Here’s a rarely seen Pre-Code curiosity made during the early period of Marlene Dietrich’s career at Paramount, The Song of Songs (1933). It is usually overlooked amid the Josef von Sternberg collaborations that made her famous such as The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932), yet, it provides a fascinating look at Dietrich under a different director (Rouben Mamoulian) as well as a departure from her usual persona as a vamp or prostitute (at least in the beginning). The film is also generously seasoned with romance, decadence, melodrama, earthy humor, some musical numbers and a disaster – there is a fire in the final act.
Based on the popular 1908 novel Das hohe Lied (The Song of Songs) by Hermann Sudermann, the title is a Biblical reference to the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament. It figures prominently in the storyline of The Song because the heroine, Lily Czepanek (Dietrich), can recite the verses by heart and has formed her idealized concept of romantic love from it.
The novel, according to one source, was a morality tale about a girl “wrecked upon the rocks of her ignorance” and shares similarities with other Sudermann novels that were adapted to film (Sunrise, Flesh and the Devil), especially its depiction of an innocent from the country being corrupted by city life. In Mamoulian’s movie adaptation, Lily is a naive rural girl who goes to live with her aunt, Mrs. Rasmussen (Alison Skipworth), in Berlin after the death of her father. As part of her new arrangement, Lily works as a shop assistant in her aunt’s bookshop and is forbidden to have male suitors. This rule is soon broken as Lily becomes infatuated with artist Richard Waldow (Brian Aherne), who persuades her to pose for him nude at his sculpting studio.
When Waldow’s predatory friend Baron von Merzbach (Lionel Atwill) gets a preview of the artist’s new work in progress, he becomes determined to have the model for himself and eventually bribes Lily’s aunt to “sell” him the girl. Waldow has no objections to this development at first because he believes marriage is a trap and would stifle his creativity but he comes to regret the decision later. The second half of the film charts the disillusionment and degradation of Lily as she is tormented by her sadistic husband and suffers the misfortunes of other fallen women before seizing a final chance at happiness.
By the time Dietrich made The Song of Songs, her image as a sex siren/femme fatale was well established and following her most recent collaboration with von Sternberg – Blonde Venus (1932) – it was a stretch for audiences even then to accept the German actress as a simple, unworldly peasant girl from the countryside. The character is clearly meant to be an impressionable young teenage girl but Dietrich is no teenager and she is too fashionably dressed and glamorous looking for the part. Yet the emphasis is on her beauty – which von Sternberg helped mold for the camera – and what audiences came to gaze upon so credibility wasn’t a pressing issue here. In terms of a storyline The Song of Songs is also no more melodramatic or absurd then some of the soap opera contrivances of Blonde Venus or Morocco.
What does work well in The Song of Songs is the perverse undertone of the film which has some of the kinky sexual suggestiveness of an Erich von Stroheim film like Queen Kelly. In many ways, the story is like a darker variation on the Pygmalion theme, one in which Waldow and the baron try to transform the heroine into a creation of their own making. This is never more clear then when the baron tells his rival, “It would amuse me to devote the rest of my days to her, to mold the real Lily into a real lady, just as you have this statue, to make her my masterpiece, just as I think you’ve made this yours.”
Mamoulian creates a small scale but atmospheric version of the famed German city on the Paramount backlot but spends more time establishing an erotic tension between the protagonists in interior scenes. By this point in his career, Mamoulian was one of Hollywood’s most prestigious directors with such critical and boxoffice successes to his credit as Applause (1930), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) and Love Me Tonight (1932). He was known for his impeccable taste and handsomely mounted productions but some film scholars felt he was slumming here.
Steven Bach, in his absorbing biography Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend, wrote that it was “surprising that Song of Songs should have turned out to be so vulgar, so tasteless, so prurient it makes Marlene’s Sternberg essays look merely eccentric or naughty. If Sternberg sometimes turned smut into art, Mamoulian turned what looked like art into what looked like trash. His taste made discretion seem sly, even dirty.” While Bach finds The Song of Songs rather dull and old-fashioned in comparison to von Sternberg’s work, he is completely on target about Mamoulian’s treatment of the sexual content.
The most erotic and sexually charged sequences occur in Waldow’s studio. The filmmakers were able to get around any censorship issues of nudity by focusing on Waldow’s sculpture instead of the live model but…..just look at the way Aherne fondles his creation and lovingly molds the breasts while gazing at Dietrich. This particular sequence leads to the first kiss between Waldow and Lily but it is one of the most visually creative if unsubtle examples of sexual foreplay in Pre-Code films.
The nude sculpture itself is quite a piece of work, from its perfect form to its taut nipples, and one’s gaze can’t help but gravitate to it because it is not only imposing in size but usually framed in the center of shots. When Lily first sees Waldow’s initial art sketch of her body for the sculpture, she says, “Oh, it’s wonderful. I mean, it’s the way I want to be. It’s me as I dream of me. It’s the girl in “The Song of Songs”….she’s the one who feels in her heart that somewhere the perfect love is waiting.” The line that Waldow uses to finally convince Lily to drop the smock and go natural is probably one of the oldest artists’ tricks in the world: “You mustn’t think of me as a man. Don’t you realize that? Why, eh, a model means no more to me than a tree.”
The film then moves slowly from torrid romance to brooding melodrama with the introduction of Lionel Atwill as the maniacal Baron von Merzbach. Once he enters the scene, he begins to slowly draw Lily into his web while slyly manipulating the self-absorbed Waldow and the easily bribed aunt (she has a weakness for rum – lots of it). Most audiences probably associate Atwill with horror films (Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Vampire Bat, Son of Frankenstein) but he was a superb supporting player in many prestigious A productions such as Captain Blood, Three Comrades and To Be or Not To Be.
