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Ever watch a movie that is so painfully bad that you want to look away from the screen in embarrassment but can’t in fascination at how truly awful it is? Well Golden Earrings is one of those movies. It is included in the “Marlene Dietrich” collection, which I purchased largely for the copies of Morocco and The Devil is a Woman which were also included. I’m interested enough in work Dietrich did apart from von Sternberg, however, to give Earrings a whirl. The premise is questionable, but no more so than countless other Hollywood vehicles, so that was not reason enough to avoid it.

The story, told in flashback, centers on a British colonel (Ray Milland) caught in Germany at the outbreak of World War II, who is befriended by a gypsy (Dietrich) who helps him escape to France by making him look like one of her tribe. Needless to say, they fall in love along the way and the question is whether he will be a cad and leave her behind. (A moot point since the story is told in flashback, for anyone who remembers.) I was certainly not expecting a detailed, penetrating examination of Roma life from the movie, and I wasn’t exactly surprised at the florid silliness with which it is depicted. I nonetheless was unprepared for just how excruciating Dietrich’s performance would be. Nor was I ready to witness the painful attempts to make us believe Milland could convince others he too was Roma. Which is not to say any of the characters are convincing, but at least the rest of them have a certain entertaining vulgarity, while Milland is just a stiff prig waiting to wash off his dark skin.

The script is credited to Abraham Polonsky, who has the dubious distinction of being famous less for his limited screen credits than for his victimization by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Unfortunately, victimization is no guarantee of talent and even when it is present, ability can be unevenly expressed. The situation in Earrings is so contrived, so downright ridiculous that Dietrich’s frantic gesticulations and over-done accent are probably best understood as her desperate effort to find something in this concoction worth saving. The fact that all of it is interwoven with anti-Nazi posturing (almost certainly Polonsky’s contribution) just makes an otherwise frothy situation gaseous.

The director, Mitchell Leisen, was classified by Andrew Sarris as “lightly likable,” [1] but Earrings is heavy to the point of sodden. I am not familiar enough with the rest of his work to say whether the results are better or worse than Leisen’s average. Give him the benefit of the doubt and speculate that the turgid, over-wrought execution here may result from his efforts to make the situation bearable, if hardly believable. If so, his efforts are doomed. This is one of those ideas that should have been abandoned before it was written.

[1] Sarris, Andrew, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, New York, Da Capo Press, 1968, 1996, p.183.