Film Review – Marlene Dietrich at Universal 1940-1942

Whilst often remembered for her collaborations with Paramount and that of Joseph von Sternberg in the 1930s, playing the iconic and glamourous femme fatale. Throughout this period, the acclaimed actress was seen as sticking to this role for the majority of the decade

However, what this boxset presented by the BFI explores is four films from a lesser known period of Marlene Dietrich’s filmography is that spanning the 1940s in collaboration with Universal. The four films; Seven Sinners, The Flame of New Orleans, The Spoilers and Pittsburgh, in parts showcase the epitome of the femme fatale persona she was famous for playing as well as showcasing a broad range of her acting prowess. Three of the films in the boxset also present Dietrich’s collaboration with John Wayne namely in Seven Sinners, The Spoilers and Pittsburgh. In particular in The Spoilers and Pittsburgh when she is pitted against such acting heavyweights and brooding figures of the screen in Randolph Scott and John Wayne. With Dietrich’s glowing persona she brings out the best in both actors.

Seven Sinners revolves around a singer Bijou Blane played by Dietrich who’s love is fought for by a Navy officer played by John Wayne and his various shipmates. This film sees the pairing of Wayne and Dietrich for the first time, this pairing makes the film an absolute romp, with Dietrich showcasing the epitome of her femme fatale persona causing riots whenever she is on screen. The film also highlights Dietrich’s musical ability which is something she was famed for long after her film career

The Flame of New Orleans, sees Dietrich play Claire a French woman who poses as a countess in order to attract a rich husband set in the backdrop of 19th Century New Orleans. The film’s comedic moments hold up extremely well with elements of slapstick and more conventional comedy. Dietrich plays her classic devilish self here, ensnaring and wrapping Roland Young and Bruce Cabot around her finger is just a joy to watch.

The Spoilers, set in Alaska in 1900 the film sees a prospector Roy Glennister played by Wayne with help from saloon singer Cherry Malotte played by Dietrich fight to save their claim for gold from the corrupt commissioner Alexander McNamara played by Randolph Scott. Here particular all three actors play mostly against type. Dietrich acting almost as a mediator between the villainous Randolph Scott. What is of particular interest in this film is what Dietrich brings to the Wayne western genre. Her character plays a much more substantial role regarding the romance subplot then in most of Wayne’s other westerns, pushing his acting capabilities.

Pittsburgh, focuses on John Wayne as Charles ‘Pittsburgh’ Markham as a coal miner with possessive ambition for financial success over his friends and business partners including Randolph Scott and his lovers namely Marlene Dietrich, discovering the façade of the pursuit of wealth and its ultimate and inevitable loneliness. This film compared to the others in this boxset sees Dietrich in the background compared to the central focus of the relationship of Scott and Wayne. Whilst the film definitely feels like war time propaganda, the actors make the story compelling enough despite its struggle to span such a long period of time in 90 minutes.

In terms of the presentation of the boxset, all the films have high quality and clean restorations and transfers making them the best the films will probably ever look and sound. Each disc also contains an audio commentary from film critics and historians giving more depth and story behind the films. Further, the disc also includes picture galleries of the posters of each film. Overall, BFI have done an extremely applaudable job on this boxset, presenting a lesser known part of Dietrich’s career that should garner more attention.

Special features

· High Definition transfers of all four films
· Seven Sinners feature commentary by film historian David Del Valle and screenwriter C Courtney Joyner
· The Flame of New Orleans feature commentary by film historian Lee Gambin and actor and film historian Rutanya Alda
· The Spoilers feature commentary by film historian Toby Roan
· Pittsburgh feature commentary by critic and film historian Pamela Hutchinson
· Music and effects tracks for The Flame of New Orleans, The Spoilers and Pittsburgh
· Galleries
· 60-page book featuring newly commissioned essays by Sarah Wood, Pamela Hutchinson, So Mayer, Ellen Cheshire, Katy McGahan and Phillip Kemp
· Limited to 4,000 copies

USA / 1940 – 1942 / black and white / 344 mins / English language, with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles / original aspect ratios 1.37:1 // BD25 x 4: 1080p, 24fps, PCM 2.0 mono audio (48kHz/24-bit)