"The Flame of New Orleans"
** 1\2 (out of ****)
Watching Marlene Dietrich in a romantic - comedy such as "The Flame of New Orleans" (1941) I'm reminded of a famous quote from the actress Mae West - "When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad I'm better". That essentially describes the screen persona of Ms. Dietrich and which movies feature her at her best.
Ms. Dietrich gained international acclaim in the 1930s playing women who brought men to their downfall by luring them with sex. The movies were usually directed by Josef von Sternberg and were dramas. But then someone got the idea, why not put Ms. Dietrich in a comedy. Why not have her play against type. It could, in theory, work, but the final product isn't a success. Not exactly a failure mind you, but not a success. Why? Because Ms. Dietrich is better when she's bad.
Mr. Von Sternberg and Ms. Dietrich tried the comedic approach once with "The Devil Is A Woman" (1935). It was entertaining and I gave it a mild recommendation but "The Flame of New Orleans" never really takes off.
If you could rate a movie based on expectation I suppose you'd have to rate "The Flame of New Orleans" high. The movie was directed by the great filmmaker Rene Clair - "I Married A Witch" (1942), "The Ghost Goes West" (1935), stars the wonderful Ms. Dietrich and has a supporting cast of excellent character actors; Roland Young, Mischa Auer, Andy Devine and Franklin Pangborn and was written by Norman Krasna - "Hands Across the Table" (1935), Fritz Lang's "Fury" (1936) and Alfred Hitchcock's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (1941). But expectations and good intentions don't mean much. It's the final product that counts.
"The Flame of New Orleans" begins with the kind of lunacy we'd expect to find in a Preston Sturges comedy, with a wedding dress drifting along the Mississippi River and two fishermen finding it. Where did the dress come from? Who does it belong to? Where's the bride's body? A narrator tells us we are going to find out the answers. The dress belongs to Countess Claire (Dietrich) a woman with a fancy title but no money. She is new to New Orleans and would like nothing better than to find a rich man and marry his money, er, I mean fall in love. With her beauty she won't find a storage of rich men eager to spend time with her. But, which among them is the most desperate that she can easily take advantage of? Perhaps it is Charles Giraud (Young).
And so we are dealing with the same ingredients found in Mr. Von Sternberg and Ms. Dietrich's collaborations - beautiful women who is a gold digger and is aware of her beauty and what men will do to be with her. She finds an innocent man with money whom she can easily manipulate. As the song goes, something's gotta give and its going to be the man's integrity and money. Here though is where the comedy comes in. How easily can Claire manipulate him? And, how can Claire stop her past from catching up to her and keep Charles from finding out?
Mr. Clair and Mr. Krasna have come up with a good comedic scenario involving Claire pretending to be two different women, one the respectable countess, engaged to Charles and the other a woman of what used to be called "ill repute", in order to clear her tracks when a man (Auer) claims to have known Claire and um, had a good time with her. This remark is heard by Charles and questions Claire regarding its validity.
This storyline is mixed with one revolving around Claire and a poor sailor, Robert (Bruce Cabot), giving us the tired, old cliche story of what is a girl to do, marry for love or money. Claire is attracted to Robert but what will it get her? At least Charles comes from a respectable family, has plenty of money and can give Claire a comfortable life.
Both sub-plots don't gel nicely together and feel somewhat clumsy, the structure of the movie is a bit off with neither sub-plot being fully explored. The movie also lacks big laughs, which could have made up for any plot holes. If I find a movie funny enough, I'll recommend it and overlook any flaws in the plot. Nothing about the movie is exaggerated, where situation escalates, heightening the comedy. Everything feels tame.
Then there is the issue of Ms. Dietrich herself. The right director, like Mr. Von Sternberg, could accentuate her beauty. Mr. Clair doesn't do that. He doesn't make the viewer fall in love with Claire. He doesn't make the obvious, obvious to us. Ms. Dietrich was a beautiful woman. Her looks are one of the central points of the movie - the way men, in particular Charles, reacts to her looks, why not play that aspect of the movie up?
Still, for what it is worth, Ms. Dietrich is suitable in the role. Comedically there isn't much for Ms. Dietrich to do. The comedy arises from the situations created and the performances given by Mr. Auer, Mr. Young and Mr. Pangborn. Ms. Dietrich could play comedy but not when playing a temptress. She is worth watching in "The Lady Is Willing" (1942).
Mr. Krasna allegedly did not approve of Mr. Young in the role and felt he was miscast. I'm not sure how Mr. Krasna saw the role but Mr. Young does a good job, there just wasn't enough for him to do. His character is one of those cowardly men that acts tough around a pretty girl to show his authority and social standing. Mr. Young brings that to the screen nicely.
I feel as if "The Flame of New Orleans" could have used some physical comedy and create moments of bedroom farce. Maybe a better director for the movie would have been Preston Sturges, who could walk that fine line and create movies with wonderful dialogue filled with nice zingers and slapstick comedy.
As for Rene Clair, "The Flame of New Orleans" is almost "too normal" for him. His English language movies usually had more fantastic plots, revolving around the supernatural. He directed some great French comedies in the 1930s which had a Chaplin-esque quality to them. That brilliance isn't really on display here. Perhaps because he is not in his natural element - plotwise.
"The Flame of New Orleans" was nominated for one Academy Award - best art direction, which it lost to John Ford's "How Green Was My Valley" (1941). The movie is not a complete success but not a failure. It is somewhat worth watching if you are a Marlene Dietrich fan or enjoy the films of Rene Clair, and quite frankly, why wouldn't you? Still, both the actress and the director have done better. This collaboration should have worked better. Instead the flame becomes nothing more than a dying ember.