|From Top: Dishonored, Song of Songs|
Whilst ordering off the TCM site I grabbed the pre-code set of Song of Songs (1933) and This is the Night (1932, reviewed here). And fine as these films are they are not sophisticated. They are not Von Sternberg. The Night's a fine example of pre-code Paramount fluffery: Cary Grant's in a minor role as a studly javelin thrower 'competing' if that is the word, for Thelma Todd against Napoleanic Roland Young, but Song of Songs, Paramount's first attempt to ween Dietrich away from JVS, is much too naive, with Dietrich an old-fashioned country virgin conveniently enamored by Solomon's poem "Song of Songs" which she recites under her breath like a mantra. Dig the kinky S/M aspects of this verse (he's basically saying he wants to make gold bit and bridle and ride his love around the room)
I have compared thee, o my love
to a steed in Pharaoh's chariots
Thy cheeks are comely with circlets, thy neck with beads
We will make thee circlets of gold with studs of silver.
In charge of making the circlets for this doll-faced horsey is a smug stud sculptor (Brian Aherne) who falls in love with her as she poses for him, allegedly, while we in the audience never learn if she's getting paid for all this nude shivering or is just expected to die for him while he teases her about being cold. Whatever she may be earning it's certainly not enough for putting up with his Pygmalion-like impudence. Aherne berates her like a child as does a conniving alcoholic aunt (Alison Skipworth) who pimps her out for sacks of Jamaican rum to Aherne's lecherous sponsor (Lionel Atwill). With all this Dickensian exploitation you'd think Dietrich's first starring role was Heidi instead of the Blue Angel.
Songs could have been a true pre-coder if it wasn't so firmly rooted in the bucolic / provincial morality play silent film era (above), with Vaseline trees and day-for-night skies, and virgins in white puffy dresses cavorting daintily amid the willows. A predictable mix of Trilby, Pygmalion, and Camille-style moral conventions, the film even goes so far as to make Lionel Atwill look like Erich Von Stroheim circa Foolish Wives (1922).
You can guess the rest: Atwill convinces Aherne to abandon her after deflowering her, so Atwill can step in, marry her despite her fallen status and teach her to be a baroness. Meanwhile the statue of Song of Songs is left in the garret; it's erect nipples jut accusingly through the sack cloth dust cover. It doesn't matter anymore, for Atwill has spirited home the real thing, and begins the usual post-wedding 'preparation,' even smiling while she cries helplessly in the other room. Later she 'adjusts' to life at the chateau. She learns to speak French, play the piano, and sing! She falls! She rises! She almost dies in a fire. She's almost shot by Atwill in a fit of pique. She's almost seduced by her half-pint riding instructor. And so forth... in ways D.W. Griffith invented in the 1910s and then abandoned as too old-fashioned... in the 20s!
But surprise, Dietrich does some of her best singing, with a genuinely touching and tranquil version of "Roslyn" (?) and a jaded cabaret number later with "Johnny." She also has a really good emotional crying scene wherein you can feel all her skeeved trauma from working with Von Sternberg come pouring out at last. Atwill is, meta-mirror-wise, the stand-in for JVS in scheme of the film (the Aherne would probably be Gary Cooper, or Mercedes de Acosta).
While Mamoulian's conception of debauchery seems much more compassionate than Von Sternberg's it's also more superficial and exploitative. For JVS compassion is the last refuge of cowards and snivelers, but at the same time he's not exploitative. Mamoulian may evince real compassion--as in the heartrending pleas of Hopkins' prostitute for protection from Hyde in his quintessential 1933 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dietrich's meltdown in Song--but he's still winking and leering and making a huge deal of Marlene disrobing in an unheated garret. On the plus side of this obsessive sexual wariness is the way the romance of Chevalier and MacDonald in Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight fades to the dreamy remembrances of the morning, like a very strong dose of MDMA; or the gender-bent stay at the inn in Queen Christina, which despite Garbo being a girl, still seemed like the very first gay romance on the big screen.
I can imagine if Von Sternberg directed Queen Christina (1933, above) that Garbo would stay in drag while making out with Gilbert, right in front of the innkeeper, just for shock value, the camera taking in his discomfort with a wry smile. For JVS if there is love it's always a renouncement, a sacrifice, done more for the dramatic spectacle of masochistic suffering than the actual object of affection. Dietrich never even gets a single coded night of bliss--not one!-- with Gary Cooper in Morocco! The pair keep getting interrupted by interlopers or their own self-sabotage. She barely knows him, yet she kicks off her shoes and follows him into the Sahara anyway, and then chooses a similar fate in Dishonored.
As Dietrich famously said "in Europe sex is a fact. In America, an obsession." For real Germans like Von Sternberg and Dietrich sex is just an extension of taking off a glove or blowing a noisemaker. Along with this 'fact' is the realization that desire exists primarily as an absence, a dream that can't come true by its own definition. For Mamoulian sex isn't so ephemeral and abstract, and as a result it's a trauma--instead of a delicious absence it's a suffocating presence. Just compare the gang-imploding whim of lust that gets everyone killed in Mamoulian's City Streets or Song's big scenes of renouncement and horror vs. the cool of Sternberg lines like "it took more than one man... to change my name to Shanghai... Lily."
Sternberg's sex-death equation is most clearly displayed in his ubiquitous cabal of lounging courtesan extras. Sooner or later, Dietrich's ingenues always share a dressing room with them, or runs into a few by the bar. For Mamoulian, a Russian, these fallen women are to be pitied and rescued, victims of a corrupt system. For JVS they are half mythic creatures, faeries dissolving slowly like a sugar cube in absinthe (note their supernaturally louche serenity below). Which view is the most 'compassionate'? I would argue Von Sternberg's since he gives the ladies credit and allows them to revel in their persona of mystery and allure. Mamoulian would drag them out to the street and admonish them like Annie dragging the 'trying to pass' Sarah Jane out of the club in Imitation of Life.
