This is my contribution to the Pre-Code Blogathon, organised by Danny of Pre-Code.com and Karen of Shadows and Satin. Please take a look at the other postings – there’s a wide range of films being covered.
Marlene Dietrich’s series of films made with Josef von Sternberg are her most famous pre-Codes. As a result, The Song of Songs, made by another great director, Rouben Mamoulian, tends to be overlooked. However, here too she gives a powerful and varied performance, in a film which is packed with pre-Code content and really pushes the boundaries. I was lucky enough to see this film during the recent pre-Code season at the BFI in London, and Victor Milner’s cinematography makes a powerful impression on the big screen. It’s also available to watch on DVD – I have the standard DVD from Universal in the UK/region 2, which doesn’t feature any extras. In region 1 it’s been issued on a more expensive DVD-R from Universal and TCM.
The excellent cast includes Brian Aherne and Lionel Atwill as the two men in Dietrich’s life, but this is her film all the way, giving her a chance to put several different spins on her screen persona. She also sings two great songs, which encapsulate those different versions of her personality.
By this time Dietrich had built a reputation for playing knowing women who had seen and done it all, but this movie daringly casts her first of all as an innocent peasant girl. Despite being too old for those early scenes at 31, Dietrich is surprisingly convincing. Her wide-eyed performance gains an extra poignancy from the fact that we know from the start it can’t last. The question is what will turn her into the Dietrich we all know, lighting a cigarette and performing another half-laughing, world-weary song.
The film is based on a novel by Hermann Sudermann, who also wrote the book that provided the inspiration for silent classic Sunrise. Here the same stark contrast is drawn between town and country, innocence and experience. There were also two silent versions of The Song of Songs, one of which starred Pola Negri, though it doesn’t seem to be in existence. Another interesting connection is with another pre-Code I’ve just seen, Nana, starring Anna Sten, which was made the following year and follows a similar progress for the heroine, with Lionel Atwill in a similarly obsessive and scene-stealing role.
Here, Dietrich stars as Lily, a poor young girl from rural Germany who is left on her own when her father dies. She goes to the city, Berlin, to live with her elderly aunt, Mrs Rasmussen (British character actress Alison Skipworth), who sets her to work in her small bookshop – warning her against starting any relationships with men. However, Lily is full of dreams of true love, and constantly quoting The Song of Songs in the Bible, which her father used to read to her every night. There are many films and books about young women obsessed with romance as a result of reading – but it isn’t usually the poetry of the Bible. Character actress Skipworth is excellent as the eccentric and self-centred aunt, providing a lot of humour in the early part of the film before it moves more deeply into melodrama later on. One of the many things I love about 1930s movies is the way they often bridge genres in this way, with one film moving between comedy and tragedy.
When the handsome young sculptor living opposite, Richard Waldow (Aherne) invites Lily to model for him, it is inevitable that she will fall in love with him. And, as he creates a giant statue of her naked body, it is equally inevitable that he will fall in love with her. Some of the most daring pre-Code content of the film comes in this section, with the lingering shots of Dietrich taking off her clothes. We never actually see her naked, but we do see the sculpture of her body and shots of Aherne working on it, fondling it. Dietrich has many scenes of undressing – early in the film she removes endless petticoats under the disbelieving eyes of her aunt. Mamoulian is just as sexually daring in this film as in two of his other pre-Codes, Love Me Tonight and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the scenes of the two lovers’ brief happiness are powerful stuff.
This film was Aherne’s Hollywood debut. He is very handsome and makes a good combination with Dietrich, but Lionel Atwill effortlessly steals scenes from him as his patron, the sadistic and semi-unhinged Baron von Merzbach. The Baron first plans to buy the statue, but then decides he’d rather buy the model – and sets about wooing Lily via her drunken aunt, plying her first with rum and then with cash. When he discovers that Richard doesn’t want to marry Lily, he moves in for the kill, persuading him to go away to Italy – and then moving in to comfort his rejected lover. The Baron persuades Lily to marry him, in order to take revenge on Richard – but really he is the one taking revenge on the world, and on women.
