Release Date(s)1947 (January 4, 2022)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
Golden Earrings is an oddity. A comedy-drama of the post-World War II era, it’s the tale of a military officer and his misadventures with a gypsy woman during the war. Amid the immediate danger from Nazis, the film weaves in elements of screwball comedy. It also downplays its leading lady’s well-established sex appeal and showcases female empowerment decades before it became fashionable in Hollywood.
British Brigadier General Ralph Denistoun (Ray Milland) is the subject of gossip at his club because of his pierced ears, an indication that he once wore earrings, an extremely unusual affectation in the 1940s. When he receives a package containing two gold hoop earrings, he immediately books a flight to the continent. On the plane, he tells the tale of his earlobes to his curious seat mate, and we flash back years earlier.
Because he speaks perfect German, Denistoun—then a colonel—is sent to Germany before the war, assisted by young officer Richard Byrd (Bruce Lester), to spirit away the formula for a poison gas that the Germans are developing. The Nazis capture them but eventually they escape, stealing SS uniforms and a car in the process. They soon ditch the car and go separate ways, planning to meet later at an appointed spot.
Denistoun, exhausted and hungry after a long trek through a forest, comes upon gypsy woman Lydia (Marlene Dietrich), conveniently traveling alone. She offers Denistoun food and a place to rest. She senses he’s on the run and invites him to travel with her disguised as a gypsy. This means darkening his skin, dressing him in her latest ex-husband’s clothes, and piercing his ears to accommodate a pair of earrings.
They ride in her wagon to a gypsy camp, where Zoltan (Mervyn Vye), a burly man who has a claim to Lydia, picks a fight with Denistoun. Zoltan relinquishes his claim after losing the slugfest, becomes an ally rather than a rival, and sings the title song in a deep baritone-basso. After the couple’s lengthy, often comic escapades, the tone shifts abruptly as the plot resumes its war adventure beginning, then returns to the present for the final scene.
Dietrich is the main attraction here. With ragged, bulky skirts hiding her figure, equally ragged scarves over her hair, and her face obscured by brown greasepaint, she’s hardly the glamour goddess she played in her Josef von Sternberg films. Lydia is a character role and Dietrich has fun with it, pawing at Ray Milland unhampered by societal norms, and immersing herself in the silliness of the plot. She upstages Milland in every scene.
Denistoun is a rigid British officer dedicated to accomplishing a dangerous mission, but he’s humanized by Lydia, who is far from the kind of woman he’s used to. Recognizing that she may be his ticket to delivering the formula (what Hitchcock would refer to as the “MacGuffin”), he joins up with her, letting her take the lead in negotiating Nazi terrain and the gypsy lifestyle. Milland’s performance adds little to the role, and there’s not much of a spark between him and Dietrich that the story demands.
Director Mitchell Leisen shot most of the film on the Paramount and Universal backlots except for a few exteriors at the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. Some long shots of Lydia and Denistoun walking through treacherous mountain terrain use stand-ins. Leisen lacks a deft touch with the comedy, so Milland is pretty stiff and much of the whimsy is left to Dietrich. The marked differences in the film’s tone are jarring. When Denistoun encounters Lydia, the Nazi formula plot is put on the back burner for so long that when it returns, it appears as an afterthought necessary to tie things up quickly. The screenwriters and director apparently knew that Dietrich would be a bigger draw than yet another war picture.
Golden Earrings was shot by director of photography Daniel L. Fapp on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Kino Lorber Studio Classics brings the film to Region A Blu-ray for the first time. There are some light scratches on the left frame during the opening credits, but they disappear when the credits end. Back screen projection is used for scenes of Denistoun and Byrd riding in the car, Byrd on a bicycle, and Lydia and Deniston on the horse-drawn gypsy wagon. Camera work is fairly routine, but there’s a memorable tracking shot from behind Lydia and Denistoun as they enter the gypsy camp, revealing lots of activity. Many scenes set outdoors are clearly studio interior sets. Dietrich’s make-up is very dark and lacks subtlety. Her costume consists of layer upon layer of ragged clothing, deglamorizing an actress known for beauty and style.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear throughout, but there’s a noticeable echo in some studio-shot scenes representing exteriors. Dietrich adopts a manner of speaking that omits words here and there but provides no clue to Lydia’s country of origin. The title song is sung by Murvyn Vye. Ambient noise in the gypsy camp is effectively blended with dialogue and enthusiastic dance music to create mood, and instrumental versions of Golden Earrings are heard throughout the film. Zither music is played in the gypsy camp, giving the scene an exotic flavor. Gunfire is loud and dramatic.
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by David Del Valle
- Theatrical Trailer (2:17)
- Desire Trailer (2:50)
- Seven Sinners Trailer (1:45)
- The Flame of New Orleans Trailer (2:08)
- Arise, My Love Trailer (1:45)
- The Lost Weekend Trailer (2:08)
- So Evil My Love Trailer (1:59)
- Death Takes a Holiday Trailer (2:23)
- No Time For Love Trailer (2:12)
Audio Commentary – Film historian and author David Del Valle provides a new commentary, speaking highly of director Mitchell Leisen, whom he refers to as a Renaissance Man, and believes he’s greatly underrated. Leisen made a lot of money for Paramount over the years, working in many genres. As a stylist, Leisen “could always make a picture look better than it was.” Ray Milland had recently won the Best Actor Oscar for The Lost Weekend and was “full of himself” during filming. He and Marlene Dietrich didn’t get along, but both were professionals and their mutual animosity didn’t show on screen. After Dietrich emerged from under the wing of director Josef von Sternberg, she found her own style. Her career had frequent peaks and slumps. Leisen and Milland made 8 films together. Both Mae West and Dietrich relied on sex and innuendo, but Dietrich had greater range. Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges didn’t like Leisen because they felt he sabotaged their scripts. A common theme in Leisen’s films is a person moving into a world where he doesn’t belong and acclimating himself to it spectacularly. Audiences loved the film and especially Dietrich’s performance.
Golden Earrings is far-fetched and often borders on ludicrous. It relies on stereotypes of British military officers, Nazis, and the Roma lifestyle. The dialogue lacks wit. But Marlene Dietrich’s uninhibited performance makes the film worth a look, as it reveals her ability to stretch herself in an unusual role and displays her comic talent.
- Dennis Seuling