Worlds away from Mamoulian's sexophobic compassion, Von Sternberg cheerfully ignores the bucolic in Dishonored, preferring to focus all his style and shadow on the decadent gambling dens and brothels. His exteriors are inevitably fogged in or rain-soaked, snow-covered or bomb-blasted. His style is truly decadent as opposed to bowing towards any trite and tedious 'moral center.' JVS hates moral centers! His contempt for Herbert Marshall in Blonde Venus makes that otherwise fleet footed film limp lopsided but when examined next to the critique of the Way Down East- type silent era morality play it becomes more understandable. One might even say that without films like Song of Songs the Blonde Venuses seem rather cold and negative. With the bucolic small- town morality plays to look good against, the JVS cynicism sparkles.
But it's when there is no moral center at all that JVS really shines, and Dishonored is one of his best in that regard, with one of the best endings in all cinema. It's on Godard's ten favorite American film list... and that's of all time! And a big part of that appeal is probably the end, a harsh but poetic scene that plays out like Kubrick's Paths of Glory trench diggers accidentally tunneled into a high class Austrian brothel.
A loose re-telling of the popular Mata Hari tale (see also 1968's Fraulein Doctor) In Dishonored we have Dietrich as a weary Austrian war widow working at a Viennese brothel, whose unflappable cool and loyalty leads her to be recruited as special agent X-27. First she uncovers the treachery of military bigwig Warner Oland and later gets information that sends 'thousands of Russians to their deaths.'
The role of female James Bond fits Marlene well. She seems to belong to a whole different species of human. She and her Russian op counterpart Victor McLagen are like advanced serpentine predators in a world of clueless prey. They are keen observers and always five moves ahead of the pack, yet Dietrich is dumb enough to keep her spying orders (uncoded) in her coat pocket where McLagen can find them, read them, replace them, and promptly head off to try and catch her in the act on the front line hotel where she's headed. He could easily have killed her on the spot instead so it's clear that, while not exactly collaborating, Mclagen and Dietrich make it pretty for the other to escape should either fall into the others' clutches, like Batman and Catwoman!
And that's partly the problem for Dishonored detractors, of which I used to be one: we were appalled that this sensitive seductress would deliberately sabotage her own sworn duty by letting someone as leering and one-dimensional as Mclagen's Russkie escape and not even deign to answer their charges of collaboration during the military tribunal. The best she can do is say "I've lead an inglorious life, it might be my good fortune to have a glorious death." She should have added "death scene," for she is acting even within her roles within roles, and through acting she devours the firing squad with the ambivalent curiosity of a cat playing with a box of regimented mice. Her Dishonored death becomes the equivalent of the walk into the sand at the end of Morocco, another chance to die gloriously for love and send the patriarchy into masochistic fits. It's a chance and she takes it, regardless of the worthiness of the beloved.
Dietrich's true love, it seems, is always death, which is why she was such a very good spy. In using the system's rigid laws to arrange an ideal ending for yourself --one that your own survival instincts and the rigid expectations of society usually deny you --you've really made the grade and filled the holes of Albert Hall. Even in the walk to the firing squad area her only thoughts are making sure her hair looks good and her lipstick is on straight.
This makes sense, as the very first scene of the film is a woman being taken out of Dietrich's brothel on a stretcher, a victim of self-inflicted gas poisoning, an all-too-common occurrence for that lonesome profession. Dietrich watches the morgue wagon parked in the pouring rain in front of the building, seeing it perhaps as a kind of nihilist limousine to the prom. But her ethical code doesn't permit suicide, so she must wait until her death can be proper and glorious, with a weeping audience of young soldiers to perform it for.
The big thing censors and Mamoulian never understood about Dietrich and Paramount stars is that movies need not reflect real life. Dietrich in the JVS movies knows she has only 90 minutes in which to exist so she may as well go out impaled on a butterfly pin high than preserve herself in some uncertain happy ever-after of old age make-up and bucolic leaf-eating caterpillar drudgery. Song of Songs-brand Marlene cries and grows up and ends the film smashing her likeness--the statue Aherne made of her--undoing all those shivering hours of nude posing in order to breathe free as a real emotional woman, but is that really as satisfying? Becoming an adult instead of dying as a wild child is just less cinematic. It's like the actresses who step away from their career in its height to have a flock of children and expect our applause and adoration anyway, cuz she's a mom now. Aww. Bitch, please! That child took you from us! That child robbed us of our sprite, our elvin anima, and turned her into...just another mom. In Dishonored Dietrich is savvy enough to sidestep all that --she just plays waltzes on an imported-by-last-request piano right up until the moment she's called to the her demise. And if she has to grow up, at least Marlene's Mamoulian-made sister has her Song of Songs:
O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff,
let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice;
for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.
'Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vineyards;
for our vineyards are in blossom.'
Until the day breathes, and the shadows flee away,
turn, my beloved,
and be thou like a gazelle or a young hart
upon the mountains of spices.(more)
Comely countenances have nothing to do with it, dovey. When one makes the clefts and coverts into moral lessons they are as the blight that spoils the vineyards. Let the foxes take what grapes they may no matter, how high on the vine. Give Bette Davis a box on which to jump that she may the grapes devour. Let the image breathe like a nitrate fire, freed from moral weight, free to bask in deep shadow, and the vineyards free to bleed wine of massive proof. In the senseless spilling / the cup remains full / the nitrate deep and lasting in its transient grace, not burning at all, except in its image on the wall. Take your maidens and your Vaseline lens and exeunt; I'll stay here in the dark and foxy box the shadow of your scornful wince.