I can’t really review this film in the same way that I review others because a) it’s so old (1930) that the format is pretty different to the more modern films I usually review and b) I will just end up gushing about Marlene Dietrich. Instead I’ll talk a little bit about how gender is portrayed in the film, which is by far it’s most interesting feature.
Morocco tells the story of a world-weary singer called Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich) who winds up singing in a club in Morocco and falls in love with Tom Brown, a soldier in the foreign legion (Gary Cooper). The film is littered with love triangles – Amy loves Tom, the army captain’s wife loves Tom, Tom loves no one (except maybe Amy), a wealthy socialite loves Amy, and so on. For most of the film Tom and Amy dance round each other; ego, pride and fear standing in the way of them declaring how they truly feel. In the end, however, it’s Amy who gives in and chases after Tom when his battalion leaves town.
The sexual and dominant character of Amy Jolly is more than a nod to Dietrich’s own unsubtle brand of bisexuality, and Morocco is undoubtedly most famous for the figure of Dietrich dragged-up on stage in top hat and tails, cigarette hanging from her lips, a sexy come-to-bed stare fixed on the crowd. In the first part of the film Amy cuts a cynical, fiercely independent, masculine figure who relies on no one and never asks for help – she lazily tears up the business card of the wealthy socialite who offers to show her round the town. The most overt display of this masculinity comes in the form of Amy sauntering up to a woman in the audience while in drag and kissing her full on the lips. Tom meanwhile appears to be head-over-heels, watching Amy in the crowd like some doe-eyed fan-girl. This role reversal of Amy as suave man-about-town and Tom as submissive, adoring woman is realised by Amy handing Tom a flower and Tom tucking it behind his ear.
As the film progresses, however, we see the gender roles revert back to their more traditional forms. Tom becomes stubborn and proud, refusing to commit to Amy who has become an archetypal weak and helpless woman hopelessly in love with her man (so much so that she follows him into battle at the end). The only role that doesn’t revert back to a traditional stereotype is that of the rich socialite who remains besotted with Amy throughout the film (and is therefore ‘feminised’), rushing to accompany her as she hysterically insists at a dinner party that she must visit Tom when he’s sick in hospital.
Morocco is a great piece of subversive cinema that was clearly way ahead of its time in its portrayal of gender and sexuality. Cooper is fantastic as Tom Brown but it’s Dietrich, of course, who is the star of this film. Although still very young, you can already see her coming into her own as the super-sexy, dominant leading lady with the smoky voice that she would become years later in more mainstream films. It’s not the most engaging story and the dialogue is a little clunky, but it’s a rare example of how brazen, bold and sexy cinema could be.