He exudes a particular kind of aristocratic decadence here and takes an almost gleeful delight in first ensnaring his prey and then debasing Lily in a series of actions designed to break her spirit. It’s an education as conceived by the Marquis de Sade and begins with a rushed wedding after which the bride and groom retire to the baron’s country estate where they are received by a bewildering number of people Lily has never seen, including a sinister housekeeper (clearly a former mistress of the Baron) and a personal assistant and horse trainer, who is immediately smitten with Lily. The wedding night and Lily’s impending deflowerment unfolds like a horror movie as Lily is denied dinner, allowed a brief champagne toast and hauled off to bed.
Atwill displays real menace and cunning in this role and brings a much needed tension to the picture whenever he’s on screen. Brian Aherne is fine too as Waldow and is at the peak of his matinee idol handsomeness; he makes a good match with the luminous Dietrich and they end up reunited in an improbable happy ending in which Lily smashes the sculpture, thus signifying her redemption.
Initially, The Song of Songs was designed as a vehicle for Tallulah Bankhead during her brief but stormy career there. Then it was offered to Dietrich, who didn’t want to do it, but she still owned Paramount one more picture on her contract before renewal negotiations began. Von Sternberg was in negotiations with Paramount about his own contract as well and encouraged the studio to use another director for The Song of Songs. He felt that if it was a failure the studio would realize only he knew how to make a successful film with Dietrich. If The Song of Songs was a hit, von Sternberg knew it would only increase the actress’s bargaining power at the studio and together they could make the films they wanted there without interference, since at this point in their careers they were true collaborators.
Still, the film had a rocky beginning with Dietrich refusing to show up on the set the first day of shooting. It ended with Paramount slapping their star with a $182,850.06 breach of contract suit. It was quickly settled though with the studio offering her a new 5-year contract, starting with $4,500 per week (a huge sum for what was then the height of the Great Depression). Regarding The Song of Songs, Dietrich told the press, “Like every German girl, I regard this as one of the great works of fiction.” Regardless of what the actress really felt about the script, she felt at a loss on this film due to von Sternberg’s absence. Only he knew how to light her and capture the Dietrich persona on film.
Maria Riva, Dietrich’s daughter, describes in her biography Marlene Dietrich, that first day on the set where she accompanied her mother: “By the fifth take that morning, she knew she was in trouble. Mamoulian had not given her a single line reading. On the sixth take, she waited just long enough for the clap-board sound, reached her hand up to the suspended mike, tugged the boom down to her mouth, and with full amplification, whispered her misery, “Jo – where are you?” Her cry reached the remotest corners of that vast soundstage. The shocked crew held their breath…all eyes were focused on Mamoulian. The camera was still rolling. Calmly, our director called, “Cut.” Then, “Let’s try it again – shall we?”
The tension quickly evaporated on the set as Dietrich did as she was told but she was already formulating her next move which was to instruct the cameramen and the director on her lighting requirements. As production proceeded Dietrich soon took charge of her image in von Sternberg’s absence. Riva recalled that one day her mother simply came to The Song of Songs set and started giving lighting instruction with Mamoulian’s permission. “There – you – on the left. Come down a little – Not so fast! Slowly – More – Slowly – More – STOP, SET IT!” She had seen the second when to lock in that lamp by watching her mirror. Now she attacked the jungle of smaller wattage lamps that hung on individual stands, and then on to the all-important key lights. She washed out with light, then filled it in again, slowly. Shadows began to appear, molding and highlighting. The respect for her knowledge and skill could actually be felt in the atmosphere of the set….Many things changed after this. My mother had taken command of Marlene Dietrich, the Movie Star…Also, Song of Songs was the first film where the director did not come home with her after work to continue his role as taskmaster-lover.”
Prior to the release of The Song of Songs, the director encountered problems with Will Hayes and his Hollywood board of censors. According to Bach in his biography, “Mamoulian wrote the Hays men a hilariously disingenuous letter about how artistic it all was and what connoisseurs of art he knew them to be. It didn’t work. Before the picture could be released in the summer of 1933, Will Hays ordered Paramount to cut a reel and a half (about fifteen minutes) before issuing a seal.” Paramount brought some of this upon themselves when they sent thousands of replicas of the Dietrich statue to movie theatres to promote the film and promptly aroused the wrath of various religious organizations and women’s groups.
Despite the controversy, The Song of Songs received surprisingly positive reviews from most critics. The Hollywood Reporter voiced the opinion that the movie “confirms the wisdom of emancipating La Dietrich from the Svengali-like domination of von Sternberg.” The Newsweek critic wrote that “so vibrant and compelling is Marlene Dietrich…she turns [the] material into an individual triumph.” And The New York Times proclaimed, “Marlene Dietrich floats through [Song of Songs] with the lyric grace of that apparition which was sent by Heaven to be a moment’s ornament.”
The Song of Songs certainly deserves a revival for it is not only a must-see Pre-Code for Dietrich fans, but also historically important as a turning point in the actress’s career. It also marked her continued association with composer/songwriter Friedrich Hollaender (who scored The Blue Angel) and would work with her again on Angel, Manpower and A Foreign Affair. In this film, she performs his 1920 song “Jonny,” with English lyrics by Edward Heyman; it sounds very much like a Kurt Weill song in the style of “Pirate Jenny.”
Initially available as a VHS from Universal Cinema Classics in 1998, The Song of Songs was later released on DVD in November 2011 by the Turner Classic Movies Vault Collection in partnership with Universal. More recently Kino Lorber released the film on Blu-ray in March 2020 with an audio commentary by film historian David Del Valle.
Other links of interest: