Cast & Crew
After her father's death, Lily Czepanek leaves the German countryside to live with her strict aunt, Mrs. Rasmussen, and work in her lending library in Berlin. Naive and fervent in her belief in one eternal love, which is inspired by the Old Testament's "Song of Songs," Lily falls in love with sculptor Richard Waldow. Richard is inspired to sculpt an elegant statue of her. His patron, Baron von Merzbach, becomes obsessed with the idea of refining Lily and making her his baroness. He bribes her aunt and convinces Richard, who although in love with Lily, feels trapped by their relationship, to give her up. Thrown out by her aunt and devastated by Richard's sudden abandonment, Lily marries the baron. She is miserable at his castle, despite the education and opulence he provides her, and is repelled by his touch. When the baron invites Richard to visit, intending to spark his jealousy, Lily discovers the deal they made and is further embittered. To show her scorn, Lily pretends to have an affair with Edward von Prell, who works for the baron and who once tried to force himself on her. When a fire breaks out in Edward's lodge, all the servants see Edward emerge with Lily and she is publicly disgraced. To save Lily from the wrathful baron and to protect her own interests, the jealous housekeeper sends Lily away. After a desperate search in Berlin for Lily, Richard finds her in a cafe, reduced to selling her love, and returns her to his studio. Once there, she destroys the statue that symbolized her idealism and youth and faints, but Richard revives her and promises they will begin anew.
Rita La Roy
Edwin Justus Mayer
S. Cartaino Scarpitta
The Song of Songs
After the box-office disappointment of Blonde Venus in 1932, Paramount decided to break up the team of von Sternberg and Dietrich. The actress was rushed into The Song of Songs, which caught her off-guard. According to Hollywood lore, on the first day of shooting, a disconcerted Dietrich stepped up to an open mic and whispered, "Joe, where are you?" Dietrich's daughter, Maria Riva, claimed that her mother sought out von Sternberg's advice whenever she was assigned to another director. His advice was always to study the films they made together and learn from them.
The Song of Songs fits the type of material associated with Dietrich's exotic and erotic star image. She stars as Lily Czepanek, a naïve young peasant girl who becomes a world-weary fallen woman because of the men in her life. Lily's story begins when her father dies, forcing her to leave her picturesque village where the trees are in bloom and the sunlight glistens on the leaves. An ominous black train speeds through the night, taking Lily to noisy, gritty Berlin. The contrast between the two locations suggests the innocence of small-town life contrasted against the dangers of the big bad city. Hard-hearted Aunt Rasmussen takes in Lily, who will work in Auntie's bookstore. That the girl is from another world is emphasized by her aunt's critical remarks about her appearance and clothing. She calls Lily's hat "a black pancake" and marvels at the number of petticoats Lily takes off to prepare for bed.
In the back room of her aunt's first floor apartment, Lily looks out the window into the top-story garret of artist Richard Waldow, played by a genteel Brian Aherne. Again, the settings suggest an aspect of the story: Lily's lowly position as an unsophisticated, uneducated village girl vs. Waldow's lofty, cultured lifestyle. In the bookstore, Waldow confesses that he is "stuck" in a rut artistically and only Lily's natural beauty can release him from his creative block. Soon Lily is sneaking away from her aunt's watchful eye and posing nude in Waldow's rooftop studio.
The film's title refers to a biblical passage in the "Song of Solomon" that holds personal meaning for Lily. To the young, virtuous girl, "The Song of Songs" will be the voice of her future beloved, a transference of her love of God and all things holy to her love of the unknown husband of her dreams. Touched by her innocence, Waldow names his new sculpture "The Song of Songs." Lily and Waldow fall in love, but their romantic idyll is disrupted by Baron von Merzbach, who is the artist's primary patron. Unlike Waldow, the Baron, played by Lionel Atwill, covets Lily for her beauty not for her purity, and he persuades the artist to "give her to me." After all, Waldow could not give her the education, the sophistication, and the lifestyle that the Baron can. Spurned by Waldow, Lily becomes the Baroness von Merzbach, which erodes her sense of virtue and begins her slide into sin and cynicism.
Mamoulian, a respected Broadway director when he journeyed to Hollywood in the early sound era, handles Dietrich and the simple, fairy-tale material with skill and style. Viewers familiar with Dietrich's sophisticated look and demeanor will be impressed with her interpretation of young Lily. The beauty of her fresh-scrubbed face and her sweet manner are the polar opposite of her more familiar world-weary, sexually experienced persona.
