And we come to the end of Marlene Dietrich week and I’m sad to say things ended on a down note. After good turns in Morocco and Blonde Venus, Dietrich became saddled with roles reliant on exorbitant costumes, make-up and changing ethnicities. Dietrich is like a diamond necklace totally lost within a mound of packaging, with the packaging being the various gimmicks employed in her characterizations. Golden Earrings is the worst of the campy, borderline offensive work she was doing as her career would progress, with the film employing the use of “brown face” throughout. Ray Milland returns to work with director Mitchell Leisen (after the mediocre I Wanted Wings) and while the film is better than Wings, it’s nowhere near an entertaining piece of cinema and is far beneath Dietrich’s talents.
Colonel Ralph Denistoun (Milland) is trapped behind enemy lines in Germany on the eve of WWII. In order to get out alive he employs the help of a gypsy named Lydia (Dietrich). Lydia gets the idea to have Ralph dress up and become a gypsy in order to get out of the country, but the more ingrained Ralph becomes in the culture forces him to question his true identity.
Golden Earrings wants to be an upbeat, patriotic look at accepting people despite their differences. You know, the exact opposite of those terrible Nazis; however, the Nazis here aren’t at all threatening and actually want their fortunes told by Ralph and Lydia. Taking into account that between 250,000 to 500,000 gypsies were interned and murdered during the Holocaust, the depiction of the Nazis and their interactions with the gypsies becomes unbelievable and frustrating. The entire nature of the plot is constructed hastily and it isn’t surprising that the Nazis aren’t clearly defined, as no one really is. There’s three main stories within the plot: Denistoun and his pal trying to get a poison gas formula, Denistoun being turned into a gypsy and learning their way of life, and the treatment of the gypsies themselves. The latter element is a Sullivan’s Travels-esque formula of Denistoun learning about the harsh life of a gypsy and their mistreatment, but there’s no development. The Nazis aren’t rounding them up, and the townspeople are eager to have their fortune read. If you want to depict mistreatment, focus on the poverty and the fears average people at the time have against them. Instead, the script hypes up this idea of changing Denistoun’s mind against a people he didn’t think about before, and who aren’t exactly looked on as poorly as you want us to believe.
If anything, the depiction of the gypsy culture is offensive to viewers, and shows how unintentionally racist classic films used to be. All the actors who are playing gypsies are white actors tanned to a dark brown (they’re a shade lighter than an actor in blackface). Dietrich’s character is given a dark wig and false eyelashes to emphasize her exotic look and both her and Milland look ridiculous; on top of that, Dietrich’s dialogue is all overwrought gypsy “curses” and cries of “liebling” (darling in German). A question: Why is Dietrich using a German phrase when she’s not meant to be German? Furthermore, the audience is supposed to identify her as a gypsy, so why remind us that Dietrich truly is German? Is it for fear that the audience would believe Marlene Dietrich herself is a Nazi? It’s a weird clash of cultures that wants us to suspend our knowledge of the actress only to reinforce it.
Sadly, this is another subpar script that compromises Dietrich’s skills. Her accent isn’t as heavy as in past films and there are a few moments where she has dry humor (she calmly tells Ralph that her husband killed a man and “they hang him”). The use of gimmickry, however, causes Dietrich to jut her lip out and snarl all her lines in order to be a sultry and seductive stereotype of a gypsy. Milland is meant to be the civilizing force of the duo and he espouses a desire to turn Dietrich into a “good woman,” which of course happens by the end of the movie. It’s another hasty about-face when Lydia starts “attacking” Ralph with little provocation, and by little provocation I mean we’re to believe gypsies are perpetually horny. Why Lydia would want Ralph is beyond me as he belittles her for a good portion of the movie even telling her she smells at one point!
Golden Earrings is the nadir of Dietrich films for the week. It’s a double-edged sword that I watched two of her good films ahead of time as they proved to me what Dietrich is capable of, but in following them up with the rest, you witness how her potential was smothered in bizarre ethnic roles that didn’t suit her personality.
NEXT WEEK: Get ready to sing and dance as we explore the musicals of director Busby Berkeley!
Interested in purchasing today’s film? If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.