Even more than most actors, glam icon Marlene Dietrich built her career on looks and attitude more than raw talent. Her faults were many, but she turned them into assets, cultivating an exotic, almost untouchable persona that used her thick accent as a weapon, and turned her limited singing range into an irresistibly languid, can't-be-bothered cabaret style. And as the five films in the frills-free set Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection show, Hollywood responded with roles built around the enthralling effects of her gorgeous face and her offhandedly superior manner.
Dietrich earned her only Oscar nomination for her American debut as the star of 1930's Morocco, but it's the set's dullest film. A draggy romance featuring Dietrich as a cabaret performer torn between crude foreign legionnaire Gary Cooper and suave official Adolphe Menjou, Morocco is the only foggy-looking (and sounding) film in an otherwise well-transferred collection. The script is similarly foggy, with too much dead air and meaningless chatter. It's as if director Josef von Sternberg—Dietrich's lover/collaborator—hadn't fully transitioned from silents. His Blonde Venus (1932) is also slack, with Dietrich fading into a mostly passive role as a housewife who sells herself to the stage, then to Cary Grant, for cash to save her sick but disapproving husband. But she comes into her own in her last Sternberg film, 1935's sparkling The Devil Is A Woman. Seen mostly in flashback, as a weary Lionel Atwill tells Cesar Romero how she destroyed him, Dietrich plays a kittenish Spanish coquette, shamelessly secure in her power over men. Her manipulations are horrifying, but so cheerfully brazen that they're hilarious, too.
Dietrich plays confident and colorful again in 1941's The Flame Of New Orleans, as a social climber juggling a rich would-be husband and a poor would-be lover. French director René Clair opens with some horridly hokey narration, but quickly moves on to a lively, near-Shakespearian setup that has Dietrich playing two versions of herself to hide her checkered past. It's her best performance of the set, though she's still more memorable in 1947's atypical Golden Earrings, featuring Ray Milland as an English spy being hunted through pre-war Germany, and Dietrich as his pidgin-speaking, heavily grease-painted gypsy savior. Her embarrassing role works against the "glamour" theme, but the way she unabashedly throws herself into her earthy, grabby character is touching. It takes commitment for someone so steeped in cool splendor to get her hands this dirty.