28 May 2012

Horseathon: Dietrich's Horsie Movies Pt. 1

In many Marlene Dietrich movies, you’ll find horses, which is why I’m participating at the final hour in My Love of Old Hollywood’s Horseathon. For most of these flicks, I can divide them neatly into the following groups: Westerns, Middle Easterns, and Europeans. Well, it may be a bit messy that I consider The Flame of New Orleans a European, but its setting is just so “frou-frou French”—to borrow Maria Riva’s phrase—that I wouldn’t consider calling it a Western or anything else. Geographically speaking, The Scarlet Empress and Golden Earrings would fit in the third “genre,” but for reasons I’ll explain later, I’m putting them into their own special group: the WTFs.

As is typical of me, I've realized that I can't bridle my ramblings into one post. Consequently, I'll have to submit only the first part of my horse-themed thoughts to the Horseathon and post the second part on a later date. Here, you'll get the Westerns and the Middle Easterns. Later, I promise to give you the Europeans and the WTFs.


Beginning with the expected equestrian team, the Westerns, we’ve got Destry Rides Again (1939), The Spoilers (1942), and Rancho Notorious (1952). Horses run amuck in these flicks because they’re the primary mode of transportation for cowboys rounding up cattle, bandits making their getaways, renegades seeking revenge, and floozies keeping their boots clean. Aside from the horseplay, shady schemes propel the plots. In The Spoilers, we’ve got questionable land dealings. In Rancho Notorious, there’s crooked gambling. Destry Rides Again’s got both!

Altar riding through a flashback in Rancho Notorious
If you’re hoping to see Dietrich in the saddle, your best bet is Rancho Notorious. Aside from driving a carriage in a flashback scene, her character Altar Keane dismounts her horse in a scene with Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy). Yeah, neither example’s that impressive, but bear in mind that during the second scene, Altar briefly lets down her guard with Vern as well. Altar’s clearly falling in love with him and tries to stifle her attraction by demanding that Vern leave her ranch.
Vern gives Altar a hand

In Destry Rides Again, Dietrich’s character Frenchy also exposes her vulnerable side—by smearing off the pounds of makeup on her mug. Alas, we never see her riding like a cowgirl, but we at least see her dressed like one!
Frenchy's many a cowboy's sweetheart

Cherry doesn't need to take the reins . . .
As for The Spoilers, Dietrich’s character Cherry Malotte sits as passenger in a carriage, but it’s her rival for Roy Glennister’s (John Wayne’s) affections, Helen Chester (Margaret Lindsay), who rides into a scene on a galloping horse, using her feminine wiles to convince Glennister that her judge uncle (Samuel S. Hinds) should decide who owns his mine. Now, let's face the facts. Even if that little filly were riding like Lady Godiva, she still wouldn’t have stolen the leading man let alone the movie from Dietrich, and Miss Helen eventually fades from the picture.

. . . unlike some desperate starlets.

Middle Easterns

The Garden of Allah (1936) and Kismet (1944), two of my least favorite Dietrich movies, fill this section, and I watched them just for you. What is it about beige desert sands that inspire motion picture studios to film in Technicolor?

Boris & Domini in jodhpurs. Who wore them better?
In The Garden of Allah, Dietrich plays a pious heiress with the ungodly name Domini Enfilden. Little did Dietrich know that this turkey helped usher in her vulgaris aerae, when she became box office poison. Anyway, holy Domini happens to be a seasoned equestrian who goes on morning rides. When we see her with lapsed monk Boris Androvsky (Charles Boyer), she stuns us in a pair of jodhpurs. According to TCM, they're at the Oasis of the City Azur, but there are so many bloody oases in this movie that I can't catch their names whenever the international cast mangles them.

Is Domini mad-dogging that horse to make sure it stays still?
For those of you who enjoy lady jockeys, this movie will please you. We see Domini feeding horses and sitting on horses, but those shots of Miss Enfilden riding across the sands are a ruse. Maria Riva wrote in her biography, Marlene Dietrich, that her mother Dietrich considered horses fit only for racetracks and riding them a waste of time. Thus, a stunt woman substituted for Dietrich for most tasks, even mounting. According to Maria, when Dietrich did perform her limited repartee of equestrian skills, such as sitting on or dismounting a still horse, she used her "Prussian officer" stare to make her steed submit.

Now, because I must, I'll cover Kismet. There's lots of horse riding throughout a flick that should have been a barn sour, but I'll focus on the end, which is when we see Dietrich's character Jamilla on horseback. At this point, Hafiz (Ronald Colman) is with Jamilla, Hafiz's daughter Marsinah (Joy Ann Page) is with the Caliph (James Craig), and Jamilla's portly spouse (Edward Arnold)--a  wicked Grand Vizier in the same tradition as Aladdin's Jafar--is dead.

Hafiz, who happens to be the King of Beggars, receives a lenient sentence for attempting to assassinate the Caliph. He's exiled from Baghdad to reign as prince of Hasir, the imaginary land that he pretended to rule earlier in the movie. He couldn't be happier, though, because he leaves with his beloved Jamilla. As our Macedonian in Baghdad states, “Where wishes are horses, beggars can ride," and they sure look regal doing it!

See? Hafiz and Jamilla are quite fetching.
Here's a close-up.

With that, I end part one of my Marelene musings. When I feel a little less bow-legged, I'll carry on with the movies that I group as Europeans and WTFs. Happy Horseathon!


  1. How can one say "neigh" to an entry like this? :)

    1. Thanks! Anyone who would can eat hay for all I care.;)

  2. Joseph,
    When you signed on to do Dietrich with horses I thought "I really look forward to that since I can't recall ever seeing her in the saddle!" You've come through in spades here.

    I think Dietrich gets the "Most Regal on Horseback" prize hands down as her character Jamilla. I'm glad you mentioned "Girl with the Gold Earring since that is the one film I thought of for the Horseathon. (I know! Odd choice isn't it?)

    I love how you've categorized Dietrich's films and I can't wait to see Part 2 and Part 3 if we're lucky enough.

    Considering your love of Dietrich I was relieved to find out you aren't a fan of Garden of Allah and Kismet since I have the same reaction to both. Turkey indeed. On the bright side you were able to give us some great stills of Ms. Fabulous on horseback. I just started reading a very thick bio on Dietrich in preparation for a bio on her I'll be doing with her autograph etc. (Being the go to guy on all things Dietrich, I hope you won't be too harsh. Ha Ha) Interesting quote you've added on Dietrich and her opinion of horses. I'm sure she was none to happy to have to mount them even for closeups and publicity stills. I would love to have heard her complaints under her breath.

    Thanks again for participating in the Horseathon, Joseph,and with such an informative and fun post on Marlene.

    1. Thanks, Page! When I get to the other categories, you'll see Dietrich in the saddle and truly riding. In fact, she fell off a horse during the production of The Song of Songs, but I'll save that story for later. Golden Earrings isn't too odd a choice. Going off silly stereotypes, I'd say a Gypsy without a horse is like a Welshman without a flock of sheep.

      I look forward to reading your bio on Dietrich. To tell you the truth, I make factual errors about her that I end up having to correct, so I can't be harsh on anyone. In such cases, I remember that even Dietrich got details wrong in her memoirs!;)

  3. Very fun post, with some great screencaps! Apparently they're dull films (I have yet to see them), but the Technicolor stills from THE GARDEN OF ALLAH and KISMET look so gorgeous it makes me want to check them out soon.

    I'm a big fan of DESTRY and THE SPOILERS. Dietrich is very good in both of them, going toe-to-toe with Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne respectively. She doesn't get a lot of horse action in those films, for sure, but true-to-form she's the focal point for most of the trouble that goes down in both of them.

    Great job! Roll on part deux!

    1. Jeff, thanks for stopping by! I prefer Kismet when I skip the scenes with the bland Caliph and Marsinah because the other characters have (sometimes comical) chemistry, but The Garden of Allah is like washing down a bottle of Ambien with a bottle of Madeira. I only enjoy Tilly Losch's campy dance scene and Joseph Schildkraut's tomfoolery.

      Naturally, I can't agree more with your comments about Destry Rides Again and The Spoilers, although I'd say that Marietta Canty steals most scenes in the latter.

  4. Joseph, I'm always looking for Marlene's movies that I haven't watched, and you gave me a great list. I'm now very interested in Destry rides again!
    Her fancy style ofr sure matches the imponence of these beautiful horses!
    I'm also in the blogathon, with a entry about A day at the races.

    1. Le, I would certainly recommend Destry Rides Again--truly one of my favorite movies. The scene of Dietrich wiping off her makeup at the mirror and then at the end of the movie (which I won't spoil with too many details) is quite touching. I'll check out your entry, too!

  5. Argh! I just came up with a much better title for this entry--Philly Marelene. Oh, well. I'll save it for part two!

  6. Great post, Joseph! Destry Rides Again and Rancho Notorious are two of my favorite Marlene films.

    1. Thanks, Ivan! Not too long ago, I read an excellent review that you wrote for Rancho Notorious, which sparked an idea in my head to write about feminism--or lack thereof--in Dietrich's films.

  7. Wow - she did a lot more "horse" movies than I realized! That's quite the outfit she's wearing in the "Kismet" photos...!

  8. Marlene not fond of riding on horseback ?
    Look at the home movies made of her and Jean Gabin when he came to the U.S.A. !
    But maybe he talked her into it, being very in love with this young French actor , who knows ?
    She looks very relaxed in the saddle private ...

    1. That's the underlying conundrum--who knows? If I believe what Maria wrote about The Garden of Allah, I could speculate that Dietrich's reported riding-related concussion while making The Song of Songs made her or her producers unenthusiatic about her riding horses in her movies. If I doubt Maria, I could cite that Gabin home video as evidence contradicting Maria's story. Or I can suppose as you have that Dietrich's ride with Gabin was an example of "what you won't do, you'll do for love" (amen, Bobby Caldwell!). Whatever we suggest, we must keep in mind that all we really know is that we don't know.

  9. Four years on, is there any more to come on Dietrich's equestrian career ? She did ride in the Twenties,I understand, when it was the done thing for 'society' people to ride in the park (as with London's 'Rotten Row').

    1. Frankly, it's not a subject that interests me much, but I'd love to have someone guest-write something on it. If you'd like to do so, you are welcome to email me for more information at