REVIEW: Morocco [1930]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: Passed | Runtime: 92 minutes
    Release Date: December 6th, 1930 (USA)
    Studio: Paramount Pictures
    Director(s): Josef von Sternberg
    Writer(s): Jules Furthman / Benno Vigny (play “Amy Jolly”)

I changed my mind. Good luck!

It’s said that Marlene Dietrich put a copy of Benno Vigny‘s “Amy Jolly” into director Josef von Sternberg‘s pocket before he set sail for America. Their German collaboration The Blue Angel had yet to be released, but the consensus that it would prove a hit was enough to land him in Hollywood with keen prospects and potential money. He then leveraged both to give birth to Morocco with Jules Furthman adapting the script and the studio bringing Dietrich over to star. One soon-to-be hit from Europe would therefore ignite a six-picture deal with Paramount that saw von Sternberg and Dietrich take Hollywood and thus the world by storm. And this first title supplies a rather fitting start by proving neither was afraid to risk everything for success.

I say that because of the choice set before Mademoiselle Amy Jolly (Dietrich) upon headlining Lo Tinto’s (Paul Porcasi) nightclub in a suit and top hat. Two men have fallen for her: Légionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) and Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou). The former is a womanizer who can only truly promise pain and suffering considering his insubordination keeps him heading back to the frontlines of the ongoing war as punishment. The latter is a wealthy aristocrat with connections everywhere that could promise Amy everything except, perhaps, love. Because while he obviously loves her to the point of self-sabotaging the relationship in order to make her happy, she can’t deny the excitement that comes with Brown. It’s security versus adventure in the midst of very uncertain times.

Which man she picks is ultimately the plot’s extent. She falls for Brown despite not wanting to do so. Brown acknowledges she’d be better off with La Bessiere before potentially leaving to his death. And then everything comes to a head when fate intervenes to provide Amy one last chance on the eve of marriage. How she makes that decision is where the intrigue lies because she is nothing if not an independent woman who has made good on her promise to steer clear of men after being let down too often. Amy’s initial reaction to both suitors is thus to flirt but ignore until they inexplicably surprise her. Why? Because neither has an ulterior motive beyond love. They’d rather lose her forever than hurt her even once.

Is that enough to warrant an audience to continue watching? I’m sure many would say, “No.” They would be missing out, however, on the subtlety of what’s going on. This is a movie made in 1930 that allows an empowered leading woman to choose her destiny with open eyes. Rather than be the prize of men fighting against one another to possess her as their property, Amy Jolly is given full control. Brown and La Bessiere are conversely very cordial with each other to the point of shaking hands every time they’re together and mostly acting in the other’s best interests by way of always putting her best interests ahead of their own. They each supply exactly what she wants. But she can only have one.

She moves between them because of their almost annoying levels of kindness. Whereas Brown’s commanding officer (and La Bessiere’s friend), Adjutant Caesar (Ullrich Haupt), is proven a domineering man who pushed his wife away and is willing to cause harm as a result, Amy’s two suitors ostensibly understand Madame Caesar (Eve Southern) is well in her right to pursue happiness. They won’t therefore do the same. At one point Brown is incarcerated and at threat of a court martial before La Bessiere promises to use his clout and keep him out of chains. Amy agrees to elope with Brown if he deserts the army in another only for him to remove himself from the equation, knowing life with La Bessiere will be easier than any lived with him.

Most movies would have these men locking Amy up to keep her away from their rival, yet Morocco has them doing the opposite almost to a fault. It’s no wonder then that Dietrich would earn an Oscar nomination for a performance marked by weighty drama and heartfelt impulses contrary to the thoughts in her head. Seeing her rebuke Brown in her room after he admits he’s the least faithful man on the continent only to run after him with an effortless smile is so naturally drawn and full of life. The way she confronts Brown when he’s leaving, daring him to change his mind and take her away, is powerful. And her face alongside La Bessiere at their engagement party upon hearing the Légionnaires returning home is heartbreaking.

That last one is worth the price of admission alone because it’s so pure and instantaneous. Amy just told La Bessiere that she’s chosen him over Brown. It’s the moment of truth, yet not the way she thinks once the song literally stops her in her tracks to reveal her heart had other ideas. How great then that the drama of the scene comes from her desperation to find Brown instead of La Bessiere imploring her to return to him? This is her story. This is her journey through romance and pragmatism and perhaps even a bit of self-sabotage of her own. Will the man she ultimately follows give her the happiness she believes he can? Who knows? The point is that his proves the happiness she wants.

Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.

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