The wedding scene is beautifully staged, but chilling. As she marries the Baron, Lily seems to freeze on camera, expressing how the character has now become a statue, marble like the carving made by Richard. The Baron states this in so many words later – “You’re so cold – as cold as that statue”. But Dietrich had already said it all as she emerged from the church. Among the many famous aspects of her films with von Sternberg are all the memorable still images of her throughout these. Think of her leaning against the train and smoking in Shanghai Express. Here she does the same thing with Mamoulian, with haunting freeze-frames which sum up each stage of Lily’s life.
Dietrich made quite a few silent films, though they are hard to get hold of and in some she only played minor roles. Watching her luminous performance in this gives a feeling of how great she could have been as a silent film goddess, even without the opportunity to hear her voice and her singing. Again and again the story is told through her eyes, her movements and the expressions of her face, rather than through the dialogue.
After the wedding, the Baron’s true colours come across, as he laughs when he listens through the door and hears his bride crying before he goes through to “join her”. There is an astonishing moment where the Baron looks at a drawing of his naked bride (he has bought Richard’s study for the statue) and thrusts his lit cigar at her image, before going into the bedroom and locking the door. I’m reminded that cigars are used as a symbol of male sexuality in Victorian novels, such as Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. By contrast, Richard smokes a pipe, confirming his image as a traditional English gentleman behind the Bohemian trappings.
Lily is then subjected to a fast Pygmalion-style transformation, as the Baron hires experts to train her in everything from French to piano playing and, most importantly, singing. Music is key to the atmosphere all through the film, with Beethoven featured in the soundtrack. At this point Dietrich in effect sings Lily’s story via her performance of Heidenröslein, a poem by Goethe set to a tune by Schubert, about a rosebud picked by a careless boy.
During her time as the Baroness, Lily wears a breathtaking succession of gowns, showing the importance of the clothing as well as the nudity in this film. She moves between an extraordinary range of costumes which seem to express what is being done to her, what people want her to be. I was again reminded of Tess, and of Hardy’s description of his heroine wearing her clothes as if they had nothing to do with her. Dietrich looks glorious in her finery as the baroness, yet at the same time gives a feeling that it means nothing to the character.
I discuss the ending in this next bit.
The marriage cannot last – and it quickly heads for destruction when the Baron decides to invite Richard for a visit, in order to gloat over him. A series of shocking plot twists follow, leading to Lily having to flee the mansion and reinvent herself yet again. This time, after disappearing, she is found as a prostitute in a club, where she performs one of her trademark songs, Johnny, written by Friedrich Hollaender. This was a song which Dietrich later also frequently sang in German. Her performance is remarkable here, as she starts off lighthearted and mocking, but, after spotting Aherne watching, continues with just a slight shift – still witty, still determined, but with the unmistakable heartbreak underneath.
Dietrich’s two songs, the Goethe ballad and Johnny, show the distance Lily has travelled in this film. As soon as the song ends, Richard takes Lily out of the club and back to his studio for the inevitable climax, where she sees the statue. She realises how great that distance is, and just how much she has changed since it was made. This is one of a number of 1930s films about artists in destructive relationships with their models, including two other pre-Codes, Ladies They Talk About and Maugham adaptation Of Human Bondage, as well as a slightly later Wellman film, The Light That Failed, from the novel by Kipling. In all of these, there seems to be a feeling of the man somehow capturing the woman’s soul in his art.
There is often a scene towards the end of these stories where the woman destroys the work of art in order to reclaim her self. That happens here, as Lily wrecks the statue and falls to the ground, weeping for her dead younger self. The ending seems quite hopeful, with her and Richard together – and with him accepting that the statue is broken and that version of her is gone for good. But it’s a muted happy ever after.