Marlene Dietrich. Need I say more? Well, seems I must, because some people just don’t appreciate. Some people seem to think Marlene is this mighty well-shaped iceberg of elegance. Elegant, yes. Controlled, yes. Iceberg – no. In case you are not aware of the fact: there are few things caught on film sweeter that motherly Marlene. And of course, when the child she’s cradling and showering love and sweet songs onto is Dickie Moore, a.k.a the sweetest kid ever, well…what are you waiting for?
Oh, you want to see the swanky, androgen Dietrich, is it? Ok, what would you say to seeing Marlene disentangle herself from a gorilla costume, don a blonde Afro wig and sing about hot Voodoo? Or just Marlene in a swanky tux singing about lovable so-and-so’s? That only happens in pre-codes let me tell you. And it’s entertaining, but what makes this
a movie to tug at my heartstrings is something so normal and average as Marlene, das kleine Mütterlein, with dark-eyed baby boy Dickie, teaching him how to write or putting him to bed. No matter what whacky story or incredulous characters pop up in the film, it is something so simple and so hard as a mother wanting the best for her child that makes this film. How is that for universal appeal? If you ever need proof of Dietrich being more than a pretty pair of pins and exotically lowered eyelids see “Blonde Venus”. Also, see her fresh-faced, vulnerable and delightfully German mädel-like in “The Song of Songs”. It’s not from 1932, but by golly – it is Good, and completely fascinating seeing Dietrich before she was the finished, polished Dresden China sex doll. Like this:
(Of course, we did need some naughtiness).
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Ok, so for the same reason I singled out “Back Street” and “Me and My Gal” I want to say a few words about “Taxi!” and Loretta Young. Many see Loretta Young as a mighty prissy, polished, saintly prude by the time the 40s come rolling along. Well, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen pre-code Loretta. It isn’t really that “Taxi!” is such an edgy pre-code, plot-wise, but it has the same honesty, the straight-forward emotions. (For the best pre-code Loretta delight see “Midnight Mary”. It will blow the dust off any image you’ve been nursing of Saint Loretta. And talk about aging – she goes from age 9 [!!] to something like 30 and it looks utterly real. 9 years old, I tell ya!)
Once again, I must admit to ignoring much of the hard-boiled plot for the softer and more relevant points. Once again, because we love Nick & Nora-style banter and sweetness, not because we give a hoot if MacCauley or Gilbert is the killer. So the point in “Taxi!” is that Jimmy Cagney is a hot-head always getting into fights and trouble, while Loretta tries her best to calm him down. He always grudgingly comes crawling back with a cute excuse. When Jimmy’s brother (who is played to sweet perfection by Ray Cooke ) ends up taking the blow for Jimmy’s temper, there’s naught much Loretta can do. Still, it isn’t really that what gets me, it’s just how these two go together. The way the film ‘gets’ to show them as a couple without sensory restraints. How they horse around in the movies and sneak kisses while they think no-one’s looking. How they snuggle up, basically, and try to work out a truce with their intruding lives so they can continue snuggling. Watching a scene with them together is like hot fudge on an otherwise cold ice-cream, like the honey in your tea, like a kitten’s purr and the first warm rays of sun in spring. In short, they are cute and it makes you feel swell.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
“BILL OF DIVORCEMENT”
Yes, it shows off Katharine Hepburn in the movies for the first time. That should be reason in itself to want to see it. Can you imagine Hepburn as a novice? Insecure, tentative and fresh-faced? Well…no, and you’ll never see Hepburn unsure – ever, but this is probably as close as you get. Fresh-faced? Yes. Delightfully so. Yet in the course of 70 minutes fresh-faced Hepburn, legendary John Barrymore, stunningly serious Billie Burke, kind-hearted David Manners and eternally frumpy Elizabeth Patterson have given you an emotional roller-coaster ride unlike any Cecil B. DeMille marathon of crumbling sets and fake oceans ever could. We are talking Emotions, not just motions.
What most people will know about early 30s Hollywood is that with the advent of sound, Hollywood raided the theatre circuits for actors with voices. “A Bill of Divorcement” is a beautiful example of the results such hunts yielded. The greatest actor of all time, John Barrymore (as he wanted himself billed – it saved him the trouble of explaining it) sparred
with the ephemeral beauty of Billie Burke, who at the time of shooting had just lost her show-producing husband Florenz Ziegfeld. And while we would forever see her as the fluttering, high-pitched society dame in later films, we are here treated to a look at her the way Broadway would have seen her; perfectly groomed and capable of such beautiful thespian restraint you need to keep your eyes and your heart open for it. Don’t expect Billie ‘Butterfly’ Burke.
Now, a fun little fact many might not know is that eight years later this story was remade as “Never to Love” and served as a vehicle for another strong-willed red-head, namely Maureen O’Hara. What is absolutely fascinating is that O’Hara, in my none-too-humble opinion, does a better job of her role than the incomparable Katharine Hepburn. O’Hara is softer, yet brighter. She meets this role with gusto, but with such a soft and loving heart.
All in all, keep an open heart and relish at the chance you are given to see the American Theatre at its best. On film. Which is kinda another awesome thing about pre-codes.
I’ll be honest; I can’t really take this film seriously. I know people can. And it has legends Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy in the same film, which is always worth a mention (Ha – “Consolation Marriage”, anyone??)
I’ll present arguments for and against the serious approach to this film with video evidence. I just love both these videos and thought I’d get them in here at the end. If you’ve made it this far you deserve it. Well done and thank thee.
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