“There’s a foreign legion of women too – but we have no flags, no uniforms – and no medals when we are brave”
“Morocco” was released to American audiences prior to the Blue Angel, and was the film that made Dietrich a star in the US.
Even before the film came out, a cunning advertising campaign featuring glamorous publicity shots had excited the American public to the point that everyone was talking about the mysterious new European beauty -“the new Garbo” – although
“Where Garbo wanted to be alone, Dietrich was open to suggestion…”
The film’s story came from “Amy Jolly”, a book given to Von Sternberg by Dietrich on his return to America without her after making the Blue Angel.
Sternberg liked the idea of a love story between a cabaret artiste and a soldier in the foreign legion and it seemed a natural choice for Marlene’s next film, especially as legionnaire dramas “Beau Geste” (Brenon 1926) and “Beau Sabreur” (Waters, 1928), with Cooper, had been hits.
The plot is rather thin, while the name Amy Jolly (French translation, Loved, Pretty One) – is already fairly ridiculous!
The first third is all about introducing Dietrich – first as a woman of mystery emerging from the shadows, then as a cross dressing cabaret artiste, morphing into a femme fatale a la Lola in “The Blue Angel.”
The really interesting thing about “Morocco” is the dynamic between the main characters, with tables turning on the usual gendered relationships. Despite the trailer heading:
“LOVE OF MAN FOR WOMAN _ WOMAN FOR MAN!” it’s more about the characters’ ideals of love, and how far they are prepared to go for it. Nevertheless, there is obvious chemistry between the two stars.
Here Cooper’s character is the passive object of desire and Dietrich – literally – wears the trousers. Her appearance in male attire caused a sensation, yet the sexual ambiguity and evident promiscuity of the two main characters managed to bypass the moral guidelines brought in by the Hays code in 1930.
Censorship and moral guidelines
As the sheer amount of films being made increased, and their content varied widely, the Hays code made strict recommendations to producers on their moral responsibilities.
Somehow, “Morocco” managed to skirt around quite a few of these guidelines!
The saucy tone is set fairly early when Cooper is caught making a date with a local girl and when asked what he’s doing with his fingers, says,
Dietrich never made any secret of her attraction to women and this became part of her appeal. In the cabaret scene, she appears in top hat and tails with a masculine swagger and gradually wins over a vicious audience. Without even showing her famous legs, she completely commands the eye and the stage.
Reminiscent of her screentest, she has such self confidence that she can stand stock still in the public gaze in a new and hostile environment, met their eyes fearlessly and sing.
The frank appraisal, flirtation and kiss with the society woman, taking her flower and then throwing it to Cooper (who has watched the exchange between the two women and applauded even more…) got past the censors but business conducted in the following song “What am I bid for my apple?” did not.
On the pretext of moving through the audience selling apples from a basket, this featured an auction for her room keys and a bite at a different kind of apple…the Hays commission cut this.
But even so, the ensuing dialogue is pretty saucy – she offers Cooper an apple, while again not moving and not even attempting to give him the piece of fruit – “You can have it for nothing if you like…”
It is soon obvious that Cooper’s character Tom Brown is quite a ladies’ man and is evidently embroiled in a number of affairs with different women. Yet in a turn around from the femme fatale theme of the Blue Angel, they are the predatory ones and make most of the running.
When Amy throws him the gardenia (second hand via the woman she kissed earlier) and he tucks it behind his ear, there is a definite sense of sexual ambiguity, despite his clear attraction to her.
He flirts with a fan and bats his eyelashes like a girl and later, tries on her top hat in the mirror in her dressing room.
In real life, Cooper and Dietrich were immediately attracted to each other and began an affair. On set though, Dietrich and von Sternberg team were inseparable, speaking in German and ignoring Cooper (von Sternberg gave forensically precise directions to Marlene but just let Cooper get on with it)
There was the suggestion that all he needed to do was say his lines and look pretty. As in The Blue Angel where real life events echoed the story on screen, this reversed the usual gender roles where the male actor was the “name”. The laid back Cooper was uncharacteristically enraged and ended up fighting with Von Sternberg.
Von Sternberg’s proxy
Amy and Tom are two promiscuous chancers who meet their match, while Bessiere seems to fall in love instantly and definitively, but in a very cool way – knowing that Amy loves another man, he still wants her and is prepared to accept her on whatever terms she dictates. A bit like Von Sternberg and Dietrich in real life…
“I appear by proxy” said Von Sternberg of the Adolphe Menjou character; his small dapper stature and moustache references the director’s own appearance. This was the first time Von Sternberg had chosen an obvious lookalike / substitute but this was subsequently a feature in their films.
Amy tells Bessiere that whenever a man has helped her there has always been a price – “What’s yours?”
The Menjou character is unfazed. He is used to waiting it out to get what he wants – through his wealth if not in other ways. Like Von Sternberg, he sees that he has to stand back and give her freedom.
Even when she panics at the sound of the returning legionnaires during their engagement dinner, breaks his pearls in her haste, and then insists on going to find Tom Brown at Amalfa.
“You see – I love her. I’d do anything to make her happy”
Meanwhile, Cooper’s character is a strange mixture of lawless and honourable.
He is openly and unashamedly promiscuous. When asked,
“Why didn’t you stay last night?”
he replies, looking around at the local women,
“I had a few other calls to make”
Later, he fakes an injury to try to get out of active service.
But he realises that he can’t give Amy expensive jewels the way Bessiere can, and believes she would have a better life with the rich man. He loves her but is aware of his limitations and content to dream rather than commit to a real life relationship.
But tables turn again in the first bedroom sequence where Cooper’s lazy object of pursuit is nonplussed – he’s expecting a seduction and then for once seems to have to work at it. It’s like an excruciating bad date. He kisses her and she dismisses him.
-“You evidently don’t think much of women do you”
– “It’s their fault not mine”
Back on more comfortable ground later when they meet again in the dark streets when she pursues him – this time they both know their role and can relax with each other.
Despite her character’s indecision and impulsiveness, we feel she is in control of her own destiny. There’s no sense of her having capitulated to Bessiere when she agrees to marry him, it’s definitely an equal partnership, even if we don’t quite understand the rules of their engagement. She remains very much her own person with her own agenda; yet she is evidently sleeping with him, while still in love with Tom Browne, which is why it seemed quite immoral to many of the critics.
Note that throughout the film she is the only person who seems not to notice the heat, barely expending any energy in order to endure it. Her whole performance is one of resistance to anything that will damage or threaten her – except love.
Costume and appearance
You can see the difference in Dietrich’s appearance in the space of two films. The sexy but rough-edged Lola was being groomed by the Hollywood studio system into a movie star, and the close ups of her face already show a quantum difference from her Lola.
Dietrich had been dieting strenuously since leaving Germany but had also been learning about lighting and makeup.
As in the Blue Angel, you get a sense of her character’s development and maturity through the film, her face changing (as do her eyebrows!) to make her look more sophisticated and possibly sadder / wiser.
The top hat and tails idea was daring for American audiences but was actually very common in 1920s Berlin – young women wearing men’s clothing and swaggering like men were known as “garconnes” and it became such a viral fashion that one newspaper editorial of the day proclaimed “Enough Already!”
Top hat represents male hierarchies, authority and empowerment. Remember Professor Rath’s, starting off spick & span and ending up crushed like a clown’s. She is comfortable in a man’s world, having already said she won’t be needing any help – has apparently made herself completely self reliant.
At the end when she goes into the desert with nothing left, not even shoes, she is kicking off the shackles of a suffocating life and the expectations of society.
It’s also reminiscent of Professor Rath gradually losing his professional garb until he has nothing left – giving it all up for love.
* In a real life parallel, Marlene Dietrich really did leave everything behind to follow the troops during wartime. She became an American citizen in 1939 and was a highly prolific wartime entertainer *