not in our stars, but in ourselves
Other film buffs have other ideas about this, no doubt, but for my money: there is no more Platonic ideal of the Pre-Code film than Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930). It’s not just the extramarital activities. It’s not just the infidelities. It’s not just the world-weariness. It’s not just the famed Sapphic smooch. That’s all there, of course, but what makes Morocco so definitively Pre-Code is its ambiguity. It’s a black-and-white film with a hell of a lot of grey area. It was only after the Code was enforced that movies began to insist on selling clearly marked, happy or sad endings. Morocco is as fabulous and beautiful as the movies get, but it doesn’t pretend that life is any less confusing and difficult than it really is.
Somewhere in Morocco, Légionnaire Tom Brown (that divine Gary Cooper) is stationed. His commanding officer has ordered the troops to behave themselves this time – no booze and no girls! – but Tom doesn’t take those kind of orders. Meanwhile, somewhere in Europe, Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich) is waiting for a boat to Morocco. She attracts the attention of the well-to-do bachelor, La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou), but she remains aloof to his efforts to strike up a conversation. La Bessiere asks one of the sailors who she is, and the sailor says she’s likely a “suicide passenger”: never to return. As it turns out, she is on her way to Morocco to headline an act in a nightclub that attracts all of Morocco’s most powerful colonial influences: the wealthy, like La Bessiere, and the military, like Tom. During a sensational performance of “Quand l’amour meurt” (see link above), she manages to make everyone in the room fall in love with her. She, however, has eyes for Tom. While she goes around the audience, selling apples (!), she slips him the key to her room. After a night of passion, they fall in love – but he is still only a poor private, she is still a disillusioned cabaret singer, and La Bessiere is still determined to win her for himself.
Love triangles like this one, where the girl has to choose between sex and power, are usually pretty clear-cut in the movies. Not so in Morocco. The rich man is often quite odious in such scenarios, and the handsome young lover too deliciously ardent to pass up. But La Bessiere is actually a thoroughly sympathetic character: he steadily offers Amy his heart, his protection, anything she may need, even though he knows she feels little more than friendship for him. Their marriage, while not passionate, would probably be quite happy. And Tom is about as gorgeous as human males can possibly be, but Amy can still see how ambivalent he is about wanting to be with her. He wants her tremendously, but he knows how little he has to offer. Is sex enough?
And Morocco invites these questions quite deliberately. You never imagine, in Casablanca (1942), that Ilsa decides on Rick or Victor because one of them is better in bed than the other. You never imagine that she tries to figure out which of them will provide for her better. It’s all very gauzy and romantic, and all about True Love rather than more practical considerations. There are exceptions to the rule, post-Code, but you are much more likely to see adult relationships reflected in Pre-Code films than in those made after 1934.
Don’t worry, though – there’s plenty of fun to be had here. Dietrich was made to be filmed by von Sternberg, and Cooper was just plain made to be filmed. I mean, look at him. LOOK AT HIM.
No matter who you are, no matter what gender you are, you are not as pretty as Gary Cooper. No, really. You’re not. Just accept it, and bask in his sunlight. You’ll be happier that way. The chemistry between the two stars is, by the way, fantastic. In some very real way, I think it’s because of the androgyny running rampant. No one looks better in or out of a suit than Dietrich; and, as I say, no one is prettier than Coop. Throughout the film, the traditional gender roles remain extremely fluid between the two of them: she’s the one who pursues him and invites him to her room; she’s the one who kicks him out; she’s the one who goes after him; she’s the one who rescues him from being court-martialed; and then she resumes a more traditionally female role by waiting for him, passive and patient, before ultimately deciding to be the aggressor again in the end. It sounds like a case study for Feminist Film Theory 101, and maybe it is, but it’s more sexy than anything else. According to me, anyway.