‘The Flame of New Orleans’ Burns Bright On Blu-Ray

by Rachel Bellwoar

Marlene Dietrich in her suit from Morocco is probably a more iconic image than Marlene Dietrich fainting in The Flame of New Orleans, but that’s because while many know to talk about her coolness, her comedy skills don’t come up as regularly.

Dietrich isn’t just funny in Rene Clair’s The Flame of New Orleans – she’s hilarious. From suggestive remarks to the most giveaway expressions, Dietrich’s Claire Ledeux is a fake countess who’s trying to bag herself a rich husband. Her fainting spell was to catch Charles Giraud’s attention and it works. In the middle of an opera, Charles (Roland Young) only has eyes for Claire. Viewers, though, might be able to spare a few glances for the other people seated in Giraud’s opera box.
They’re Giraud’s family, and while the film introduces them formally later, to see them is to know a lot about them. Film historian Lee Gambin brings up silent movies in his commentary track with actress and film historian Rutanya Alda and along with Clair’s direction, the performances in this movie are extremely visual.
It’s not unusual, for example, for Dietrich to sing in her movies — and The Flame of New Orleans is no exception — but at the same time she’s trying to get through a rendition of “Sweet As The Blush of May,” she’s watching a new line of gossip start to spread around the room. Dietrich’s face is an open book during this sequence, and the gossipers couldn’t be more obvious with their reactions. You don’t need to hear what anyone’s saying to know who’s shocked and who’s elated by the prospect of exposing Claire.
Need more reasons to check out this movie? Just as Bette Davis famously played twins twice in the films A Stolen Life and Dead Ringer, Dietrich’s Claire has a lookalike cousin (or at least that’s what she tells Giraud). While able to avoid having them meet at first, she eventually has to dress up as Lili to quell his suspicions. At the same time, Bruce Cabot’s debonair sea captain, Robert LaTour, threatens to break her resolve to marry Giraud.
The only thing that might’ve made Kino Lorber’s commentary track better is if Gambin and Alda could’ve recorded it together, instead of separately. But in it, Alda draws attention to how differently Claire and Lili are treated. They’re the same person but, because Lili is considered to be lower class, men push her around in ways they would never consider pushing around Claire. In truth, she doesn’t have money either – she just presents as wealthy – but that’s enough for her to be shown respect while Lili’s manhandled.
Teresa Harris plays Clementine, Claire’s maid and co-conspirator, and their friendship is another reason this movie rocks. It’s not every actress who can go toe to toe with Dietrich, but they make an amazing team, and while the film is set in the 1840s (and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Art Direction), it doesn’t share that time period’s views on race and segregation.
The Flame of New Orleans is available on Blu-Ray starting March 31st from Kino Lorber.

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