Welcome to After the Silents, in which I examine the careers of silent film personnel after the talkies took over.
Today, we are going to be looking at one of the cheesiest films ever to come out of post-WW2 Hollywood. Golden Earrings was a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich and the public ate it up even if the critics sniffed and smirked. It’s an extravagant, exotic confection with a few Nazis thrown in. The golden earrings of the title are not worn by Dietrich but by her leading man, Ray Milland. Interested yet?
This movie is clueless about the culture it claims to celebrate. Its story is nutty. Its leads fought like cats and dogs. You know what else? It’s wonderful. It’s pure, unadulterated kitsch. It’s a thick and delicious slice of Hollywood cheese. This is one of my ultimate guilty pleasures.
This film is a throwback in many way (which may explain its appeal for me) and it is definitely a love-it-or-hate-it affair. Needless to say, there are a lot of cultural stereotypes included as the heroine is a Hollywoodized Roma but in the plus column, that same heroine is also has an empowered, take-charge personality. In fact, this is one of Dietrich’s most appealing characters. If you prefer your Dietrich in the languid Josef von Sternberg mode (and I most assuredly DO NOT), this may not be your mug of beer but if you like her to camp things up (yes, please!), you are going to love it!
Once more for emphasis: This movie is on par with the Fu Manchu series or Valentino’s Sheik films regarding cultural sensitivity. You have been warned.
After the review, we are going to take a look at the one section of Dietrich’s career that she was not so keen to share. She usually maintained that she was discovered by von Sternberg and her debut was in 1930’s The Blue Angel. Silent films? Ha! She was far too young to make one of those.
Well, Dietrich had actually been making silent films for the better part of the twenties and we are going to be taking a closer look at them.
First, I should probably issue a quick warning. This movie does not start out in a very promising manner. Stick with it. It hits its stride about 15 minutes in.
The Second World War has ended and all is cupcakes and rainbows in England with one minor mystery. It seems that Brigadier General Denistoun (Ray Milland) is the subject of much gossip at his club because he has holes in his ears. You know, as if he once wore earrings, which would be a very strange thing for a decorated officer circa 1946. Then, lo and behold, someone sends him a lovely pair of gold hoops.
Those earrings are a message of some sort and he immediately books a flight to the continent. On a way, he tells the tale of his earlobes to a character who exists solely to hear it.
Flashback! It seems that Denistoun (then a mere Colonel) speaks perfect German. (No, you do not get to hear it, you nosy thing. Even the Germans don’t speak much German in this picture.) He is sent to Germany pre-war to obtain a MacGuffin formula from a famous scientist and is assisted by a young officer called Dickie Byrd (really!) played by Bruce Lester. In Hollywood pictures, only two types of British officers exist. There is the stiff, formal superior officer and then there is the Bertie Wooster in uniform. Denistoun is the former, Byrd is the latter. What ho, what ho, what ho!
Anyway, our two heroes are nabbed by the Nazis, locked away in a remote chalet/jail and threatened with “ve have vays of making you talk.” Instead, the duo escapes, stealing SS uniforms and a car in the process. The car is hot so they dump it in the river, separate for some reason and agree to meet later at a signpost near Professor MacGuffin’s house. Personally, I wouldn’t trust Byrd to get his socks on without somehow getting himself into a scrape but it’s their mission.
So, a fairly generic WWII adventure film thus far. The Nazis are suitably hissable, the British upper lip is stiff and all is wrong with the world seeing as how it is 1939. In short, boring. But things are about to change.
Denistoun is making his way to chez MacGuffin but he is exhausted and hungry after a day of hiking through the woods. He hears singing and thinks, “Isn’t that Marlene Dietrich?” And it is. She’s decked out in loud rags, has coins in her hair and stained her skin dark but it’s definitely her.
She’s Lydia, a Roma woman who is inexplicably traveling alone and who also peppers her dialogue with German (the only character to do so in a movie set in Germany). She offers the weary colonel stew and a place to bunk down in her wagon. She also refuses to use definite or indefinite articles and seems to know an awful lot about Denistoun and his mission. She claims that she was able to foresee his arrival and that she can read his mind.
Denistoun is unsure how to take all this. Things are made all the more awkward by Lydia’s groping ways. Seriously, this woman cannot keep her hands to herself. The prim colonel is having none of it but he decides posing as Lydia’s man will make it easier to evade his pursuers. (Having a character belong to another culture was an easy way to evade the Code and include lustier behavior than would be unacceptable in an American or British protagonist. This trick was employed liberally in the silent days, with the sheik sub-genre being the most notable example.)
Lydia stains his skin dark (oh, you 1940s!), provides him with appropriate attire and pierces his ears. And this is where the golden earrings of the title come into the picture. (Don’t you love how classic movie dudes can slap on a bit of makeup and transform into any other race? Quite a talent they have there.)
