Marlene Dietrich Entrances John Wayne and the Navy in Lighthearted Affair.
DIRECTED BY TAY GARNETT/1940
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: NOVEMBER 3, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Everybody wants her, yet she always gets the boot. Sheer fabric, sequins, and sultry songs are the entrancing self-made goddess Bijou Blanche’s tools of the trade and weapons of choice. They serve her astonishing well- not to mention her nearly impossible pool shark skills and that she’s actually Marlene Dietrich. But inevitably, there comes a time when enough is deemed enough. No inhabited remote island (and she’s working her way through all of them) can function effectively with the entire male population (and presumably some of the females) rendered dumb by the allure of Miss Bijou. She knows the sentence, short but never sweet: “Deported!!”
In a take-what-you-can-get world of transient con artists and desperate naval personnel on shore leave, Bijou’s easy glamour and impenetrable mystique transcends anyone else’s conceivable reality. They’re wearing bland white jackets (if they’re gangsters), uniforms (if they’re U.S. Navy), or street duds (if they’re anyone else); she’s wearing gowns by Irene.
But just when you think you’ve got this semi-Sphinx figured out, her next number will be in a formal naval uniform- a literal variation on Dietrich’s previous Blonde Venus tuxedo. Let that be a reminder of who’s playing Bijou; her already-indelible legacy upon cinema and the all-encompassing yet forever unobtainable sexuality she brings to the tables of many a night club. This is Marlene Dietrich most effectively straddling her established persona while courting an expanded audience in such lighter fare. (Lighter by degrees, anyhow).
It’s Dietrich’s show, her co-stars are only living in it. Said co-stars of the show in question, which is producer Joe Pasternak’s 1940 utter delight Seven Sinners, include Broderick Crawford as a smitten naval deserter, Mischa Auer as a flamboyant pickpocket, Albert Dekker as a comparatively levelheaded doctor, and a still fresh-faced John Wayne as the token handsome upstanding fella. Truth be told, they’re all smitten with Bijou. Whatever plot there is to Seven Sinners (answer: there’s not that much, and it’s not all missed), it ranks as a lesser priority than the simple tracking of who’s catching her eye, and how everyone else reacts. For a lady without a home, she sure has a lot of flower bouquets cycling through her possession.
Audio commentators David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner chat much about Dietrich’s purported tall tale that John Wayne as an A-movie leading man was all her idea. Seven Sinners was where that supposed opportunity was granted. (This being their first of three screen pairings, including 1942’s The Spoilers and Pittsburgh. Wayne snagged top billing in those). It’s hooey, though not entirely baseless. Dietrich, freshly finished with director Josef Von Sternberg, had been recently re-invigorated in the public eye via Pasternak’s Western, Destry Rides Again (1939). That film also helped solidify the early stardom of James Stewart, but never mind that right now. As great as that film is, there’s a sound argument to be made (and Del Valle and Joyner indeed make it) that the admittedly similar Seven Sinners is the superior work.
Get the Blu-ray and judge for yourself. It doesn’t have the tidiest of HD transfers, but it’ll absolutely get you through the night. The thing is, the Seven Sinners is a nightclub where the bustling never cools down. Director Tay Garnett keeps things light, ending the film with the same kind of over-cranked filming of the over-the-top barroom brawl he opens it with. Later, the Wayne/Dietrich drama The Spoilers would boast in earnest about having an even bigger brawl. As fine as The Spoilers is, this one’s plenty punchy, thanks. But even without it, the shimmering vagabond that is Dietrich’s Bijou is plenty to drive this crowd to sin seven times over.