Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Film Review: Golden Earrings

"Golden Earrings"
*** (out of ****)

Marlene Dietrich and Ray Milland bring out the gypsy in your soul in the World War II romance "Golden Earrings" (1947).

At the time Mitchell Leisen's "Golden Earrings" was released World War II had ended. During the war years several movies were churned out  which were meant to induce Patriotic pride. These stories were either about brave soldiers fighting overseas or what life was like on the home front. Examples would include the best picture Academy Award winner "Mrs. Miniver" (1942), "Since You Went Away" (1945), "So Proudly We Hail" (1943) and "In Which We Serve" (1942).

With the war over though audiences wanted to hear stories about adventure. Espionage stories became very popular, especially as the Cold War would quickly begin right after WW2. Stories which focused on ways in which soldiers outsmarted those dumb Nazis and the axis of evil were a flavor of the month. "Golden Earrings" appears to be such a story. Here is a movie filled with love, romance and adventure. A story of a brave British soldier on the run from Nazis, desperate to save the day and a woman who saves his life, in more ways than one. It might have been exactly what audiences yearned for.

Today however "Golden Earrings" seems forgotten. Why do I say that? Ask yourself, when was the last time you heard someone mention the movie? On the website IMDb.com the movie has only had 768 users vote on it. To put things into perspective, the new "Batman v Superman" movie has 232, 069 votes!

"Golden Earrings" could be described as something of a mix-bag. It doesn't always take its story serious enough and at times injects a lot of humor, which diminishes its scope. The great Marlene Dietrich turns in a performance that is way over-the-top. I wouldn't call it "camp", but, that is only out of respect for Ms. Dietrich. She chews up the scenery. The movie also goes in for a lot of stereotypes which today's audiences may find offensive if not just plain ridiculous.

Yet there is something to enjoy while watching "Golden Earrings". Ms. Dietrich was a great actress. A woman who had tremendous screen presence. She commanded your attention and got it. "Golden Earrings" doesn't show Ms. Dietrich at the top of her game but she makes "Golden Earrings" watchable. It is a memorable performance for all the wrong reasons yet it is still memorable. Would the character be as memorable if played straight? If performed by another actress? Probably not. Maybe Ms. Dietrich knew exactly what she was doing.

Ms. Dietrich's co-star, Ray Milland, on the other hand seems to be doing Shakespeare standing next to her, yet Mr. Milland's performance also is one aware of its comedic implications. Depending on the audience watching it "Golden Earrings" may possess laugh-out-loud moments if not "smile material" as you watch these two serious actors out do one another in a somewhat trivial story.

The movie begins in "modern times" (1947), as Colonel Denistoun (Milliand), who is now retired, receives a package at his hotel. The package contains two golden earrings. Upon receiving this package Col. Denistoun immediately books a flight to Paris. What do the golden earrings represent? The audience can tell they carry some significance to them.

One of the guest at the hotel, an American journalist, Quentin Reynolds (playing himself), is also on his way to Paris and booked on the same flight. Prior to their flight however Mr. Reynolds, and some other hotel guest, notice Col. Denistoun has pierced ears but does not wear earrings. Pierced ears on a man was unheard of in 1947. No civilized man would do such a thing. And I have my doubts about a man doing it today, but, that's another story. Why did the Colonel do such a thing?

On the flight to Paris Mr. Reynolds is seated next to Col. Denistoun and cannot help himself from looking at those pierced ears. Not being able to endure much more of this the Colonel agrees to tell Mr. Reynolds his story.

It is now 1939 and Colonel Denistoun and another soldier, Byrd (Bruce Lester) are on a mission in Germany. They are to contact a Professor Krosigk (Reinhold Schunzel), who has developed a poison gas formula. The Colonel and Byrd are to get to the Professor before the Nazis do. However they are on the run from the Nazis and have separated, agreeing to meet in the town of the Professor's home.

While traveling at night through back roads the Colonel encounters a gypsy woman, Lydia (Ms. Dietrich) preparing a fish stew by a campfire. She invites the stranger over and quickly realizes the young man is a military man, perhaps even a British soldier. Although initially uneasy about Lydia the Colonel begins to think she could be a great help to him if she can disguise him as a gypsy and help him get to his destination.

