The Flame of New Orléans isn’t a flame, more of a crackle. Despite the presence of Dietrich and I Married a Witch director Rene Clair, the formulaic plot is funny but muted by a dull script and two bland leading men. Dietrich returns to her trademark snap, and Clair’s views of New Orléans create a whimsical ride, but it’s a small movie that feels significantly smaller.
Claire Ledoux (Dietrich) is a destitute countess who has designs on marrying banker Charles Giraud (Roland Young). However, a brassy sailor named Robert Latour (Bruce Cabot) threatens Claire’s plans when she falls in love with him.
Clair and screenwriter Norman Krasna had ambitions of parodying Marlene Dietrich’s persona, and it is an admirable – albeit subdued – attempt. The plot is typical Dietrich, playing a woman torn between two loves and the insane machinations that she goes through to deceive them. Dietrich appears to be in on the director and screenwriters intentions as she engages in exaggerated fainting spells and operatic poses that hearken back to the silent film days (and could be making fun of Greta Garbo, as well). With her hand at her breast, Claire understands the various tricks men play to gain her attention, and she does it right back. Dietrich is best when she’s having fun and her ironic, satirical exploration of herself could have gone further, but the script holds back before crossing the line making the overall bite of the film compromised. Unfortunately, this is another clotheshorse role for Dietrich, and in spite of the various risqué moments (Dietrich in a corset that makes her look nude, a fey costumer discussing her see-through negligée), the movie feels uncharacteristically closed-off.
It is nice to Roland Young, almost unrecognizable with little hair on his head, as the uptight Giraud. He’s removed from his Topper persona, and seems lost at sea throughout the film. He’s not a lead, nor is he a supporting character; he’s placed in certain locations and told to talk. Bruce Cabot is an Errol Flynn rip-off without any of the charisma, although he’s serviceable as the rugged seaman who tames Dietrich. The problem is these men are archetypes in a movie whose plot moves from vaguely rooted in reality to totally adrift. It’s not enough that Claire is in love with two men, the third act has to revolve around Claire making up a fake twin cousin. The identical cousin routine is funny because Dietrich revels in playing dual roles, and it almost takes on a meta quality since the script takes two tropes of Dietrich’s persona (the wily bad girl and the prim lady, usually embodied in one person) and divides them. I would have actually enjoyed a full movie revolving around the mystery of whether Claire and Lili are two separate people; instead, it’s completely obvious that Claire is doing this to get out of trouble.
“There’s more to being a gentleman than wearing tight pants;” I adore Dietrich’s dialogue when she’s saucy, and there are a few moments of that in The Flame of New Orléans. Unfortunately, the movie’s cutesy, frothy storyline is half-cooked and ludicrous; as if the screenwriter was coming up with it in the heat of the moment. It’s worth it to see Dietrich let her hair down in a role requiring little effort, but it’s instantly forgettable.
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