Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Marlene and Von Sternberg

Above is a framed poster [its on my living room wall] for a Dietrich retrospective back in the '70s at the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road, Notting Hill, London - quite a groovy place then (and still is now). Those 6 Josef Von Sternberg movies with Marlene (after their 1930 THE BLUE ANGEL) just get better and better each passing decade - the high point perhaps of '30s opulence? as designer Travis Banton dresses Dietrich in feathers, furs, veils. For me THE SCARLET EMPRESS is his very best with those amazing sets, followed by his imaginary Spain in THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN, Marlene emerging from the gorilla suit doing that "Hot Vodoo" number in BLOND VENUS and of course that masterpiece of light and shade that is SHANGHAI EXPRESS where Marlene's one regret is that she bobbed her hair, and of course MOROCCO with Coop. Its bliss ....

THE SHANGHAI GESTURE in 1941 is also a mesmerising treat with the young Gene Tierney, Vic Mature and Ona Munson as Mother Gin Sling and that great set for her casino. Its a pity his I CLAUDIUS was never completed in 1937 with Flora Robson as Livia, Laughton as Claudius, Emlyn Williams as Caligula and Merle Oberon - it looks sensation from the fragments that remain. Von Sternberg's book "Fun In A Chinese Laundry" - one of the first cinema memoirs - is a particular delight too. What a complex character - but the films remain - I like MACAO too. I like a lot of Marlene's other 30s movies like Borzage's DESIRE (where she and Gary Cooper again must be the most perfect couple of the '30s) and ANGEL and THE GARDEN OF ALLAH and of course Wilder's 1948 A FOREIGN AFFAIR and WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION and her co-starrer with De Sica THE MONTE CARLO STORY in '57 [reviewed earlier on here], but she and Von Sternberg were - cinematically at least - a match made in heaven.

Marlene of course reinvented herself as a hard-working cabaret entertainer honing those songs to perfection over the decades. The recording of the 1954 show in London is good, as introduced by Noel Coward, but the 1964 one is perfection with her mature voice achingly intoning those lyrics like "I Wish You Love" and "The Laziest Gal In Town" as arranged by Burt Bacharach. I saw her in 1973 - in London's Wimbledon! - in one of her last shows here and it was a spellbinding masterclass in audience manipulation as she arranged her curtain calls working the curtains and wearing that man's jacket from the audience. We loved it. Then of course in 1977 those few final minutes on screen in Hemmings' misfire JUST A GIGOLO and she sang that song. Marlene in Paris intercut with David Bowie in Berlin was magical and moving at the same time.

She spent her final years in her Paris apartment keeping the world at bay while burnishing her legend, and being a famously grumpy old woman in Maximilian Schell's documentary MARLENE where she is heard but not seen! At least Garbo was out and about in New York while also shunning attention. The two great exotics of the '30s .... there are a plethora of books about them and their legends [the one by Marlene's daughter would seem to be essential], and Joe Von Sternberg still one of the greatest masters of light and shade ever.

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