In her first American film without the guidance of director Josef von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich was definitely up to the acting challenge of Rouben Mamoulian’s The Song of Songs.
Not only are there some fine performances in this 1933 Mamoulian effort, but the screenplay by Leo Birinsky and Samuel Hoffenstein, taken from both Hermann Sudermann’s novel and Edward Sheldon’s play, is mature and compelling.
In The Song of Songs, Dietrich plays Lily Czepanek, a naive country girl who goes to live in Berlin after her father dies. Once there, she works in her Aunt’s book store and discovers the world.
The sculptor Waldow (played by Brian Aherne), lives upstairs and notices Lily’s unspoiled beauty. He convinces her to model nude for him. Not surprisingly, they fall in love, but the artist can’t give her the longtime commitment she craves.
Baron Von Merzbach, played to perfection by Lionel Atwill, is the artist’s friend who gets the hots for Lily the moment he sees her nude statue. The message we get is that he sees her in the nude even before he meets her, so that when she does appear – fully clothed – in the studio he already knows what’s under the wrapper.
The Baron’s lust for Lily becomes obsessive. He begs Waldow, “Give her to me” – as if he were asking for the statue, instead of a human being with a mind of her own.
Von Merzbach’s motives, lecherous as they may be, are at least honest. He bribes her Aunt with rum and cold cash for Lily’s services in his own library. And when Waldow dumps her, Lily gives in to the Baron’s proposal of marriage in order to get even with the man that got away.
Dietrich’s performance is quite believable. Shy and reserved, she speaks in a whisper in the early scenes. But once she poses nude and falls in love with her mentor, she becomes more self assured, as if shedding her clothes also shed her inhibitions.
As she evolves from country girl to model, to Baroness, and finally to high-priced floozy, she is taught to sing, wear stylish clothes, play the piano and speak French.
When Dietrich was under von Sternberg’s control, her performances were usually mannered and affected. She was also photographed by way of careful lighting and camera angles as if she were nothing more than window dressing for her director. In The Song of Songs, however, Dietrich shows a range of emotions while displaying a finely tuned character development that is not to be found in her earlier Hollywood vehicles.
Among the supporting players, especially engaging is Alison Skipworth as the slovenly, drunken old Aunt Rasmussen. It is a delight to see this old war-horse guzzling rum and disciplining Dietrich with a leather strap, while stealing every scene she is in.
Mamoulian’s direction is brisk and does not intrude on the story, as von Sternberg’s usually did whenever he shot Dietrich in pretentious poses for his camera’s composition. Instead, Mamoulian uses Dietrich’s acting talent as required by the story.
Of course, I am not trying to take away anything from Joseph von Sternberg’s impact as a director. I like his work very much, but his direction of Dietrich in their many fine films together, usually consisted of her darting her eyes around and looking artificial for his camera set-ups.
Finally, what is so striking about The Song of Songs is how casually it deals with nudity. In the sculptor’s studio, Lily is seen undressing and then covered by only a robe – though audiences knew she was completely naked underneath.
Additionally, the statues in the studio are of nude women; at one point, Waldow, while thinking of Lily, caresses the breasts of one figure, as if giving the impression he is just shaping the modeling clay.
Those were likely two more instances that compelled the Hays Office to push forward with the implementation of the Production Code, which would become fully effective in mid-1934.
Paramount made the right choice both in promoting the Dietrich and von Sternberg team with Morocco back in 1930 and in separating them for The Song of Songs three years later. These two legendary artists were good for each other, but is was time for them to spend some time apart.
© Danny Fortune
The Song of Songs (1933)
Director: Rouben Mamoulian.
Screenplay: Samuel Hoffenstein & Leo Birinsky.
From Hermann Sudermann’s novel and Edward Sheldon’s play.
Cast: Marlene Dietrich. Brian Aherne. Lionel Atwill. Alison Skipworth. Hardie Albright. Helen Freeman.
Marlene Dietrich The Song of Songs movie image: Paramount Pictures.
Your article made me want to see it again. I love how she plays in the beggining of the movie and to see how she evolves with time. I thought that in comparison to her other movies with Sternberg who loved her as an ice cold queen she was more humane and emotive in this movie, which is pleasing. I prefer her acting later on but he knew how to make her look flawless that’s for sure and it’s great to see how beautiful she looked in his movies. Thanks for the entertaining article!
Danny Fortune gives good review!