The Song of Songs is a pre-Code film, and, though not explicit, it does address issues of adult sexuality. Lily experiences a sexual awakening based on her true love for Waldow, who returns her love and feelings of desire. Their emotions are revealed as Lily undresses to pose for Waldow. Mamoulian gives the act of disrobing an erotic charge through careful camerawork. As Lily drops her skirt behind a curtain in the studio, the camera pans quickly from her torso to the bare legs of a female statue in the studio. When she unbuttons her blouse, the camera tilts up before any part of her body is exposed, and when she takes off her blouse, a swish pan to the statue reveals its nude breasts instead of Lily's. At first Waldow is oblivious to Lily, but his feelings quickly change. The moment when the artist knows he has fallen for his model is conveyed when he sees the disrobed Lily for the first time. He is modeling a female figure in clay, and the way he massages the shoulders of the clay sculpture indicates his desire for Lily. The sculptures and clay figures were done by Salvatore Cartaino Scarpitta, who was enjoying a newfound fame for the bas reliefs he created for the newly opened Los Angeles Stock Exchange.
The scenes between Lily and Waldow show the place of desire in true love, while those between Lily and the Baron reveal the dark side of sexual desire, which can be deviant and decadent. Again, Mamoulian suggests this idea visually. On Lily's wedding night, the Baron gapes at a nude sketch of his new bride. As the Baron heads toward his bride's bedroom, the camera tracks closer toward the nude torso depicted in the drawing, revealing exactly what is on von Merzbach's mind.
Von Sternberg may have been justly famous for his expertise in lighting and mise-en-scene, but Mamoulian and his cinematographer, Victor Milner, also used chiaroscuro lighting and set design to comment on story and character. When Lily first arrives in Berlin, she looks out the window at the dark streets of the city. The angles of the buildings and low-key lighting produce a foreboding atmosphere. When Lily enters Waldow's garret studio for the first time, the high contrast lighting on the half-finished statues provokes unease, echoing Lily's frightened state of mind. The main room of the Baron's castle consists of a line of statues in the same stiff pose carefully placed beneath perfectly spaced arches. The uniformity of design suggests von Merzbach's rigid nature.
The Song of Songs is a lesser-known gem in Dietrich's career that reveals her range as an actress as well as director Mamoulian's skill. His imaginative editing and suggestive imagery give the film a passion and hint of eroticism that turns the simple fairy tale into a sophisticated story for adults.
Producer: Rouben Mamoulian for Paramount Pictures
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Screenplay: Leo Birinski and Samuel Hoffenstein from the novel by Hermann Sudermann and the play by Edward Sheldon
Cinematography: Victor Milner
Art Direction: Hans Dreier
Music: Karl Hajos
Costume: Travis Banton
Cast: Lily Czepanek (Marlene Dietrich), Richard Waldow (Briane Aherne), Baron von Merzbach (Lionel Atwill), Aunt Rasmussen (Alison Skipworth), Walter Von Prell (Hardie Albright), Fraulein Von Schwertfeger (Helen Freeman).
by Susan Doll
The Song of Songs
The Song of Songs
Von Sternberg had guided Dietrich through five movies at this point, beginning with The Blue Angel (1930). He created her iconic identity as the most glamorous "movie goddess" at Paramount Pictures, making her that studio's answer to MGM's Greta Garbo. Von Sternberg bedecked Dietrich in exotic furs, feathers and veils, along with white tie and tails and even a gorilla suit. He gave her those enigmatic line readings and, perhaps most importantly, created a system of lighting that lent the Dietrich face an aura of mystery and almost unearthly beauty.
But by 1933 the public had tired of the Dietrich/von Sternberg formula of outrageous entertainment, and their most recent film, Blonde Venus (1932), had flopped at the box office. Paramount decreed that Dietrich should try working with another director, and von Sternberg conceded that the studio was right. According to Maria Riva's biography of her mother, Marlene Dietrich (1992), von Sternberg told his star that the new director should be Rouben Mamoulian: "This way, you will be in the hands of a gentleman who is also a very talented and successful director. He won't be strong enough to fight you, to make you understand what is needed to make a scene important. But if you behave yourself, you may get away with an acceptable performance."
The Song of Songs, adapted from a famous 1908 novel by Hermann Sudermann and a 1914 play by Edward Sheldon, had earlier been given two silent-screen treatments by Paramount - one in 1918 and another, titled Lily of the Dust, in 1924. In a role earlier proposed for Miriam Hopkins and Tallulah Bankhead in the sound remake, Dietrich plays Lily, an idealistic and pious German peasant girl of the early 1900s. After the death of her father, she moves to Berlin to live with a crotchety aunt (Aliston Skipworth). Lily meets a handsome young sculptor, Richard (Brian Aherne), who persuades her to pose in the nude for a statue representing Solomon's "Song of Songs."
The action allows Dietrich a couple of songs: the Franz Schubert/Johann Wolfgang Goethe "Heideroslein"; and Friedrich Hollaender's "Jonny," with English lyrics by Edward Heyman. The latter song, delivered dramatically in the smoky cafe atmosphere, is one that Dietrich sometimes sang in her own cabaret performances - and it's a knockout.
"Like every German girl, I regard this as one of the great works of fiction," Dietrich would tell the press. But Riva wrote that her mother's private reaction to the screenplay was negative though part of that may have stemmed from not being able to work with von Sternberg on it. So she stalled and considered fleeing to her native Germany. However, when Paramount informed her agent, Harry Edington, that she was to report for work, regardless of her opinion, or forfeit her $300,000 salary and be sued by the studio to boot, she complied. The Song of Songs was her final film commitment to Paramount under her current contract, but once she reported for work the studio signed her to a new five-year contract beginning at $4,500 a week - and this during the worst year of the Depression!
Dietrich was not impressed by Mamoulian, a quiet and courtly man who had directed Fredric March to an Oscar in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and had already been assigned to guide Greta Garbo through what would be one of her most evocative performances in Queen Christina (1933).
"Mr. Mamoulian, where is my mirror?" the imperious Dietrich asked her new director on the first day of shooting. She was referring to a huge full-length mirror, transported on a trolley and equipped with its own lights and cables, that she used to monitor her appearance during the filming of each scene. Mamoulian arranged to have the mirror positioned as she wished, but did not follow von Sternberg's pattern of giving his star the precisely shaded line readings to which she was accustomed.
Mamoulian also failed to protect Dietrich from the press and other distractions, and she found herself, on that first day filming, unexpectedly dealing with a telephone call from gossip maven Louella Parsons and an interview complete with photo shoot by Photoplay magazine. Riva writes that her mother glacially informed the film's publicist, "After this...nothing!...will ever again be arranged, scheduled or decided without my permission first! Now...go!"
Most importantly, Mamoulian did not manage to duplicate the lighting system that von Sternberg had perfected to make Dietrich look her most stunning. For the first time, she took control herself, proving that she had been an apt pupil of her master's techniques. Mamoulian was suitably impressed with her knowledge and expertise in creating her own luminous illusions through placing the lights with great precision. "Beautiful, Marlene!" he cried. "Utterly beautiful!" Even the burly, hardened studio technicians, who might have had cause for resentment, stripped off their electricians' gloves and applauded.
Dietrich had, of course, always had a hand in creating her costumes, conferring closely with designer Travis Banton, who worked with her without credit on The Song of Songs. Riva writes that her mother was not much interested in the costuming for the first part of the film, basically repeating her "sweet young peasant girl" look from an earlier film, Dishonored (1931). But she loved the Edwardian finery her character later wore, especially her own version of the principal evening dress -- a breathtaking off-the-shoulder black velvet gown set off by a picture hat adorned with black egret feathers. Decades later, designer Cecil Beaton would recreate the effect for My Fair Lady (1964).
Dietrich had been pre-conditioned to admire new leading man Aherne because he was of the theater and cultured, above the level of a "film actor" in her eyes. Her only reservation was that he had ever accepted this "stupid part in such a bad script." Aherne, who acknowledged that he could see why Fredric March had turned down the role, said he had accepted because he had been "moonstruck" by Dietrich's beauty in Shanghai Express (1932). To celebrate their collaboration, she baked Aherne a cake - and he revealed in his memoirs that he hoped to find opportunities, in turn, to "bake Miss Dietrich." Sure enough, the two immediately became lovers.
Dietrich biographer Steven Bach wrote that, during the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, everybody else at Paramount went home for the day, but "Marlene and Aherne remained in their dressing rooms on Marathon Street, basking in self-generated moonlight." The love affair eventually cooled, but the two would remain lifelong friends and Aherne served, throughout his life, as a father figure to Maria Riva.
Prior to the release of The Song of Songs, the director encountered problems with Will Hays and his Hollywood board of censors. According to Bach in his biography, "Mamoulian wrote the Hays men a hilariously disingenuous letter about how artistic it all was and what connoisseurs of art he knew them to be. It didn't work. Before the picture could be released in the summer of 1933, Will Hays ordered Paramount to cut a reel and a half (about fifteen minutes) before issuing a seal." Paramount brought some of this upon themselves when they sent thousands of replicas of the infamous Dietrich statue to movie theatres to promote the film and promptly aroused the wrath of various religious organizations and women's groups.
