Friday, July 26, 2013

Classic Film Reviews: A Foreign Affair

By Liz Balderston

This week, the HBO Bryant ParkSummer Film Festival presented by Bank of America screens “A Foreign Affair” – the torrid, satirical tale of love and scandal during the Allied occupation of Berlin. Director Billy Wilder’s first controversial 1948 film was denounced on the floor of Congress and was initially banned in occupied Germany – only to be shown to great acclaim in 1977.
“A Foreign Affair” tells the story of spinster Iowa Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur), who is part of an investigation committee of military morale and morals, the American officer, John Pringle (John Lund), that she falls for, and his lover - nightclub singer Erika von Schlütow (Marlene Dietrich) - the former mistress of high-ranking Nazi officials. Phoebe Frost is irked by an unofficial report stating that an unknown American military man is having an affair with and protecting known Nazi Erika von Schlütow. To hunt down the man, Frost enlists Captain Pringle to aid her, not knowing that he is the man she so desperately seeks. The plot thickens as a former lover of the chanteuse, Otto Birgle, seeks revenge, and Frost attempts to woo Captain Pringle.

Marlene Dietrich helps fight the Nazis while on USO Tour. (Source)
Marlene Dietrich, a German-born film star, had refused offers in the late 1930s from the Third Reich to return to Germany. She was disgusted by Hilter and what he was doing to her homeland, and she became an American citizen in 1939. During World War II, she entertained U.S. troops and made anti-Nazi propaganda broadcasts in German. Not wanting to associate with the Nazi Party, Dietrich refused the role of Erika von Schlütow at first. However, Wilder knew she was the only one fit for the part. To sway her, Wilder showed her screen tests of two American actresses on the pretext of asking her advice about casting. Dietrich was appalled by their accents and portrayal of a German woman, and (as Wilder hoped) told him that nobody but she could play the role. Just before filming began on A Foreign Affair, Marlene Dietrich was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the U.S. government's highest civilian honor, for her wartime service. Today, her work in the film is thought to be some of the greatest acting she ever did.
The season is almost over, so don’t miss your chance to see a legendary film on Bryant Park’s famous Lawn! Hester Street Fair will be in full swing again bringing savory and sweet snacks to complement the movie. We can’t wait to see you there!

A Foreign Affair
Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich and John Land a Triangle in 'A Foreign Affair'

New York Times
Published: July 1, 1948

Maybe you think there's nothing funny about the current situation of American troops in the ticklish area of Berlin. And it's serious enough, heaven knows, what with the Russians pushing and shoving and the natives putting on their own type squeeze. But, at least, Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder have been happily disinclined to wax morose about the problems presented by occupation—and by "fraternization," specifically. Rather these two bright film-makers have been wryly disposed to smile upon the conflicts in self and national interests which proximities inevitably provoke. And in their most recent picture, a comedy romance, called "A Foreign Affair," they have turned out a dandy entertainment which has some shrewd and realistic things to say.

Congress may not like this picture, which came to the Paramount yesterday. And even the Department of the Army may find it a shade embarrassing. For the Messrs. Brackett and Wilder, who are not the sort to call a spade a trowel, as was eminently proved by their honest and hard-hitting film, "The Lost Week-end," are here making light of regulations and the gravity of officialdom in a smoothly sophisticated and slyly sardonic way.

Particularly, their interest is in how human beings behave when confronted by other human beings—especially those of the opposite sex. And their logical conclusion is that, granted attractions back and forth, most people—despite regulations and even differences in language and politics—are likely to do toward one another that which comes naturally.

Taking as their point of observation an American Congresswoman in Berlin, accompanying a Congressional committee sent to investigate the morale of American troops, the Messrs. Brackett and Wilder have looked realistically upon the obvious temptations and reactions of healthy soldiers far from home. They have wisely observed that black markets are not repugnant to boys with stuff to trade and that frauleins are simply bobby-soxers with a weakness for candy-bars. They have slyly remarked that Russian soldiers love to sing gymnastic songs and that Americans are nothing loathe to join them of a quiet night in a smoky cafe. And especially have they noted that an American captain may actually fall in love with a svelte German night-club singer and take her beneath his protective custody, even though she may have been the mistress of a former Nazi trump.

Of course, they have made these observations in a spirit of fun and romance. And the shame of the captain's indiscretion is honorably white-washed in the end. But there is bite, nonetheless, in the comment which the whole picture has to make upon the irony of big state restrictions on the level of individual give-and-take.

Under less clever presentation this sort of traffic with big stuff in the current events department might be offensive to reason and taste. But as handled by the Messrs. Brackett and Wilder as producer and director of this film—and also as its principal writers—it has wit, worldliness and charm. It also has serious implications, via some actuality scenes in bombed Berlin, of the wretched and terrifying problem of repairing the ravages of war. Indeed, there are moments when the picture becomes down-right cynical in tone, but it is always artfully salvaged by a hasty nip-up of the yarn.

Much credit is due the performers. Jean Arthur is beautifully droll as the prim and punctilious Congresswoman who has her eyes popped open to the power of love. And John Lund is disarmingly shameless as the brash American captain. Millard Mitchell gives a trenchant imitation of a wise and sharp-eyed colonel in Berlin and three or four other fellows are richly amusing as just plain Joes.

But it is really Marlene Dietrich who does the most fascinating job as the German night-club singer and the charmer par excellence. For in Miss Dietrich's restless femininity, in her subtle suggestions of mocking scorn and in her daringly forward singing of "Illusions" and "Black Market," two stinging songs, are centered not only the essence of the picture's romantic allure, but also its vagrant cynicism and its unmistakable point.

On the stage at the Paramount are Jo Stafford, Georgia Kay, the Lane Brothers and Sam Donahue's band.

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