One of the first Marlene Dietrich vehicles not to be directed by Joseph von Sternberg, Song of Songs is glossy romantic nonsense that is neither passionate nor ironic enough to be more than occasionally interesting. While moderately involving, its hour and a half running time feels longer, and despite some diverting moments and a sumptuous production, it crawls to a conclusion more predictable than compelling.
While not presented with Sternberg’s obsessive care, Dietrich’s youthful beauty still lights up every scene as Lily, an innocent peasant girl who models in the nude for a sculptor, Richard Waldow (Brian Aherne). The two fall in love, of course, but Waldow abandons Lily to the clumsy clutches of Baron Merzbach (Lionel Atwill). Lily is therefore far removed from the worldly characters Dietrich played in the Sternberg films, giving her the opportunity for one of her most varied performances. She reverts to type only in the concluding sequences (including a gratuitous, mediocre musical number). She even nearly pulls off an explosive ending that would be more convincing if the rest of the film were similarly intense.
The intermittently engaging director, Rouben Mamoulian, alternates between imaginative flourishes and painting by the numbers. Inconsistently inventive, his occasional, showy “touches” appear almost randomly, ostentatiously calling attention to themselves, while inadvertently highlighting the dullness of the rest. For example, he solves the problem of how to have Dietrich strip without alarming the censors (not a small issue, given the importance of the nudity to the story), by showing portions of her body as she undresses, then panning or cutting to the same part of the body of one of the artist’s statues. If everything were similarly inventive, Song would at least offer a film making treat. Instead, it feels more as if Mamoulian occasionally awakened to the potentials of the material, only to slip back into expensive, satisfied somnolence.
It is a symptom of the director’s lack of concentration that the most interesting character is neither Lily nor the sculptor, but the Baron. Atwill had considerable experience in such tortured roles and knew how to make his characters sympathetic. Initially, he seems to supply only stock villainy, complete with mustache twirling, but eventually, in his hopeless, pathetic way, he does demonstrate affection for Lily. Unfortunately, such psychological complexity has no emotional payoff. The Baron’s marriage to Lily is disastrous, but you don’t much care, particularly since the sequence in which it falls apart is a confused mess.
There nonetheless isn’t a moment in the film that doesn’t at least look handsome, so that while Song of Songs may have been produced to exploit Dietrich’s persona, it primarily demonstrates Paramount’s resources. It is difficult not to conclude, however, that all of the money and talent have been wasted, not so much because the results are awful, but because they have not been truly felt. And romance without feeling offers a pretty limp prospect.