For someone who has every right to be bitter, nobody takes deportation as well as Marlene Dietrich’s Bijou in Tay Garnett’s Seven Sinners (1940). The film, which begins with a Keystone Kops like brawl, with everyone sped up and fighting over the opening credits, follows Bijou as she’s forced to find another place to live after getting kicked off the island.
Her crime? While it’s not even clear if she was supposed to be performing at the Blue Devil Club that night (the name of which is a nod to Dietrich’s role in The Blue Angel), that’s what the audience wanted and, when chanting her name didn’t work, they threw punches instead.
Somehow Bijou is to blame for their actions and, given that there aren’t that many islands left where she hasn’t been deported, this should be upsetting stuff. Bijou doesn’t look upset, though, and in fact, she even moves to stamp her papers before the judge does
One way to interpret Bijou’s actions is that she wants to get off the island, but that’s too easy. While she doesn’t make a fuss about leaving, she doesn’t know where she’s going, either, and it’s only by chance that she learns she can return to the island she worked on before. Meanwhile, Bijou could be accused of being flippant (like when she tells the judge, “I’m a bad influence,” with relish), but her words don’t have any real bite to them. She’s not trying to convince the judge to change his mind, because that’s not going to happen, but she’s also not repentant about her behavior. These are the consequences for her actions (or at least her lifestyle), and she’s willing to pay if necessary. What she’s not going to do is let the law rain on her parade, and what’s so great about this role for Dietrich isn’t that she’s funny (because there are other roles that showcase her comedy), but that she seems so relaxed. This is a film where she gets to let her hair down and have fun, and if you only know Dietrich from her films with von Sternberg, it’s a real revelation.
Cool Dietrich is certainly on hand, too, like when she walks out wearing a Navy uniform at the Seven Sinners club, but it’s Warm Dietrich who plays pool with the Naval officers and makes them fall in love with her. It’s never at the expense of their friendships, either, which is what sets Seven Sinners apart from a Mae West film. When Lieutenant Brett (John Wayne) catches another officer coming up with the same idea to present Bijou with wildflowers, for example, he’s not angry but amused, and while West would be dating Antro (Oskar Homolka), the murderous gangster, if this were her film, Bijou wants nothing to do with him, which shows there is a line she won’t cross.
Even before you start the film, Kino Lorber’s disc set the tone right by having Dietrich sing, “I’ve Been in Love Before” over the main menu. Film historian, David Del Valle, and author/screenwriter, C. Courtney Joyner, provide the commentary track. In it they compare Seven Sinners with Destry Rides Again (though that’s a massive spoiler if you haven’t seen Destry before) and talk about some of the homages the film makes to Dietrich’s career. They also shine some light on whether Wayne and Dietrich actually had an offscreen affair, as was rumored.
Dietrich would go on to star in two other films with Wayne, but this is the only one where Wayne is the supporting player, and it’s sweet to watch him turn into mush around her while also being more on-brand in scenes where he has to physically defend her. The film is filled with glorious character actors and if it weren’t for the moral police poking their heads out at the end there wouldn’t be a bad word to say about it.
Luckily, Frank Borzage’s Desire (1936) doesn’t have that same problem and, while not as entertaining on the whole as Seven Sinners, it does give Dietrich a chance to reunite with her Morocco co-star, Gary Cooper. Del Valle’s commentary with film historian, Nathaniel Bell, has a lot of overlap with his commentary for Seven Sinners with Joyner (though he does turn on Dietrich’s daughter’s book as a source between commentaries), but film historian, Samm Deighan (who provides a second commentary), manages to zero in on Cooper’s appeal as a leading man – his characters tended to be flexible.
In Desire (which was produced by Ernst Lubitsch), Cooper plays Tom, an engineer on vacation who becomes smitten with Madeleine (Dietrich) after their cars cross paths (or, more precisely, his car backs into hers). Madeline, however, is too preoccupied with getting a stolen necklace through customs to notice him. That is until Madeline commandeers his coat pocket and then has to hang out with him to get the necklace back.
Watching these films back-to-back, there are a lot of enjoyable parallels, like how in Seven Sinners Bijou tried to steer her friend, Sasha (scene-stealer, Mischa Auer), away from nicking things and in Desire, she’s helping her partner in crime (John Halliday) do the same thing. Desire’s ending, though, is much more broadminded than Seven Sinners and satisfying as a result.
Desire and Seven Sinners are both available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber.