Greetings Fans and Film Lovers,

It’s Throw-Back Wednesday, the day devoted to cracking open the vault of Classic Hollywood and discovering what gems lay inside. Today, I want to take a look at Joseph Von Sternberg’s, Morocco (1930). The film follows world-weary chanteuse, Amy Jolly (played by Marlene Dietrich) as she arrives in Morocco and becomes lounge singer at a local club.  A

s the film progresses, Amy attracts the attention of wealthy playboy La Bessiere and a womanizing Legionnaire soldier, Tom Brown (played by Gary Cooper). The plot is fairly simplistic but don’t let that fool you. The film serves as an early example of a feminist text, aligning the viewer with woman who does not conform to the passive stereotype of a female starlet. If you thought there was only one type female character in classical cinema – think again.


The Studio Era (which spanned roughly from the late 1920s to the early 1960s) turned actors into commodities that could be mass produced. The studios invested in drama coaches, voice trainers, and script analyzers in an effort to turn stardom into an assembly line process, a process which reinforced gender stereotypes prevalent during the time period. Starlets, as demonstrated through various press articles such as life magazine, were reduced to nothing more than a glamourized image. Marlene Dietrich, however, in her role as Amy Jolly dares to expose and defy this glamorization. The performance of Marlene Dietrich in Morocco challenges preconceived ideas about gender during the 1930s, producing a bisexual appeal that highlights the uneasy tension of masculinity and femininity during the Studio Era.

What Makes This Film Famous:

The uncompromising performance style of Marlene Dietrich makes this film a must see. Marlene Dietrich’s performance in Sternberg’s Morocco illustrates the paradox of the female film star during the Studio Era; her performance as Amy Jolly is a virtual balancing act of realism and illusion that subverts gender norms. Consider this early scene within the film – A crowed room filled with wealthy aristocrats and soldiers cheers as new talent takes the stage in a Moroccan performance house.

The female entertainer dressed in a gentleman’s black coattails and top hat struts around the room, making her way to table of admirers. The androgynous performer, played by Sternberg’s silver screen paramour- Dietrich, accentuates her calculated strides with intentional pauses, striking a pose to provide the camera with a profile image along the way.


Scanned from Acting in Cinema

She approaches the woman sitting at the table, a woman dressed elegantly in jeweled white dress, providing a stark contrast to the performer’s black boyish ensemble. The singer asks in a pronounced slow drawl for the flower in the woman’s hair to which woman giggles and agrees in response as though the performer were a male suitor asking for a token of affection [1]. The singer takes the flower in hand to smell it briefly and then, with a mischievous glint and easy grace, bends down to kiss the woman – astonishing both the audience within the film and the viewer watching the film with her display of sexual independence.


Image found at Starlets/ Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich and Screen Image:

In Sternberg’s Morocco, Dietrich is reduced to a fetishized image. Unlike other female film stars during the Studio Era, this ‘woman as image’ persona is completely intentional [2] – providing a satirical commentary on role of women both in the film industry and society in general. Dietrich’s acting performance is a self-conscious performance; her character uses her sexuality to garnish applause from the audience just as Dietrich uses the fetishized nature of the film image to enhance her star persona among the film viewer. Her performance is, thus, two-fold. The film’s lighting, costume choice, and makeup render Dietrich an extreme example of female glamour even as she is dressed in a man’s attire, thus allowing Dietrich to serve as both object and subject of the camera’s male gaze [3].

With her performance scene, she is an object of male sexual desire as demonstrated by longing gazes of both Monsieur La Bessiere and Legionnaire Tom Brown whom both vie for her affection throughout the film’s narrative [4]; she is also the sexual aggressor. In her pursuit of Tom Brown, she initiates the first contact, giving him the flower which she takes from the woman; indeed the early interaction with between Brown, played by Gary Cooper, and Jolly presents an inversion of traditional heterosexual coupling, a theme within the film that serves primarily to restrain subversive elements of Dietrich’s performance.

Rather than have Brown approach Jolly, he is framed as the passive recipient of the flower, symbol of courtship, which he then places behind his ear in much the same way as a flattered woman would accept a man’s gift. Thus, the film reverses the roles of man and woman, playing up Dietrich’s masculinity and effectively feminizing Cooper [5]. Throughout her courtship with both men in the film, Dietrich remains active participant, particularly regarding the performance of Menjou who often serves as double for the film viewer – looking on Dietrich with blatant admiration but lacking the ability to touch her.


Why You Should See It:

Dietrich’s gender-bending performance highlights the artificial nature of cinema; her acting style is characteristic of what Brewster and Jacobs refer to as the pictorial style, a style which constitutes a blend of stereotyped postures, typically leading up to a dramatic moment, and naturalistic elements typically found in films emphasizing narrative cohesion [6]. The pictorial style of acting theorizes that certain narrative situations have more pronounced poses and gestures than others [7].

This is illustrated the first romantic interlude between Dietrich and Cooper where the couple share a kiss. The kiss is not shown to the viewer but is instead hidden by a hand fan which Cooper holds in front of them. However, the slant of her arm and movement of her arm, which is overt even for Dietrich, during the kiss conveys the sexual heat of the moment [8].


The pictorial style also suggests that certain genres such as drama films use more pronounced poses than others [9]. Dietrich’s performance in Morocco, a films which utilizes the conventions of drama, also fits this criteria. Dietrich’s deliberate use of ostensive poses and striking profiles for the camera, calls attention to the fact that she is, indeed, acting. Her gestures are stiff and poised as though she were modeling for a photographer or painter rather than acting as an agent of narrative within a film [10].

Dietrich’s slow pausing during the delivery of dialogue also add to the presentational nature of her performance. Yet, Dietrich is not just playing herself like the ostensive actors who characterize the pre-studio era; she is creating an illusion – deliberately “showing off” [11] her exotic image which flouts sexual appeal. This glamorous portrayal servers to reinforce the romance of the narrative, depicting the sophisticated signer willing to give up everything to be with an average man like Brown.

Would I recommend It: Absolutely!

The lighting of the film is spectacular, and Dietrich is divine in her portrayal of Amy Jolly. You simply can’t help but stare at her in wonder.


  1. Naremore, James. Acting in the Cinema. University of California Press: Los Angeles, 1988.Amazon Kindle Digital Edition. No page numbers available.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. Brewster, Ben and Jacobs, Lea. “Pictorial Styles and Film Acting.” Movie Acting: The Film Reader. Ed. Pamela Robertson Wojcik. Routledge: New York, 2004. Print.
  7. Ibid, 71.
  8. Naremore, James. Acting in the Cinema. University of California Press: Los Angeles, 1988.Amazon Kindle Digital Edition. No page numbers available.
  9. Brewster, Ben and Jacobs, Lea. “Pictorial Styles and Film Acting.” Movie Acting: The Film Reader. Ed. Pamela Robertson Wojcik. Routledge: New York, 2004. Print.
  10. Naremore, James. Acting in the Cinema. University of California Press: Los Angeles, 1988.Amazon Kindle Digital Edition. No page numbers available.
  11. Ibid

*All Images not captioned are screen-caped from the film*

Ask: Do You Have a Favorite Classic Hollywood Film?


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