Act two of the film basically consists of variations on two conversations repeated over and over. I must emphasize that I am not complaining. They’re hilarious.
Lydia: Oh! Geliebter! Liebling! The water spirits have sent me my very own Welshman! You are a gift! (Attempts to unwrap him.)
Col. Denistoun: Madam! Do try to control your… urges! (Struggles.)
Lydia: You are so cute! Come! Let me pierce your ears!
Lydia: My beautiful blue-eyed man! Here, let us engage in the traditions of my people.
Col. Denistoun: I won’t do it! (He does it.)
It seems that Lydia is travelling alone because of a lot of totally authentic Roma customs that were not made up to move the plot along. The very idea! What traditions? (Or “traditions”) Well, Lydia’s theft of a coat means that she goes with whoever has the garment. The fellow who desires that coat is Zoltan (Murvyn Vye), who also belts out the title tune. Naturally, everyone in the Roma camp is a Broadway-worthy dancer and is liable to start choreographed merriment at the drop of a hat. After an enthusiastic fistfight with Denistoun, Zoltan relinquishes his claim to both Lydia and the coat (not sure which one he cared about more).
In the midst of all this mad fluff, the film suddenly remembers that it is a war picture. In a rather jarring scene that clashes with the established light tone, SS agents put a bullet through Dickie and then torture him with a cigarette lighter. Denistoun is enraged and shoots them on the spot but it’s too late for Dickie. Dark stuff.
In addition to being Denistoun’s friend, Dickie was his contact with Professor McGuffin. The professor is paranoid and rightly so. He doesn’t know Denistoun and isn’t likely to hand over the formula for fear it will fall into Nazi hands. It’s up to Denistoun and Lydia to get to the professor and convince him that they are the good guys.
It’s not revealing much to say there is a happy ending. This film is one long flashback, remember? In any case, no one watches this thing for the plot.
The main attraction is Dietrich, of course. She looks fantastic and her slightly tongue-in-cheek performance helps to put the whole thing over. Dietrich also pokes fun at established movie gender roles. Keep in mind, at this point in movie history, spanking one’s misbehaving wife/girlfriend was treated as a hilarious punchline for light entertainment. (Nuts to them!)
In contrast, this romance has the leading lady firmly in the driver’s seat. It’s very amusing to see Lydia rescue Denistoun from other aggressive women, give him a makeover (albeit an unconvincing one) and then stage a romance scene that looks very familiar…
Not sure if this was by accident or by design but I love it. In fact, the whole film has a throwback feel to it. I could easily see Leatrice Joy or Pola Negri in the lead. (Golden Age romantic duos are such squares compared to their silent counterparts. This blast from the past is welcome.)
Mitchell Leisen directed Golden Earrings. He was known for his skill with lavish romantic confections and ten-hankie soapers, which ranged from delightful (Midnight) to best-not-mentioned. He had colorful reminisces on the subject of Golden Earrings but, unfortunately, it seems that Mr. Leisen was the sort who didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Most of his tales do not hold up to scrutiny. And by scrutiny, I mean actually watching the movie. (Sorry, IMDB trivia section.)
Leisen recalled that the film started shooting before the arrival of its star due to contract issues. A stuntwoman with a kerchief around her head was used in long shots of hiking through the mountains. And since this was the 1940s, she did all this in high heels. Leisen later claimed that the scenes don’t match what was filmed with Dietrich because the star proclaimed herself an expert on Roma culture and refused to wear any shoes at all. Um, no. Without even looking too closely, I spotted Dietrich in shoes— with heels—several times. Photographic evidence:
Granted, Dietrich is barefoot in some publicity stills but that’s a horse of a different color. Or a whole other kettle of fish. (More on fish in a bit.)
And so, thanks to our stuntwomen, Lydia gets dragged hither and yon by the formerly tame Denistoun. Roger Ebert dubbed this the Me-Push-Pull-You. “As the hero and heroine flee from danger, the man takes the woman’s hand and pulls her along meekly behind him.”
Why in the world would Denistoun know the hills of Germany better than a woman who has lived her entire life in the German outdoors? Look, I know realism is not exactly this film’s forte but let’s be logical, people.
According to Leisen, Dietrich and Milland spent much of the shoot fighting. This would explain the rather delicious chemistry that is on display. Certainly, Dietrich (a notorious scene thief) upstages Milland at every turn and manages to steal every single scene she shares with him. However, Leisen does seem to be painting the lily when he proclaimed that Dietrich engaged in bouts of public bulimia before her horrified co-star.
