Note: This is the hundred-and-fifty-sixth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my favorite 1930 film, MOROCCO, directed by Josef von Sternberg.
Love for one who does not love you, and in fact loves another, is an exquisite pain. It makes some lash out, some turn inward, and others look for the shallow embrace of looser relationships. The “love triangle,” a standby plot device in romantic dramas for centuries, was leveraged unceasingly in the early days of sound film. The studios churned out luxurious, upper-class dramas involving fallen women and forbidden loves that, yes, always involved an in-group and out-group…the out-group being a lover left out in the cold. Into this paradigm came MOROCCO (1930), which traded the “upper class” setting for a different kind of luxury: that of exoticism. But the reality of the film (note: not the realism) is nevertheless close to home, bringing desperate, requited love to a fantastical conclusion, and leaving the resigned, unrequited love in the decency of small moments and selfless gestures.
Much has been said about Josef von Sternberg’s relationship with star Marlene Dietrich, who made their first movie together in Germany. THE BLUE ANGEL (1930) hadn’t even premiered before the pair came to America (back to America, for von Sternberg) and began making MOROCCO, the first of six Hollywood collaborations for the two. MOROCCO was a sleeker, more glamorous flipside to the seediness of THE BLUE ANGEL, with Amy Jolly of MOROCCO serving as a mysterious cabaret performer with a past that never comes into focus. Top-billed Gary Cooper plays Legionnaire Tom Brown, a womanizing scoundrel who nevertheless falls for Amy for real. In third place is the tremendous Adolphe Menjou, who plays both within and against type as La Bessiere. And it is with the character of La Bessiere that I was able to find a deeper meaning in the themes of MOROCCO.
You see, La Bessiere is present for most all of the big moments of the film. He is a rich aristocrat of some kind (like every other character, his past is not really explored), and he first meets Amy Jolly on the boat approaching Morocco. Anyone familiar with Menjou would expect a sleazy womanizer, and he still gives off that affectation at the beginning of the movie. Indeed, maybe La Bessiere is that man. But he’s different now. He is there at Amy’s debut show, the famous show where she is dressed in a tuxedo and kisses another woman on the lips. He purchases an apple from her, a sign of patronage in the cabaret establishment; she protests that she doesn’t have change for the bill he hands her, but he assures her it is no problem. La Bessiere is sitting in the upper tiers as he sees Amy Jolly descend into the common people’s “pit” and converse with Tom Brown. He observes.
At this point of MOROCCO, one would be forgiven if they expected the orchestration of a plan to ensnare Amy Jolly, and indeed, the scene after Brown kills two “natives” to protect Amy (after they were sic’d on him by the wife of the adjutant, who he apparently had an affair with) would support that expectation. La Bessiere, a friend of the leader, uses his sway to prevent a court martial for Brown, but the man is still being sent out on a mission, most likely to die. But it is after this moment that the character of La Bessiere becomes clearer.
Brown almost deserts and takes Amy Jolly with him, but he changes his mind, saying as much by writing it out on the mirror in Amy’s dressing room. La Bessiere brings Amy to see Brown off and when La Bessiere proposes to Amy later, the writing is still on the mirror; the writing is still on the wall for the future of their relationship. But she takes him up on his offer, and they are engaged to be married. Meanwhile, Tom Brown’s fate is unclear, and it is in that uncertainty that one of the film’s most compelling scenes resides. La Bessiere and Amy Jolly are having their betrothal dinner with guests, but all of a sudden they hear the sound of the Legion coming back into town. Amy instinctually, deeply, desperately goes to find out the fate of her true love. La Bessiere would be embarrassed, surely, and he appears it somewhat. But as he tells his guests, simply, he loves her, and he’d do anything for her. Menjou delivers this line with heartbreaking vulnerability, ending the line with a sharp drop of the chin that stands as one of the most delicate acting choices in the whole of MOROCCO.
La Bessiere drives Amy to another town in search of Tom Brown, and he accompanies her as he sets out again the next morning. He watches in his clean white suit, from his beautiful car amid the exotic visuals of a Moroccan town. He gazes out as he watches his love, perhaps the only true love he ever had, step out from the town through a gate framed so as to imply the entrance to another dimension. He sees Amy walk out with the other women following their men, with their goats and limited possessions, and then we alone see her kick off her heels, stride to catch up to the other women, take hold of a goat, and disappear over the horizon. We are the third party, along with La Bessiere, witnesses of the aching love between Amy Jolly and Tom Brown. Perhaps we feel the love too.