There are a lot of movies which I have fond memories of watching during my childhood, but Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930), which I believe I saw at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater when I was about five years old, had an effect unlike any other. There was something mystical, almost otherworldly, about its desert setting. Call it the lure of the exotic, if you will; I say that it was the presence of Marlene Dietrich.
You might have thought that it would be Gary Cooper whom I would be drawn to – still in the “pretty” phase of his young career – but as an impressionable little girl, I was quite taken with Marlene. More than any other actress of the period, even Greta Garbo, Dietrich had an allure that transcended the temporal and cultural barriers between the 1930 film and my viewing it in the 1990s. The cafe scenes show Dietrich as the sex symbol she was, enticing both male and female characters in equal measure. She tempts us all, somehow even more so when she is dressed in a tuxedo and top hat. The fluidity of gender that was present in her personal life is just as potent in the film.
The ending of Morocco, which is not really an ending… if my early love for older films could be represented both visually and aurally by any one moment in cinema, it would have to be the ending of Morocco. I’m not even referring to the image of Dietrich’s bare feet touching the hot sand, although that is a powerful moment. Instead I refer to the way in which the film transitions to the end credits. As the film fades out we see the Paramount logo and the traditional “The End” sign, but the tribal beat of the Legionnaires’ marching drums play on, signaling that the final scene is not truly the end of the story. Morocco was a visceral experience for me in my childhood, providing me with the foundation of my everlasting appreciation for pre-Code films and a memory to last me all throughout my life. Gazing up at the big screen, I knew I had found my calling.