Screwball schemes and frilly dresses: The Flame of New Orleans (Rene Clair, 1941)


Universal’s Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection box set is good value, including as it does not one but three, count ‘em, three Josef von Sternberg films. This leaves The Flame of New Orleans and Golden Earrings as filler, but as far as filler goes, Flame in particular is a nicely silly film that’s a pleasure to watch. It literally invites you in. A narrator tells us that in New Orleans, in 1841, a wedding dress was found in the river. Promising that we’ll learn how this came about, the narrator leaves us, the camera temporarily acting as our point of view as it moves into an opera house, servants beckoning us forward, until we encounter Lili (Dietrich). Disguised as Countess Claire Ledoux, she’s engaged in a scheme to ensnare the wealthy Charles Giraud (Roland Young). However, her affections for ship captain Robert Latour (Bruce Cabot) keep things from running smoothly, and quicker than you can say “Positively the same dame,” Lili’s disguising herself as her own cousin to cover up her mistakes.

It’s not difficult to guess how this story’s going to end, but because the film embraces its silliness, it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen scene by scene. We get a fake-stickup foiled by a runaway monkey, a highwire act that leads to a duel, a quick costume change, a spot of trellis-climbing gone awry… Even Dietrich’s obligatory musical number turns into a neat little set piece; she performs it with a panicked expression as rumours about Lili’s conduct in Russia and Europe spread around the room. Through it all, the film is often genuinely funny, no more so when Dietrich reacts to a high society lady trying to explain the ordeals that Lili will face on her wedding night.

Also of note is Theresa Harris as Clementine. Harris spent most of her career, by virtue of being black, getting uncredited roles as maids. Clementine, however, is more than a servant; as well as getting some good comedic scenes, she shows herself to be as intelligent as Lili, working with her as a team. At one point, Clementine even obstructs Lili’s unwillingness to go through with their plans. Lili messes things up more for Clementine than for herself by the end, but the film gives Clementine a romance with local carriage driver Samuel (Clarence Muse) as compensation.

The Flame of New Orleans is no classic, but watched decades after it was made, it has acquired a campy charm. It’s a visual treat, with large sets, and even larger hats for Dietrich. The star plays both her roles with good humour. Perhaps the film’s biggest drawback is that Young and Cabot, though fine, don’t make enough of their parts. They’re not quite distinctive enough, which leaves Harris (like Anna May Wong in Shanghai Express) as the actor who has the most interesting interactions with Dietrich but relatively little screentime. A film that focused more on the two of them would be a better one – but as a bit of 40s fun, Flame is fun enough.


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