Release Date(s)1941 (March 31, 2020)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
The Flame of New Orleans stars Marlene Dietrich (The Blue Angel, Witness for the Prosecution) as Claire Ledeux, an adventuress from Europe who is looking to marry a man of means in 1841 New Orleans. Pretending to be a countess, she attends the opera dressed to the nines and affects a fainting spell in a box next to wealthy banker Charles Giraud (Roland Young). Giraud has his servant follow Claire’s maid and discovers that the countess will be riding through the park the next afternoon. The maid informs her mistress of the planned trip.
As she rides through the park, Claire encounters seaman Robert LaTour (Bruce Cabot, King Kong) when his pet monkey wraps its tail around the axle of her carriage. Assuming that this disturbance is part of Giraud’s plan to court her favor, she tells her driver to continue, but LaTour overturns the carriage, frees his monkey, and takes off. On her way home, Claire sees Giraud and another man and realizes the mix-up.
In romantic comedy tradition, the rakish LaTour takes a serious interest in the beautiful “Countess” and a cascade of mishaps, misunderstandings, mistaken identity, and lies complicate Claire’s plans to snare the stiff, stilted banker.
The plot was old even in 1941, when the picture was made, but Dietrich adds considerable glamour and star power to a stale script. Showcased in lavish period gowns, she looks luminous in Rudolph Mate’s lush black-and-white cinematography. Roland Young, who usually plays a befuddled, clueless character, has a similar role as Giraud and plays it perfectly straight. Cabot, though, is out of his depth as the leading man. He lacks chemistry with Dietrich and becomes nearly invisible when he shares the screen with her. His character is reminiscent of Errol Flynn’s in the swashbucklers of old, but he lacks Flynn’s deft touch with lighthearted dialogue. While Dietrich merely has to purse her lips or offer a sidelong glance to express volumes, Cabot talks, talks, talks, and never lights up either his character or the screen. Dietrich wanted Cary Grant as her co-star, who would certainly have pepped the film up considerably, but he was unavailable.
There are effective supporting performances from Laura Hope Crews as Giraud’s elderly aunt; Mischa Auer as Zolotov, a Russian from Claire’s past; Franklin Pangborn as Zolotov’s prissy friend; and Andy Devine as one of LaTour’s sailor pals.
Director Rene Clair attempts a period screwball comedy but never achieves the witty banter and charm of the best of that genre. If one has seen Dietrich’s films directed by Josef von Sternberg and her performance in Destry Rides Again, it’s apparent that Clair didn’t elicit her full potential. In many scenes, she looks like she’s going through the motions. The Norman Krasna script lacks sparkle. In essence, this is a B picture benefiting from the presence of a major star.
The Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber Studio Classics, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. There are no scratches, dirt specks, or splices leftover as this decades-old film is pristine, its images sharp, but with Dietrich’s close-ups shown in slight soft focus. Director of photography Rudolph Mate gives Dietrich the full glamour treatment. Framed by elaborate gowns and high collars, she projects an ethereal, other-worldly quality, which is exactly what attracts Giraud. Dietrich’s dresses were specially designed for black-and-white film. Her many costumes by Rene Hubert are spectacular creations with huge full skirts, sparkles, and feathers. Her bouncy white gown at the opera makes her stand out from the crowd as she glides through the lobby. The wedding dress that figures prominently in the tale is finally shown in all its splendor late in the film. The production design and costuming nicely suggest the era, with its horse-drawn carriages, elegant rooms, posh parties, and formal attire. The film received an Oscar nomination for Art Direction-Interior Design.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Dialogue is sharp throughout, with ambient noise nicely balanced. Frank Skinner’s score is rousing and exciting, and often bolsters parts of the film that tend to sag. Since much of the film is period drawing room, there is little opportunity for interesting sound design. Supporting players Franklin Pangborn and Andy Devine contribute their well-known, distinctive voices.
Bonus materials on the Unrated Blu-ray release include an audio commentary and several theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Author/film historian Lee Gambin and actress/film historian Rutanya Alda share this commentary. As the credits roll, Gambin discusses the score by Frank Skinner, who worked at Universal for 30 years, scored over 200 films, and was known for his scores for Universal’s horror movies. The music in the opening credits gives off a “jaunty swashbuckler vibe.” Director Rene Clair had made several films in France and England. When he first came to the United States, he didn’t speak English and film crews did not like him. Producer Joe Pasternak had worked with Marlene Dietrich on Destry Rides Again and Seven Sinners. The Flame of New Orleans was their third and final collaboration. The floating wedding dress seen at the beginning of the film suggests suicide, which is treated as a comic set-up for the story. Other feature films that used suicide as a plot point are mentioned. Dietrich’s first appearance is a blend of “glamour, beauty, and seduction.” An overview of screenwriter Norman Krasna’s work is provided. In the film, the humor is subtle, even subversive. Dietrich is showcased as “this wonderful, beautiful angel.” The film plays up Dietrich’s comic ability as well as the vulnerability of her character. The tone of the film is playful and is a lampoon of Dietrich’s established screen persona. Alda refers to the film as a “masterpiece of style” that captures the atmosphere of New Orleans in the 1840s. The production design reflects the luxury of the period’s upper classes. Women were second-class citizens but money elevated them to a higher social standing. In her later years, Dietrich went into seclusion because she wanted the public to remember her as she appeared in her movies. Co-star Bruce Cabot’s career is profiled along with many supporting cast members. In many scenes, Cabot appears to be channeling Errol Flynn. If The Flame of New Orleans had more romantic scenes between Dietrich and Cabot, they would have given the film “more heat.” As Claire is about to achieve her goal, she realizes that affluence would imprison her in a dull, routine life. Casting the wedding dress into the river is a symbol of freedom. Two reels (about 20 minutes) were cut from the film due to censorship. Films are escapism and audiences enjoy getting away from their daily lives and enjoy a happy ending. According to producer Joe Pasternak, “Never make an audience think. It always works for me.”
Theatrical Trailers – The following trailers are included: The Flame of New Orleans, The Blue Angel, The Song of Songs, The Spoilers, Pittsburgh, A Foreign Affair, No Highway in the Sky, Witness for the Prosecution, and The Young in Heart.
– Dennis Seuling