1936’s Desire is the sort of film Hollywood has always excelled at. A bit of this, that and the other – some fun, some jeopardy, some romance – parcelled up beautifully and sold by attractive people who are looking their best. Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in this case.
The best bit actually comes at the outset, when Dietrich is playing two men off against each other by telling each man she’s married to the other. On one side a jeweller (Ernest Cossart), from whom she’s trying to steal a priceless string of pearls. On the other a shrink (Alan Mowbray), who is apparently supposed to be buying the pearls though he knows nothing about this – The film explains it better than I do.
The heist is a success and Dietrich’s phony Countess Madeleine de Beaupre is soon speeding away from Paris and towards Spain in a handsome open-topped white cabriolet (a 1935 Auburn 851 Speedster, if you’re interested – thanks to the Internet Movie Cars Database). On the way she happens across decent, average and horny American car designer Tom Bradley (Cooper), first splashing him with mud and insulting him before using him as a mule to get the stolen pearls over the border into Spain. Finally she steals his car and leaves him gasping at the side of the road breathing hot Spanish dust.
Tom is out of his depth. He’s been outflanked by this smart woman at every turn – at one point she’s even offered to put her hand in his trouser pocket while he’s driving (look at Cooper’s face). He’s completely smitten.
Through the mysterious workings of movie logic, Tom catches up with the phony Countess in San Sebastian on the north coast of Spain, where she’s re-united with her accomplice, the phony Count Carlos Margoli (John Halliday), supposedly her uncle, for the sort of dénouement where Tom will discover what Madeleine (or whatever her real name is) is really all about and she’ll fall for him, can’t help it, sort of thing.
There is one joke in this movie – he believes she is hitting on him but really it’s the pearls she’s interested in – but it is spun in many, many different ways, with Dietrich and Cooper proving to be a great double act. They’d done one film before, Morocco, but here are much looser and more human.
That this was Dietrich’s first film away from Josef von Sternberg’s controlling hand is no coincidence. Sternberg was a genius but liked to present Dietrich in one way only – as a goddess. Goddesses tend towards the inert, but her director here, Frank Borzage, allows Dietrich to tap into 1930s screwball energy, while also ensuring she looked never less than ravishing – the lighting, the costumes, the hats, the make-up.
She even sings a song, Awake in a Dream, as if, maybe, to rub in that she’s now awake whereas the von Sternberg years had been some sort of dream. As mitigation it must be said that though von Sternberg’s results were astonishing his working methods alienated almost all the actors who worked with him and Dietrich (once they kissed and made up) always acknowledged his importance.
It’s an Ernst Lubitsch production and it’s said that Lubitsch directed parts of it while Borzage was on another job. Either way it’s light as air, flies along, is almost as enjoyable to watch now as when it debuted, to some extent because it rides on the coat-tails of the sexually more relaxed pre-Code movies (which started becoming extinct after 1934).
There’s a “crime does not pay” finale, which feels very Code, but it’s softened by various bits of trickery so that while the Countess, or whoever she is, gets her just deserts, she also gets most everything else she wanted too, and, as if to demonstrate that it was all a fuss about nothing, the two men in the final scene alongside Gary Cooper’s happy Tom are the beaming jeweller and shrink she conned in the first place.
It’s totally dishonest, really. What’s not to like?
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© Steve Morrissey 2023