Marlene Dietrich is generally regarded as one of the great cultural figures of the 20th century; The Blue Angel is probably her pivotal work and the standard-issue work for critics. From there, she made Hollywood hits, (Destry Rides Again with James Stewart), plus grand dame comebacks (Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution or with David Bowie in Just a Gigolo), but many of the icon’s other films have slid into obscurity. This boxed-set from the BFI reworks and re-packages four of her films for Universal in the early part of WWII, and you’d have to be a hard-core cineaste to have seen even half of them. Looking sharp in blu-ray, this is an ideal opportunity to understand why Dietrich was an unlikely but major star, and remains a household name long after that star had faded.
This boxed set features four films; Seven Sinners, The Flame of New Orleans, The Spoilers and Pittsburgh, the latter of which was my favourite and merits a solo review. What’s striking is how different each film is; Seven Sinners is a romantic melodrama set in the South Seas, The Flame of New Orleans features misadventure between riverboat gamblers in the 19840’s, The Spoilers is a melodrama set in the Yukon gold-rush, and Pittburgh is a wartime recruitment film that somehow features Dietrich as the owner of a coal-mine. With different producers and directors, there’s plenty of evidence that Dietrich could be considered the author of these films; she seems to be the creative driving force. Her co-star for three of them is a youngster named John Wayne, who Dietrich took a shine to in the studio commissary, telling her producer ‘Mommy wants that for Christmas…’
Wayne was several phases into one of Hollywood’s longest and most celebrated careers, and it’s notable that Dietrich saw him as an importable commodity to enhance her own films. Also added to the mix are Randolph Scott, who also features in three of the four features here, as well as cult players like Samuel S Hinds, plus one-and–done roles from recognisable favourites like Broderick Crawford, Oscar Homolka and Mischa Auer. Dietrich swans through each film in a permanent vignette, singing, seducing, lit to perfection and dominating the cast, even when her central character isn’t that central. Seven Sinners has a nice exotic flavour and some fun barroom brawls, while Flame of New Orleans benefits from the light touch of imported director Rene Clair, who dovetails her musical numbers effortlessly into a gossamer plot.
Ironically, The Spoilers has the best reputation of the lot, which probably doesn’t sit with the experience of watching it now; although the narrative has a certain snap, any film with John Wayne in blackface needs a certain adjustment on the part of the viewer, and I have to confess that my adjustment was a touch on the fast-forward button. A big bonus here is the appearance of legendary poet Robert Service, author of a number of celebrated odes including Dangerous Dan McGrew, which he discusses with Dietrich in a sly extended cameo. Not everything in an 80 years old film works for modern tastes, but the BFI always give context; there’s audio commentaries on each film and a 60 page book of essays.
This Universal collection taps into an unknown seam of Golden Age Hollywood entertainment, not only showcasing a strong woman who picked and accessorised her projects, co-stars and songs to her own taste, but also revealing a studio-system which considered salty material from different countries and cultures as grist to the mill. These are much better films than reference books might suggest; brisk, packed with polished dialogue and amusingly dated storylines. I’ll take on Pittsburgh on its own merits in another review, but this collection would be a welcome addition to any Golden Age collection, and shows in granular detail just why Dietrich was one of the world’s great stars.
Thanks to the BFI for blu-ray access to all four movies in this collection, out from Jan 25th 2021 in the UK.