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Country orphan Lily goes to Berlin to stay with her tippling aunt, and soon meets Richard, handsome sculptor across the street. Persuaded half-reluctantly to pose for Richard, her physical charms (shown as fully as 1933 mores permitted) soon melt away his 'strictly business' attitude, and they become lovers. But Richard, wanting his freedom, connives at her marriage to his wealthy client Baron von Merzbach... whose household includes a jealous former mistress and a susceptible farm manager. Has Richard still a role to play in her life?Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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THE SONG OF SONGS (Paramount, 1933), directed by Rouben Mamoulian, from the novel by Hermann Sudermann and play by Edward Sheldon, was released at a time when movie musicals proved popular again following an over abundance of them produced during the 1929-30 dawn of sound era. With the new cycle of successful musicals that began with 42nd STREET (Warners, 1933), THE SONG OF SONGS doesn't fit into that category in spite of its musical sounding title. In fact, it's a dramatic story about a German peasant girl named Lily who dreams about becoming like her favorite character from the Bible's "Song of Songs." Lily, as portrayed by Marlene Dietrich, appears in her fifth Hollywood production. Unlike her previous screen efforts ranging from her initial starring success in Germany's THE BLUE ANGEL (1929), to Hollywood's MOROCCO (1930), DISHONORED (1931), SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932) and BLONDE VENUS (1932), all under the direction of Josef Von Sternberg, THE SONG OF SONGS provides her with another director whose direction paved the way for a new and different Dietrich persona.
The story revolves around Lily Czepanek (Marlene Dietrich), a shy German girl leaving the grave of her father for the next train to Berlin where she is to live with her aunt, Frau Rasmussen (Alison Skipworth). Working in her aunt's book store, Lily captures the attention of Richard Waldow (Brian Aherne), a young sculptor living across the street who selects her as his next model. Discovering she'll have to pose in the nude, Lily at first declines but after his assurance that he has no interest in her, she agrees to become the replica of the proposed statue he calls "The Song of Songs." When the aunt learns Lily has been sneaking out while asleep, she whips her. When all else fails, she turns her out into the street. With no where else to go, Lily, who has fallen in love with Waldow, comes to his studio only to find his best friend, August Von Merzbach (Lionel Atwill), a middle-aged baron, awaiting her with the news of Waldow leaving for Italy with no promise of returning. Desperately in love with Lily because of Waldow's statue, the Baron talks her into marrying him instead. Acquiring culture through French lessons, piano playing and social functions, Lily stirs up jealousy from Fraulein Von Schwartzfegger (Helen Freeman), the Baron's housekeeper, who soon arranges for Lily to have Edward Von Prell (Hardie Albright) act as her lover in hope of destroying both her reputation and marriage with the Baron.
With so many motion pictures made and remade, THE SONG OF SONGS was one that had, not one, but two earlier screen adaptations from the silent era each by Paramount: 1918 with Elsie Ferguson, and 1924 as LILY OF THE DUST starring Pola Negri. Aside from some European style camera techniques, THE SONG OF SONGS comes off best with its fine photography by Victor Milner and impressive musical score by the uncredited Nathaniel W. Finston. Mamoulian, a stylish director in his own right, quite different from Von Sternberg, brings out the best in Dietrich's performance from shy/ innocent girl to scandalous lady of confidence singing "Jonny" (by Frederick Hollander and Edward Heyman) in a night club. Von Sternberg would borrow this transformation style for Dietrich as Catherine the Great in his upcoming production of THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934). Although Mamoulian leaves much to the imagination with camera capturing the motion of Dietrich's nude posing from head down to her bare shoulders, he manages to get by the censors by having camera capture both pencil sketch and statute in full form.
Had THE SONG OF SONGS been produced for MGM, chances are the Dietrich, Aherne and Atwill roles would have been played by Greta Garbo, Nils Asther and Erich Von Stroheim, or possibly that of Anna Sten, Melvyn Douglas and Reginald Owen under Samuel Goldwyn. Brian Aherne, in his Hollywood debut, does well as the poor sculpture interested more in art than marriage. His noteworthy scene occurs with him imagining Lily speaking to him through her replica of his statue; Lionel Atwill, looking very European with his white hair, bushy mustache, monocle and military hat containing skull and crossbones, comes off better as the jealous Baron, along with Alison Skipworth, in the manner of MGM's own Marie Dressler's performance from "Anna Christie" (1930), quite satisfactory as the very strict, boozing aunt. Dietrich, Atwill and Skipworth would be reunited under Von Sternberg's direction in THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN (1935).
Unseen regularly on commercial and later public television since the 1980s, THE SONG OF SONGS did make its rare cable television broadcast on the Movie Channel in 1991 before turning up on home video in 1998 as part of the "Marlene Dietrich Collection." When Marlene Dietrich was selected as "Star of the Month" in January 2002 on Turner Classic Movies, all of her films, especially those from Paramount, were presented, with the exception of THE SONG OF SONGS. It wouldn't be until June 13, 2017, that it finally premiered on TCM. Not quite the cinema masterpiece as anticipated, it's worth looking into solely as a rarely revived motion picture and being the only collaboration of Dietrich and Mamoulian. (***1/2)
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