Jonas Sternberg, born in Vienna in 1894, came to the United States in 1901. As a teenager he got a job cleaning motion picture film prints. By 1925 he was directing features. The name “von Sternberg” came his way in the 1920s, in emulation of the director Erich von Stroheim. In 1927 he directed Underworld, perhaps the first of the great gangster films, for Paramount. He directed the German actor Emil Jannings in the Hollywood film The Last Command in 1928. Almost two years later Jannings asked Sternberg to come to UFA in Berlin to direct one of the first German talkies — The Blue Angel. In his wonderful autobiography with the even more wonderful title, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, Sternberg remembered the time he first saw Marlene Dietrich, born 1901, who he would choose for the female lead in that picture: “Here was the face that I sought, and, so far as I could tell, the figure that did justice to it.” Director Peter Bogdanovich, who interviewed Sternberg late in his life, wrote “his love for Marlene Dietrich was palpably apparent in every frame she appeared in over the seven pictures they did together.” She signed a contract with Paramount, which specified that only Sternberg should direct her pictures, and left Berlin on April 1, 1930 after appearing on stage at the premiere of The Blue Angel.
Morocco’s script was by Jules Furthman from the novel Amy Jolly by Benno Vigny. Most of the location scenes were filmed in desert parts of southern California. It was made in July and August, 1930. It reportedly cost $450,000. The cinematographer was Lee Garmes. Art direction was by Hans Dreier. The music is uncredited, though the song in English Dietrich sings was by Karl Hajos and Leo Robin. Costumes were by Travis Banton. Playing opposite Dietrich were Gary Cooper, who had become a star the year before with his role in The Virginian, and Adolphe Menjou, known to moviegoers for his roles as sophisticated men of the world. Dietrich’s performance here, seen before American audiences had seen her in The Blue Angel, is memorable. David Thomson wrote, in his Have You Seen? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films “Her cabaret number, kissing the giggly girl in the audience, is revolutionary and still radiant with nerve.” About Sternberg Thomson wrote “He reveled in the artificiality of this North Africa, the power of light and shadow to make a world.” Thomson called Morocco “one of the most influential films Hollywood ever made.” It was released in December, 1930, and earned $2 million in theaters. Nominated for Oscars in 1931 were Dietrich, Sternberg, cinematographer Garmes and art director Dreier. In 1992 Morocco was placed on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. I hope you enjoy watching the extraordinary film partnership of Dietrich and Sternberg with me this winter, starting with this exceptional picture, Morocco.