lee Garmes whose lighting of Dietrich was a key to the film's success. He positioned the key light above and slightly forward of her which (according to TV Guide's online review) "hollowed her cheeks, shadowed her heavy eyelids, and masked the dimensions of her wide nose." Dietrich was so pleased with the effect, she insisted on it for the rest of her career.
But despite the film's success, the set had not been a happy one. Sternberg focused his attention solely on making Dietrich look good to the annoyance of Gary Cooper, already a big star. Sternberg further underscored where his interests lay by speaking only German whenever Cooper was around.
The mutual animosity between director and star had no impact on Cooper's relationship with Dietrich though—shortly after filming commenced, the two began an affair that would continue for years. Despite the fact that she was living with Sternberg at the time, there was no slinking around for Dietrich. Reportedly, she and Cooper conducted their trysts in Sternberg's Hollywood home while Sternberg worked in the garden outside and silently seethed.
I share this anecdote, by the way, not because I am a fan of celebrity gossip but by way of explaining how the partnership of Sternberg and Dietrich, which began with such critical and commercial success, could wind up being a threat to both their careers. More and more, their collaboration became an exercise in voyeuristic excess, with Sternberg trying to control Dietrich with his camera in a way he couldn't control her off screen. And while these films have their champions (see, e.g., Kim Morgan on Blonde Venus or Roger Ebert on The Scarlet Empress), the public gradually turned away until they were turning away in droves.
Dietrich survived the fall by smirking her way through the worst of it—emerging for example from a gorilla costume in Blonde Venus with a half smile that seemed to say I'm so cool even this looks good on me—but Sternberg never recovered, earning only eight screen credits after his last picture with Dietrich (1935's The Devil Is A Woman) and even those credits are misleading, given that he was fired from at least two of those projects, Macao and the execrable Jet Pilot.
In 1939, after years of fading box office appeal, Dietrich reluctantly agreed to star in a comedy/Western, Destry Rides Again. The result was box office gold. Co-starring Jimmy Stewart as a pacifist sheriff armed only with folksy wit, saloon singer Dietrich parodied her own image so successfully she was able to reinvent herself as a comic actress and endear herself to audiences once again. (Madeline Kahn memorably spoofed the performance in Mel Brooks's comedy Blazing Saddles.)
After Destry, Dietrich's best performances were in a pair of Billy Wilder efforts, Foreign Affair, a romantic comedy set in postwar Berlin, and Witness for the Prosecution, a courtroom drama co-starring Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power and Elsa Lanchester. Many will also remember her cameo in Orson Welles's noir thriller, Touch of Evil.
Despite this impressive body of work, Dietrich was nominated for just one Academy Award, for the picture I've just written about, Morocco, losing to Marie Dressler. In 1999, the American Film Institute named her the ninth greatest actress of all time.
After a supporting role in 1961's Judgment at Nuremberg, Dietrich retired from acting, making only one cameo appearance after that, in David Bowie's 1978 misfire, Just A Gigolo. She spent the final decade of her life living in seclusion in her Paris apartment and died in 1992.
Postscript: Be sure to look for a young Cary Grant in the clip from Blonde Venus. This was just his sixth movie and he isn't given much to do—as the New York Times put it in its 1932 review, "Cary Grant is worthy of a much better role." Like Gary Cooper, Grant was the object of Josef von Sternberg's jealousy; unlike Cooper, Grant didn't yet have the clout to do much about it.