Just when I thought Marlene Dietrich couldn’t possibly get any sexier, she goes and stars as a jewel thief in Frank Borzage’s Desire. The film, part of a Marlene Dietrich retrospective at The Metrograph in Manhattan—one of the greatest repertory cinemas in this or any town—was screened on a drizzly gray Sunday in glorious 35mm. Somehow, a dark, broody mid afternoon and Dietrich in shimmery silver nitrate are just meant for each other.
Now, neither I nor my Mr. Martin had seen the film before, but, c’mon, how can a bill featuring Dietrich and Coop ever be a bad idea. Lemme tell ya: Dietrich and Coop–both in their prime– did not disappoint.
The premise is simple: a gorgeous Continental jewel thief finds herself in over her head with love and the law when her latest heist—a necklace worth 2 million dollars—gets bungled up thanks to a tall, dark and handsome stranger. And, with such stories, you know from the beginning that the boy and girl will fall in love, causing the girl to have a change of heart and decide to go the straight and narrow for the love of her man. The question is…how?
Director Frank Borzage was no stranger to stories of love against all odds. He holds the distinct honor of being the first to ever receive an Academy Award for directing for his glorious 1927 silent drama Seventh Heaven, a film about young love torn apart by war. Visually speaking, he was heavily influenced by German Expressionism—specifically the great F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu, Sunrise) who worked at the same studio, Fox— but tonally there was an undercurrent of optimism and hope that made his films distinctly, dare I say it…American. You see it over and over again in Borzage’s work, which has, over the years, led academics to dismiss his films as old fashioned and a bit one-dimensional compared with his contemporaries, arguing they lack the subversive wit of Lubitsch (we’ll get to him in just a second) or the passionate individualism of Capra.
Watching Desire, however, completely contradicts all claims of Borzage as an old fashioned romantic, and suggests what Senses of Cinema describe as Romantic Modernist. The film fairly drips with sex. Made in 1936, it still manages to feel like a pre-code with its clever, flirty banter and its strong bad-girl protagonist. (In fact, there is more than one moment when one wonders just how the Hays office allowed it.)
Granted, Marlene Dietrich could recite the alphabet and still make it sound like a proposition, and, let’s face it, Gary Cooper is so damn handsome he could just stand there and say nothing and still run off with your heart. (My Mr. Martin claims that’s all he does on screen anyway. We do not agree on that.) But charm alone means nothing unless you have a sophisticated story helmed by a consummate storyteller. That’s what we have with Desire, and what seals the deal completely is that the film also benefits from a certain … touch.
Ernst Lubitsch acted as producer on this film, and it’s impossible to deny the fact that his elusive “touch” is all over this movie. Even the premise is similar to one of his classic, continental capers like Trouble in Paradise. I must confess my ignorance as I was not aware that the great director also produced pictures other than his own. As it turns out, he became Paramount’s production manager in 1935. The job only lasted a year, and Desire was one of the projects under his wing. Lubitsch worked closely with Borzage on the property during the early phases of production, particularly on the script and storyboarding.
But Lubitsch never overstepped directorial authority. Some academics have tried to suggest otherwise, but Dietrich herself confirmed this later in life stating plainly that Borzage was “the only director” on that film. As it turns out, the two men’s styles were exceedingly complimentary to the other. Herve Dumon in his biography of Frank Borzage puts it this way: “Desire…reveals a surprising complementarity between Lubitsch and Borzage, as if the second gave life and human consistency to the acrobatics of the first…until the moment when the discovery of love challenges sophistication, and the authentic feeling frees the actors from the decorum that is supposed to characterize them.”
And the Borzage-Lubitsch synergy is palpable. Watching Desire on the big screen, the way it was intended, was a truly joyous experience. When a movie made 80 years ago elicits gasps and hoots and hollers from a crowd of New Yorkers? The only explanation is a little thing called movie magic.