Men can be just as gossipy as women but it’s always fun when a movie recognizes that. Maybe “fun” is the wrong word, since there’s no reason a man getting his ears pierced should be the cause of so much commotion, but when you consider how a men’s club would want to be perceived (a bunch of guys wearing smoking jackets, solving murder mysteries), it feels much more on the money that the mystery that has them hot and bothered is how a high ranking military officer came to get his ears pierced.
This is the mystery of Mitchell Leisen’s Golden Earrings, which begins with Ray Milland’s Major General Ralph Denistoun receiving the titular golden earrings in the mail and follows with him booking a flight to Paris. Naturally one of the men’s club’s patrons (real life journalist Quentin Reynolds) is sitting next to him on the plane and a framing device is born, as Reynolds’ presence acts as an excuse for Denistoun to spend the whole flight telling him his story. It’s a silly device, but one that’s easily forgotten until Denistoun wraps up his tale at the end.
Basically, before WWII started, Denistoun was involved in a secret mission and that’s the story he recounts to Reynolds. Leisen’s visuals don’t always match up with Denistoun’s story. When he and his partner, Byrd (Bruce Lester), are captured by Nazis, for example, they look way too clean for two people who’ve supposedly undergone torture, but they escape, split up and plan to meet up again in the city where their contact is supposed to be.
While that might seem like a lot of plot to give away, that’s still not what the majority of the film is about. It all started with the golden earrings, after all, and there would be no golden earrings without Marlene Dietrich’s Liddie. Leaving aside (though not excusing) that Dietrich wears makeup to darken her skin in this movie (she’s playing a gypsy), Liddie offers Dietrich a chance to play a character who’s messy and eats with her hands and spends most of the movie trying to ravish an unreceptive Denistoun. It’s a complete departure from her persona in Josef von Sternberg’s movies. According to film historian, David del Valle, in his commentary, Dietrich and Milland didn’t get along but that doesn’t seem to have stopped Dietrich from having a blast, and the best part is that while Denistoun tries the usual Pygmalion routine with her, it doesn’t work.
While Denistoun wears make-up to darken his skin, too, and disguise himself as a gypsy, Milland doesn’t affect any mannerisms, or change the way that he talks (which again, isn’t an excuse, but is why Golden Earrings holds up better than expected). It’s a faulty plan (and as Del Valle talks about in his commentary, the film glosses over how the Nazis persecuted the gypsies as well). There’s some fascinating gay subtext, which Del Valle talks through, and for appearing late in the movie, Murvyn Vye makes a wonderful impression during a fight sequence with Milland that’s well-choreographed (he also gets to show off his beautiful baritone in a scene that’s surprising without knowing his Broadway credits).
Lots of films would feel the need to translate Liddie’s terms of endearment but Golden Earring just has her saying “liebling” all the time. It’s charming, and so is this movie, despite its more improbable plot points (Abraham Polonsky, Frank Butler and Helen Deutsch share credit on the screenplay).
Gold Earrings is available on Blu-Ray now from Kino Lorber.