The story goes that during the meeting scene, Dietrich was to eat the fish stew with her hands. She picked out the fish heads, popped them in her mouth, sucked out the eyes and spat out the skull. Then, once the cameras stopped rolling, she would stick her finger down her throat and bring the whole mess up again. Upon witnessing this display, Milland himself became sick.
This doesn’t really hold water as in the film, Dietrich is clearly eating tidily filleted white fish, perhaps cod from a friendly Los Angeles fishmonger. Our star tries her best to be all rustic and slurpy in her eating but it’s obvious that the fish is boned, skinned and ready for a fish fork.
As Leisen has proven himself to be an unreliable narrator, I think we can all take the bulimic fish head narrative (never thought I would write that) with a dash of salt and a pinch of paprika, yes? Ditto for his memories of Dietrich burning her hand (the internet seems unsure as to whether her injuries were second or third-degree burns) during the stew scene. Reportedly, Marlene was a trouper and worked through the first, second or third-degree burns. Good for her if it really happened but I find it doubtful.
On a related note, I once sent a fellow diner away screaming when I ordered a whole fish, plucked out the eye and ate it. Fish eyes are so-so (chewy, not much flavor) but the reactions are priceless. Good times. (I’m not diabolic but definitely think I am a miscreant.)
If Milland was sickened by his costar’s behavior, film critic Bosley Crowther matched him in indignation:
“For some strange suicidal instinct has apparently inspired that studio to do everything to Miss Dietrich that would submerge her special assets in this film and make a greasy ragamuffin of her, which we doubt that the public cares to see.”
Actually, the public did care to see. The film was a resounding success. As Dietrich’s biographer, Steven Bach, put it: “Golden Earrings turned out to be universally despised by spoilsports and the humorless.” Amen!
Crowther was the resident critic for the New York Times and has the dubious distinction of being slightly less dim than Mordaunt Hall. (It seems to be the main critic for the New York Times in the early to mid-twentieth century, one simply had to know how to find a movie theater and possess a name better suited to a villain in an Ayn Rand novel.) No, I have not forgiven him for slamming Lawrence of Arabia, the beast.
(Spoilers for this paragraph.) After all the fun and games and assertiveness, it’s a bit disappointing that the movie indicates Lydia just kind of sat out the war and waited for Denistoun. You know what? I refuse to accept it! I choose to believe that she led an all-girl commando team and blew up Nazi munitions factories left and right. So there.
Golden Earrings is rather typical for the period in its portrayal of Roma culture. Music, dancing, thievery and bad grammar all come with the territory. You have been warned. The tragic footnote to all this is that the Roma were already being targeted by the Nazis, with mass arrests coming as early as 1938. While the film does touch on the prejudices endured by Roma people, it seems to be unaware of the very real danger that they faced.
Golden Earrings is not exactly the most culturally savvy film on the block but Marlene Dietrich makes it worth seeing. With a nudge and a wink, she manages to completely circumvent the censors and bring old-fashioned romance to the picture. Golden Earrings is one of her kitschier offerings but she gets into the spirit of the thing beautifully. It’s a hot, delicious mess of a movie and is one of my favorite guilty pleasures.
Marlene Dietrich is as popular as ever and there is no shortage of material discussing her life and films. Because the subject is so popular and well-covered, I shall have a rather narrow focus and make this section entirely about her German silent film career. (I have a pretty firm “no personal life unless it directly relates to the film being discussed” policy.)
Dietrich’s silent films were not something she was proud to share. She denied, dismissed and generally maintained that The Blue Angel (1930) had been her debut, neatly shaving a few years off her age in the bargain. Now I absolutely do not blame her for doing this. In Hollywood, a woman aging is an unforgivable sin and being coy about one’s birth year is a matter of survival. (Even today…)
So, please take this examination of Dietrich’s adventures in the silents as an appreciative tribute to a comparatively unknown portion of her career, not an attempt to condemn her for managing to stay relevant and sexy when so many of her contemporaries had been put out to pasture.
Her movie career did not have an auspicious beginning. Marlene Dietrich was a born performer and she in her early twenties when she managed to get a screen test. It was a disaster. Dietrich’s pretty features were lost without careful lighting and she was deemed awkward and coarse in her movements.
One person who saw more was Wilhelm Dieterle, a strapping hulk of a leading man who was trying to make the jump from acting to directing. (He later managed it with considerable success after an apprenticeship with Paul Leni.) Lighting and coaching could cover a multitude of sins for any performer but Dietrich had a winning personality and charisma, two things that could not be taught. Dieterle sought funding for his debut as director and Dietrich continued to try to break into the movies.
