Morocco (1930): Von Sternberg’s Strange, Campy Film, Starring Dietrich

Josef Von Sternberg received Best Director Oscar nomination for “Morocco,” which also garnered Best Actress nomination for Marlene Dietrich–her first and only one.

After her huge success in “The Blue Angel,” which was shot in German and English simultaneously, director Josef von Sternberg asked Marlene Dietrich to come to Hollywood.

Von Sternberg made Dietrich’s American film debut, “Morocco,” a romance about an entertainer torn between wealthy artist Adolphe Menjou and Foreign Legionnaire Gary Cooper. As a cabaret singer, she arrives in Morocco and continues her wicked career by enslaving all the men in sight. But true love reaches her at last.

morocco_4_dietrichThe film displays Dietrich’s quintessential qualities as a mysterious and alluring femme fatale, largely unattainableand, imbuing sexual ambiguity, reinforce by her slacks and blazer, which had tremendous impact on fashion off-screen.

Dietrich plays Amy Jolly, an American singer, who arrives in North Africa and is hired as a singer in a cabaret attended by members of the Foreign Legion. She is immediately pursued by Le Bessier (Adolphe Menjou), a rich, worldly gentleman, but her heart goes for a simpler Legionnaire, the stunningly handsome and shy Tom Brown (Gary Cooper).

morocco_2_dietrichLike most of Sternebrg’s films with Dietrich, “Morocco” is exquisitely mounted, boasting great direction but hampered by a slender plot; basically one-idea. Thematically, too, the film deals with the helmer’s recurrent issues, passion, sexual obsession, power and control.

In the next-to-last scene, when Amy asks Kennington why some women are congregating at the town’s gate, he explains that these femmes follow their men wherever they go. As the troops move out, and the women follow them, Amy, standing on high-heels, watches in silence.

morocco_1_dietrichThen, suddenly, Amy begins to walk out into the sands. Taking her shoes off, she follows Tom into the desert with the wind blowing against her face.

This finale lends the picture a nice symmetry: In the beginning, Amy observes scornfully a band of women who follow on foot the caravan of legionaries on its march into the desert, which is the only way to stay with their lovers. At the end, she herself joins the band, as her only true love is in the caravan.

Over the years, more has been written about the woman-to-woman kiss and the film’s last image than any other aspect of the picture. It’s interesting to note that, save from the natural sounds of the winds, Von Sternberg shot this scene in utter silence, and there’s not much music (except for Marlene’s songs) in the rest of the tale.

In this and other respects, the wry, European humor, the subtle if perverse psychology–Morocco was ahead of its times, standing out unmistakably as the work of a non-American helmer, who perceived himself as an artist rather than craftsman or storyteller.

Sternberg, who was obsessed with his star, ordered lenser Lee Garmes how to shoot Dietrich to an advantage, from one side with light behind (similar to the way that, Garbo was filmed at MGM by William Daniels). When Garmes claimed that unlike the Divine, Dietrich had some imperfect angles, the duo decided to place the camera and key lighting above her and slightly forward, a technique that made her cheeks more hollowed and heavy eyelids shadowed, while masking her wide nose.

There were squabbles on the set between Cooper and Sternberg, a result of communicating in German and favoring Dietrich’s part over his. Nonetheless, the three worked again in the future.

Interestingly, while Von Sternberg emphasized Dietrich’s androgyny, manifest in a scene in which she kisses a woman on the mouth (this is prior to the 1934 Code of Production), Cooper appears more effete, willing to place a rose behind his ear, or smoke with a limp wrist in short, displaying manners that would disappear completely from his more macho persona of the late 1930s and 1940s as a westerner cowboy.

Paramount held the release of the Von Sternberg-Dietrich teaming, “The Blue Angel,” shot before this picture, until “Morocco” opened theatrically, because they knew it would be a success.

The subject matter outdated quickly, but not the stars and their screen image. Most critics praised the lead performances. Richard Watts noted in the N.Y. Herald Tribune: “The understandably popular Gary Cooper, who underacts more completely than any other player within memory, never has been as effective and certainly never as expert an actor as he is in the role of the hero.” Thornton Delehanty observed in the NY Evening Post: “The scenes between Dietrich, Cooper, and Menjou, and between any combination of them, throb with portents. Cooper gives one of his best performances in this picture, a restrained and telling piece of work.”

Oscar Nominations: 4

Interior Decoration

Oscar Awards: None


Tom Brown (Gary Cooper)
Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich)
Kennington (Adolph Menjou)
Adjutant Caesar (Ullrich Haupt)
Anna Dolores (Juliette Compton)
Corporal Tatoche (Francis McDonald)
Colonel Quinnevieres (Albert Conti)
Madame Caesar (Eve Southern)
Barratire (Michael Visaroff)
Lo Pinto (Paul Porcasi)
Camp Follower (Theresa Harris)


Director: Josef Von Sternberg
Screenplay: Jules Furthman, based on the novel “Amy Jolly,” by Benno Vigny
Camera: Lee Garmes
Art Direction: Hans Dreier
Editor: Sam Winston
Sound Recorder: Harry D. Mills
Musical Score: Karl Hajos


“Give Me the Man” and “What Am I Bid,” by Leo Robin and Karl Hajos
“Quand L’Amour Meurt,” by Cremieux