Sunday, December 15, 2002


Marlene Dietrich in the middle of her delirious von Sternberg period, except this one was directed by Rouben Mamoulian. It doesn't have quite the visual flair that von Sternberg would have brought to the material, but the plotline and several individual scenes (particularly the opening) bring to mind films like BLONDE VENUS and THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN. Dietrich plays Lily, an innocent young orphan girl, semingly quite unaware of her good looks, who comes to the big city to live with her gruff and mercenary aunt (Alison Skipworth) who runs a bookstore, which is rendered quite wonderfully as a cluttered but oddly inviting place. She becomes infatuated with a sophisticated sculptor (Brian Aherne) who lives across the street and up a few flights. Soon, she is sneaking out of her bedroom to model nude for him, and they wind up having an affair. He finishes the statue of her, but Lionel Atwill (in his gruff Prussian mode) falls for her and manages to get her away from the artist (by convincing Aherne that he doesn't really want to give up his freedom by settling down) and the aunt (paying her to throw Dietrich out of her home so when the artist dumps her, she'll have nowhere to go except into Atwill's arms). They marry but she is miserable and winds up a prostitute, singing naughty songs in nightclubs, though from the audience, not the stage. In the end, she and the artist do wind up together, but only after she destroys her statue.

I'm sure that somewhere in all that is an allegory about art and love and the creative process, but it's not terribly clear to me. Like most of the collaborations between Dietrich and von Sternberg, the ravishing surfaces are the important elements here. We never see Dietrich naked, but we do see plenty of nude female statues, so much so that I imagine the movie wouldn't pass muster on most broadcast TV stations today. The statue of Dietrich reminds me of the Maria robot in METROPOLIS. In one startlingly erotic scene, Aherne stands facing the nearly-finished statue and kneads the clay of the shoulders while staring at the naked Dietrich. He comes *this close* to massaging the statue's explicitly carved breasts; the scene is far sexier than many if not most modern sex scenes despite the absence of physical contact. Hardie Albright (Barbara Stanwyck's commie boyfriend in RED SALUTE) plays a riding instructor who falls for Dietrich while she's married to Atwill. The look of the movie is lush, though not quite as luminous as the von Sternberg movies. Dietrich's wide-eyed innocence and timidity at the beginning (a bit over the top, perhaps) remind me of Dietrich at the beginning of SCARLET EMPRESS, and the use of nature in the first scene is reminiscent of the opening of BLONDE VENUS. Though this film doesn't seem to have the reputation some of her earlier and later films, it is interesting, sexy, and worth watching.

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