Marlene Dietrich’s earliest confirmed screen role is a tiny part in the 1923 film The Little Napoleon (Der kleine Napoleon). Her uncle had arranged it hoping that a taste of the real thing would kill her enthusiasm for film stardom. The effect was quite the opposite, even if Dietrich’s debut was not the most glamorous. Our young actress still had a layer of baby fat and was not flattered by either costume or lighting. Rumor has it that Dietrich saw herself in her empire gown and proclaimed that she looked like a potato with hair.
Meanwhile, Dieterle obtained funding and gave Dietrich a part in Man by the Roadside (Der Mensch am Wege), which did not make a particular impact in 1923 but did get some attention for the budding actress. Like Dietrich, Dieterle relocated to Hollywood and (after Anglicizing his first name to “William”) directed hits like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Portrait of Jennie, as well as curios like Satan Met a Lady. Dieterle and Dietrich were both big names in the biz when they made Kismet together in 1944 but Man by the Roadside has been all but forgotten.
There’s more to her early roles and early life including her marriage to Rudi Sieber and the birth of her daughter, plus lots more but the review is long enough as it is so let’s fast-forward a bit to Dietrich after she had a few more movie roles under her belt. Her popularity on stage and screen was building; Marlene Dietrich was becoming Marlene Dietrich and her sexy, androgynous stage persona was winning over audiences and catching the attention of critics. This period in her career also includes movies that have been released to the general public so we can judge her performances for ourselves. Let’s look at three of these films.
The 1926 film Manon Lescaut gives us a glimpse of what was to come. Dietrich is not the heroine (that would by Lya De Putti) but even the low quality footage available shows off her flirtatious manner and her winking delivery in an otherwise painfully stagy film. Now we’re cooking with gas!
In 1928, Dietrich was the leading lady of Café Elektric in which she plays an heiress who falls in love with a charming but crooked thief. The leering camera makes sure to give everyone an eyeful of Dietrich’s famous legs. She doesn’t seem to mind one bit.
The Ship of Lost Men (Das Schiff der verlorenen Menschen) seems like a step back. Dietrich plays a debutante whose airplane crashes near the titular ship and she spends much of the film as a very distressed damsel. Directed by Maurice Tourneur, the film has his brilliant cinematography and his deadly dull pacing. Still, there are some flashes of the Dietrich that would take the world by storm in just six months.
What do these three movies show us? One word: Potential.
By then, it was 1929 and Josef von Sternberg was looking for a German actress with charm, spark and a strong command of English to star as cabaret queen Lola Lola in his first talkie, The Blue Angel. He chose Dietrich, then appearing on the stage, and the result was a smash hit for both. Dietrich’s features were a perfect canvas for von Sternberg’s innovative lighting and glamour has never been the same.
Reviewing her early parts, it is clear that Dietrich brought a lot to the table. Her early parts show enormous potential and her saucy screen persona was already in evidence. Dietrich was a flame looking for kindling and von Sternberg provided it. Let me be clear, von Sternberg was essential to Dietrich’s attainment of Hollywood stardom and his wonderful lighting techniques created the Dietrich glamor. No one can dispute that. However, it would be equally ridiculous to claim that Dietrich was a passive doll who was glammed up for stardom.
Now for the whole “muse” thing. I hate it. I really, really hate it. It removes agency from talented actresses and makes them into little good luck charms for their male directors. Dietrich is sometimes even described as von Sternberg’s creation (good lord!) but her work pre- and post-Sternberg clearly shows that she brought a lot to their joint projects and she did some great work without him.
(This is highly debatable, I know, but I prefer Dietrich in her post-Sternberg career, particularly after she showed off her comedic chops in Destry Rides Again. Kitschy Dietrich is the best Dietrich but her post-Sternberg career was not all kitsch. For my money, her best performance was in Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, release nearly three decades after Dietrich had wowed ‘em as Lola Lola.)
Other “muses” did just fine as well. Lillian Gish flexed her creative muscles, demanded artistic autonomy and made the best films of her career after leaving D.W. Griffith. Sternberg was responsible for Dietrich’s international fame and collaborating with him was beneficial to both actress and director but she was an active participant in the process.
Needless to say, I consider the phrase “his muse” to be sexist. How do I know it’s sexist? Well, how often is Toshiro Mifune referred to as Akira Kurosawa’s muse? Very rarely. Generally, their films together are described as collaborations and partnerships.
Collaboration. Partnership. These are good words. Let’s use them.
(Some fool is actually whining about the decline of muses in the modern arts. Sir, go boil your head. Women aren’t acting as muses because, as many rebuttal articles and comments bring out, they are busy forging their own careers rather than propping up someone else.)
Marlene Dietrich is one of the most intriguing stars of the golden age of film and it’s unfair to characterize her as a mere muse or creation. We already celebrate her post-Sternberg career. Now we have a chance to see a taste of her pre-Sternberg work as well. I would love to see a box of her available silent work released. Who’s with me?