Marlene Dietrich is an icon of classic cinema. She brazenly pushed boundaries of sexual politics, sang in a non conventional tone and could stand her own against any actor as being the star of the scene and ultimately the picture. But how did she get to be an icon? By watching Morocco you can see all of the evidence of her burgeoning iconic status right there on the screen.
A young cabaret singer comes to Morocco destined to never come back out again. She is hired right away in a seedy club that plays host to the visiting Legionnaire troops. One of the Legionnaires is tall and handsome Gary Cooper. A womanizer to an embarrassing amount, he literally pushes a woman off of his lap once this mysterious cabaret singer gives him a flower. He pursues her and she after some witty exchanges finally gives in to his caresses. In order to complicate this romance, Mr. Cooper is also involved in a scuffle after he meets his boss’s wife to break it off with her. He is chosen to go out in front of a siege in order so that the boss does not get his hands dirty. While he is gone, this beautiful cabaret singer is pursued by someone else, a rich painter. He showers her with gifts and after she thinks that Mr. Cooper will not be coming back, she gives in to his proposals. She is now living high in Morocco, but she cannot resist the horn call of the returning Legion. She races outside, hunts down one of Mr. Cooper’s comrades and inquires whether or not he has come back from the fight. In interest of not telling you the whole plot, I will leave you dangling like a little child over a balcony or like the feather boa Marlene dons across her small shoulders.
Marlene Dietrich shines in the mysterious cabaret singer role. When we first see her hit the stage, she is wearing a men’s tuxedo. She enters the stage and the whole crowd (which is filled mostly with men) hisses and yells at her to get off. This is the reaction that the director thought he would get from the audience that saw this picture in the theaters. A woman shouldn’t hide her sexuality behind a male dress designed to cover everything up. I’m sure the audience in the theaters would have preferred Marlene’s entrance from the film she did previously with Josef von Sternberg, the Blue Angel, where she is wearing a corset and her legs are out on display. But instead she chose to hide her best feature and demand to still be seen as a beautiful woman singing a beautiful song. She captivates both the fictional audience and the real audience by her soulful singing and her entrancing presence. After the song is over, she goes to a table where two women sit next to two men. She strikes up a conversation with them and she asks one of the women for her flower. The woman gives it to her and in return she kisses her on the lips. This moment goes by in a flash but it is the most brilliant part of the film and the moment that anyone who knows anything about this film is waiting for. With that quick kiss, she decided to out herself in Hollywood as being someone willing to push the boundaries. She became a star in that one moment. These two moments that I just described are the most famous parts of this dated and decidedly conventional film. The rest of the film doesn’t do these two moments justice at all. The thrill you get from watching Marlene plant a kiss on an unsuspecting woman is muted by the slightly boring love triangle that consumes most of the film. But for a couple of minutes there, you get to play make-believe that such a brazen rejection of conventional morality is being chucked out of the window by two very invigorating forces in filmmaking. Imagine the world of filmmaking now if they had kept consistently pushing the gender boundaries throughout the whole film. Maybe it would have looked completely different from what it does now… or maybe it would be exactly the same… I guess one can dream, can’t they?