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  Flame of New Orleans, The Louisiana Purchase
Year: 1941
Director: René Clair
Stars: Marlene Dietrich, Bruce Cabot, Roland Young, Mischa Auer, Andy Devine, Frank Jenks, Eddie Quillan, Laura Hope Crews, Franklin Pangborn, Theresa Harris, Clarence Muse, Melville Cooper, Anne Revere, Bob Evans, Emily Fitzroy, Virginia Sale, Dorothy Adams
Genre: Comedy, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Back in 1841, a legend started of what had been seen floating in the Mississippi near New Orleans: a wedding dress. Who had it belonged to, and how did she lose it in such careless fashion? Was it careless at all? Perhaps it was wholly deliberate. The story has never been cleared up to any great satisfaction, but here's how it could have happened: Claire Ledeux (Marlene Dietrich), a European noblewoman and socialite, was seen at the opera in the city where she apparently fainted and was attended to by one of the richest men around, Charles Giraud (Roland Young). Was her plan to snare him in marriage? Certainly that's what her maid, Clementine (Theresa Harris) indicated, and she was keen to encourage her - but another man entered Claire's life at the same time.

Back in 1941, Dietrich had been enjoying a new wave of popularity off the back of Destry Rides Again, but then, typical of her up and down career, she hit this flop, a gossamer confection that failed to prompt much response at the box office. There were some reasons put forward for why it didn't strike a hit too, with much of the blame going on Frenchman René Clair as director, with rumours he had stoked resentment for not being able to communicate well in English on the set; one of many European talents who fled the Nazis around this point, he was judged to have had an inferior Hollywood career to his French pictures, despite gems like I Married a Witch in his filmography, but his light touch was nevertheless in evidence here, even operating at half-strength.

Today, most of the grumblings from those who see The Flame of New Orleans stem from a different area: the career of one of the cast, Theresa Harris. Not that she didn't have a decent role here, far from it, it was one of her best, but that praise came with caveats as she was an African American actress in Hollywood of the Golden Age and was never going to have the opportunities to capitalise on her talent and beauty like the white stars were. In later years, comfortable in retirement (she invested wisely), she expressed bitterness that she rarely had the chance to shine in her films as she had been more than capable of, but if it was any comfort, as the decades wore on her star rose to the point that classic movie buffs watch out for her appearances and highlight them as both an injustice to the woman's ability and a tribute that she was able to do so much with so little.

Maybe it took a European outsider in forties Hollywood to see how she could be applied well, and at times she steals the film from a not inconsiderable cast of scene stealers. Apparently the whole idea here was to spoof Dietrich's man-eating but sophisticated reputation, have a bit of fun with it, and to an extent they managed that as she is both poised and playful throughout, given a silly plot where she has to pose as her identical cousin who will insult Charles (as Claire was overheard doing) while "as herself" she can woo him with her expert gold digging ways. Meanwhile Bruce Cabot, a strapping and rollicking rogue of a sea captain, is the man she actually has her eyes on, but as Clementine keeps reminding her, there's no security with that Jolly Jack Tar, for Clair or her maid (who as with Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face, is more of her partner and ally). Dietrich is a little constrained by this set-up, but everyone else, no matter what the atmosphere was like as they shot it, are professional and put in typical performances, from Andy Devine to Franklin Pangborn and Mischa Auer, among many more famous faces (and voices). If you're feeling indulgent of old-time movies, this should do the trick, it's featherlight but amusing. Music by Frank Skinner.

[The BFI Blu-ray box set Marlene Dietrich at Universal 1940-42 features Seven Sinners, The Flame of New Orleans, The Spoilers and Pittsburgh and these extras:

High Definition transfers of all four films
Seven Sinners feature commentary by film historian David Del Valle and screenwriter C Courtney Joyner
The Flame of New Orleans feature commentary by film historian Lee Gambin and actor and film historian Rutanya Alda
The Spoilers feature commentary by film historian Toby Roan
Pittsburgh feature commentary by critic and film historian Pamela Hutchinson
Music and effects tracks for The Flame of New Orleans, The Spoilers and Pittsburgh
Galleries
60-page book featuring newly commissioned essays by Sarah Wood, Pamela Hutchinson, So Mayer, Ellen Cheshire, Katy McGahan and Phillip Kemp
Limited to 4,000 copies.

Released 25th January 2021.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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René Clair  (1898 - 1981)

Imaginative French writer and director, a former actor, whose whimsy could be tempered with sharp wit. He gained attention in the 1920s with the classic science fiction short Paris Qui Dort, but come the sound era his musicals Le Million and A Nous La Liberté won him more and more fans. He moved to Britain for comic fantasy The Ghost Goes West, and to Hollywood for I Married A Witch, It Happened Tomorrow and classic Agatha Christie adaptation And Then There Were None. When the Second World War ended, he returned to France to make films including Les Belles de Nuit.

 
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