#567) Morocco (1930)
OR “Chasing Amy”
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Written by Jules Furthman. Based on the novel “Amy Jolly, die Frau aus Marrakesch” by Benno Vigny.
Class of 1992
The Plot: In the midst of the Rif War of the late 1920s, a unit of the French Foreign Legion returns to their base in Morocco. While at a local nightclub, legionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) falls for new cabaret singer Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich). The two meet backstage, and while there is some chemistry, Amy has become jaded from previous bad relationships, and does not want to get involved with a chronic womanizer like Tom. At the same time, Amy is being wooed by Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou), a wealthy man who proposes marriage. And from this love triangle came two of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film von Sternberg’s best, praising its “exotic atmosphere” and a “sultry” Dietrich. There’s also an essay by Donna Ross, the NFR’s website guru.
But Does It Really?: I mean, I get it: “Morocco” is one of the more daring pre-Code movies, and it made a star out of Dietrich in her first American film. The film is also another von Sternberg movie that critics fawn over for its artistry. Am I missing something with this guy? Ultimately, “Morocco” is a movie I appreciated more than I enjoyed, but its place in Hollywood history is strong enough for me to label its NFR standing as “historical significance”.
Wow, That’s Dated: As always with these studio films, my sincere apologies to the people of Morocco for how they are depicted here. But hey, at least you also get “Casablanca“.
Seriously, Oscars?: “Morocco” was a hit with audiences, and the film garnered four Oscar nominations: Director, Actress, Art Direction and Cinematography. Unfortunately, the film went 0 for 4, losing to, respectively, “Skippy”, “Min and Bill”, “Cimarron”, and “Tabu”. This would be the only nomination of Marlene Dietrich’s career, and one of only two for von Sternberg (nominated later for “Shanghai Express”).
- When we last covered Josef von Sternberg, he had finished “The Last Command” and headed off to Germany to film “The Blue Angel”. Film and stage actor Marlene Dietrich became the breakout star of the movie, and von Sternberg returned to America with his new discovery in tow. Paramount went all-in on turning Dietrich into the next Garbo, and “Morocco” was designed as her star vehicle (“The Blue Angel” would not see its American release until two months after “Morocco” premiered).
- It’s important to note that while the film’s “exotic” Moroccan setting seems tame now, back then it worked as pure escapism. “Morocco” came out in November 1930, a full year after the Stock Market Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Audiences wanted to forget about their troubles at the movies, and “Morocco” kicked off a decade-long trend of Hollywood films with big stars in far-away places.
- “Morocco” was made before the Hays Code went into effect, hence why its take on extra-marital affairs is more lenient. Plus, keep an eye out for some brief pre-Code nudity!
- As with a lot of movies on this list, it’s a treat to watch a movie star in the making. Dietrich already knows how to be seductive for the camera, but it feels fresher here than in her later movies. Dietrich would later say that “Morocco” is where she and von Sternberg learned how to properly light her for maximum allure, a lesson she would take with her for the rest of her career.
- Also playing against future-typecasting: Gary Cooper. His Tom is a character devoid of the well-meaning naïveté of a Longfellow Deeds or Alvin York. And he gets a lot more screentime here than he did in “Wings“, that’s for sure. Both Cooper and Dietrich benefit from the film’s lack of dialogue, letting the silence aid in their characters’ mystique.
- The film’s claim to fame is in an early scene, when Amy performs her first number dressed in a tux, stopping to kiss a woman in the audience. It’s the kind of overt lesbianism we wouldn’t see in the movies for another 40 years.
- My other takeaway from Marlene Dietrich’s performance: Madelene Kahn did her homework.
- My only knowledge of the French Foreign Legion comes from old movies, so I had to look up if they still exist. They sure do, with almost 9,000 members from 140 countries. And as far as I can tell, they no longer wear those hats with the neck drape (which I learned is called a kepi).
- I also learned that the official languages of Morocco are Arabic and Berber. I do not speak either, so I don’t know if what the actors playing the Moroccans are speaking is authentic or gibberish. I know the French everyone speaks in this movie is accurate, so that gives me hope.
- Poor Adolphe Menjou, playing the third wheel to Dietrich and Cooper’s rising stars. Of all the great Menjou performances on this list, “Morocco” gives him his least impressive one.
- One of the things preventing me from fully enjoying this movie is its lack of a score. As with most movies of the era, the only non-diegetic music in “Morocco” is played during the opening credits, which makes the other 90 minutes of near silence seem to drag on longer. I know this isn’t necessarily the movie’s fault, but come on and give me something!
- La Bessiere to Amy: “You seem gay tonight.” Brother, you have no idea. Well, the tux was your first clue.
- While von Sternberg’s visual storytelling and lack of dialogue is commendable, it does leave everyone giving cold, almost distant performances. I know that none of these characters want to show their true feelings to anyone, but it makes for a tougher watch, at least for me. That being said, I feel like any other set of actors would have played this as a syrupy romance/melodrama.
- [Spoilers] I will say the ending took me by surprise. Realizing that she loves Tom, Amy leaves La Bessiere and follows Tom on foot through the desert as his unit marches out of town. It’s an ending whose power lies in its restraint: no flowery dialogue, no tearful reunion, just Marlene trudging through the desert as the film fades to black and the Paramount logo plays over the sound of the desert winds.
- “Morocco” was a success, and launched the careers of both Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper. “Morocco” was so big, Sid Grauman lifted his ban on showing any Paramount movies at the Chinese Theater so that he could show “Morocco”.
- Dietrich and von Sternberg would make five more movies together, including “Shanghai Express”, “Blonde Venus” and “The Scarlet Empress”. After the lackluster success of 1935’s “The Devil Is a Woman”, von Sternberg and Dietrich amicably agreed to part ways, for fear of their collaborations becoming stale and repetitive.
- Although he continued directing for another 20 years, Josef von Sternberg’s career never reached the same heights as his years with Dietrich. In the late ’50s/early ’60s, von Sternberg taught a film course at UCLA. Among his students were Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, both of whom would cite von Sternberg as a major influence on the aesthetic of The Doors. Who knew?
- Marlene Dietrich continued to be a movie star for the rest of her career, with such films as later NFR entries “Destry Rides Again“, “Touch of Evil”, and “Judgment at Nuremberg“. Now what’s it gonna take to get her best performance – “Witness for the Prosecution” – on the list?