Lydia agrees to help Col. Denistoun though her motives aren't purely innocent. Lydia has been traveling along for days and believes Col. Denistoun has been sent to her as an asnwer to her prayers. He is her man now. It is in these moments "Golden Earrings" has a strong sexual vibe as Lydia does practically everything but throw herself on top of the Colonel. On second thought I think she does! We can see the lust and "hunger" in her eyes. Her new "companion" has lit a spark in her. Their dialogue is full of innuendos and at times is not too subtle.

It is amazing to think all of this was able to get by the Hollywood censors as a production code was enforced during this time. The only reason imaginable that is was able to slip by has to be because it is played for comedy. It is all so outlandish as Col. Denistoun fights her off in disgust and annoyance.

With this set-up "Golden Earrings" engages in a lot of stereotypes concerning gypsies. A lot of it is nonsense the movie simply creates. It shows gypsies as fortune tellers. defrauding people out of money, stealing food, uncivilized - eating food with their hands and shocked to learn some people wash everyday. One character even says he believes his father died from washing too much! If society didn't condone prejudice towards gypsies (they are the only minority group where there are no repercussions if you demonize them) you might find all of this offensive. "Golden Earrings" instead wants to get laughs out of this.

"Golden Earrings" also perpetuates the erroneous belief that all Hungarians are gypsies. Almost every time gypsies have been shown in a Hollywood movie there is some Hungarian connection. Throughout the movie portions of Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" is heard on the soundtrack. When Lydia introduces the Colonel to other gypsies she advises him to say "Jo Napot brother". Jo Napot means "good afternoon" in Hungarian. The scene takes place at night so it makes no sense but that is besides the point. I hate to break it to everyone but gypsies don't just live in Hungary. They also live in Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Italy, England, France, Russia, Poland, Ireland, Bulgaria and even America.

 At its heart though "Golden Earrings" really wants to be a love story and not so much a war movie or an action movie. These are merely plot conventions established to bring the two lead actors together. "Golden Earrings" is based on a lot of cliches regarding women and their influence on men. Behind every good man is a good woman. Women help give men a fresh perspective on life.

Of course movie fans will say it is odd seeing Ms. Dietrich play a "good woman". Back in the 1930s Ms. Dietrich performed in several films directed by Josef von Sternberg where she played a temptress. A woman who used men as tools and brought upon their downfall. These movies include "The Blue Angel" (1930), "Morocco" (1930) and "Shanghai Express" (1932). In those movies Ms. Dietrich would never think of throwing herself at a man, exposing her vulnerability. Her characters had too much pride and always knew how to manipulate a man to get exactly what she wanted. In "Golden Earrings" her characters gets what she wants but doesn't manipulate to get it. She simply takes it.

One year prior to the release of "Golden Earrings" Ray Milland had won an Academy Award for best actor for his performance in the Billy Wilder drama, "The Lost Weekend" (1945). Mr. Milland was a leading man who could act in dramas and comedies with equal success. He appeared in another Billy Wilder movie, the comedy "The Major and the Minor" (1942) as well as the noir film "The Big Clock" (1948) and the Alfred Hithcock film "Dial M For Murder" (1954).

"Golden Earrings" may be better remembered by some for its theme song of the same name. What some of you may not know is the song was based on an old Hungarian folk song - "Csak Egy Szep Lany". The English translation would be "The Only Beautiful Girl". The song has actually been sung in other Hollywood movies in Hungarian (!). In the movie "Holiday In Mexico" (1946) Ilona Massey (who was Hungarian) sings it. It can also be heard in the Jack Oakie comedy "Fight For Your Lady" (1937). Most Americans have probably heard the legendary jazz vocalist Peggy Lee record the song. Her recording has a Latin vibe however instead of an Eastern European one, which is what would have been better suited.

Another fun fact is many people believe Ms. Dietrich is playing a zither in one scene. Actually the instrument she is playing is a cimbalom - the national instrument of Hungary. The frame for both instruments is almost the same except that a cimbalom has legs and is played with two cotton mallets. In the scene following her playing you will notice she is in a wagon playing the same instrument with two cotton mallets.

"Golden Earrings", which was based on a novel by the Hungarian author Jolan Foldes, is worth a viewing experience despite everything if only for the performances given by Ms. Dietrich and Mr. Milland and the chance to hear the song "Golden Earrings". In some ways "Golden Earrings" represents a kind of old-fashion melodramatic Hollywood romance and follows the old plot convention of two opposites falling in love.