The Song of Songs was well-received critically, with much of the praise focusing on Dietrich's "escape" from the influence of her former director. The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film "confirms the wisdom of emancipating La Dietrich from the Svengali-like domination of von Sternberg." The Los Angeles Examiner took a similar tack: "No Trilby sans Svengali ever gave so fine a portrayal." Newsweek found Dietrich "vibrant and compelling" and felt she had turned the material into "an individual triumph." The New York Times gushed that she "floats through" the movie "with the lyric grace of that apparition which was sent by Heaven to be a moment's ornament."
The picturegoing public, however, was indifferent, and the movie enjoyed only lukewarm box office. Von Sternberg would return from Berlin for Dietrich's next two films, The Scarlet Empress (1934), which would become one of his most celebrated films, and The Devil Is a Woman (1935), in which Dietrich's sculptured beauty reaches a new peak of perfection. The Song of Songs was banned in Nazi Germany because the novel had been written by a Jew and because of Dietrich's refusal to work in that country as long as it was Nazi-controlled. There were also objections on moral grounds because an actress from Germany was starring in a story suggesting that adultery could go unpunished in that country. Criticism of Dietrich by the Nazi propoganda machine would grow ever more vicious, and Bach considers that "its effects would never be entirely erased."
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Screenplay: Leo Birinsky, Samuel Hoffenstein, based on the novel Das Hohelied by Hermann Sudermann and the play by Edward Sheldon
Cinematography: Victor Milner
Art Direction: Hans Dreir
Costume Design: Travis Banton
Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Lily Czepanek), Brian Aherne (Richard Waldow0, Lionel Atwill (Baron von Merzback), Alison Skipworth (Mrs. Rasmussen), Hardie Albright (Walter Von Prell), Helen Freeman (Fraulein Von Schwerfeger).
by Roger Fristoe
The Song of Songs
I can't take my clothes off!- Lily Czepanek
Why? Why can't you?- Richard Waldow
Why, I'd, I'd be undressed!- Lily Czepanek
Richard Bennett was originally to play the role of Baron von Merzbach, but he was forced to leave the production because of illness, and was replaced by Lionel Atwill.
News items in Film Daily note that Miriam Hopkins was originally cast as the lead, and that Douglas Doty and Sidney Buchman were assigned to prepare the adaptation and dialogue; however, it has not been determined if any of Doty's and Buchman's material was included in the final film. In a story outline authored by Daniel N. Rubin contained in the Paramount script files at the AMPAS Library, Nancy Carroll is suggested for the role of Lily. Early treatments by Josephine Lovett and S. K. Lauren dated 2 and November 16, 1931, were entitled The Search for Love. The first script, dated July 12, 1932, was authored by Leo Birinski, with dialogue by Daniel N. Rubin, while a later script dated January 11, 1933 was written by Benjamin Glazer and Edwin Justus Mayer, and listed Fredric March as "Waldow" and Richard Bennett as "von Merzbach." The pressbook credits S. Cartaino Scarpitta, an Italian sculptor, with the design of the statue used in the film, and notes that the design of the skull decorating "von Merzbach's" originated with the "Death's Head Hussars" of Germany. The pressbook notes that "Jonny," originally written by Friedrich Holländer and performed by Marlene Dietrich while in Germany, was rewritten by Leo Robin for this American version, however, music copyright information credits Edward Heyman with the American version. According to the pressbook, among the selections played during the film, are pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, Joseph Haydn, Jakob Ludwig Mendelssohn, Franz Schubert, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss. A modern source attributes music to Karl Hajos and Milan Roder, and notes that the song "You Are My Song of Songs," written by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger, was left out of final release prints. This was the first American film Dietrich made without director Josef von Sternberg. The film was banned in Germany, according to modern sources, due to Dietrich's refusal to work in the Nazi-controlled country. According to a modern source, Frank Borzage shoot a scene of this film on January 10, 1933 at the request of Dietrich, who was dissatified with director Rouben Mamoulian. Earlier screen versions of this story are the 1918 Famous Players-Lasky film The Song of Songs, directed by Joseph Kaufman and starring Elsie Ferguson, (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20; F1.4154) and their 1924 Lily of the Dust, directed by Dimitri Buchowetski and starring Pola Negri (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.3096).
Released in United States October 1998
Released in United States on Video October 1998
Released in United States October 1998
Released in United States on Video October 1998