Thursday, December 1, 2011

Uneasy Victors - PT 2 - "A Foreign Affair" - 1948


“A Foreign Affair” (1948) is a broad send-up of American moral hypocrisy, but Jean Arthur turns it into a valentine for American sentimentality. The film is a biting accusation of German duplicity, but alluring Marlene Dietrich dares us to judge. Billy Wilder, whose cynical view peppers each scene with bold satire, still finds himself forgiving the weaker morally ambiguous Berliners for allowing the stronger and far more evil Nazis to ruin the place.

It can’t have been easy for him. In his biography of Billy Wilder, “On Sunset Boulevard - The Life and Times of Billy Wilder” (Hyperion, NY, 1998), author Ed Sikov notes that while watching footage of bombed out ruins in Berlin, after someone remarked that he could not help but feel sorry for the Germans, Wilder, “…jumped to his feet and yelled, ‘To hell with those bastards! They burned most of my family in their damned ovens! I hope they burn in hell!” (p. 272).

In our intro to this series on Uneasy Victors, posted here, we outlined the three films we’re tackling to discuss America’s post-World War II involvement in Occupied Germany. Next week we cover “The Big Lift” (1950) and “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961).

I’m going to tread lightly on the plots of these three movies and concentrate on the images used so evocatively. The images and stories were current events when these films were made, no deep explanation was required. For background, one needed only to look at the front page of a newspaper.

“A Foreign Affair” brings prudish congresswoman Jean Arthur to Berlin on a fact-finding mission to investigate the morale of American service troops stationed in Occupied Germany. The end “E” in morale gets dropped and the question for Jean Arthur is reduced to what is “moral”.

She encounters John Lund, an Army captain with working in the de-Nazification office. His job is to examine the credibility of German civilians of being complicit in the former regime that was responsible for starting the war and the murder of millions. He must recommend them for further investigation, punishment, or rehabilitation. On those that are judged to be clean, he gets to stamp an APPROVED on their foreheads, and absolve them of further suspicion. His clients range from the precocious little boy who draws swastikas over everything with a piece of chalk, to Marlene Dietrich. He lets the kid off with a warning to his father. He APPROVES Dietrich in a big way.

John Lund has probably his best role here. He is handsome, worldly and he is a scamp. He carries on an illicit, mutually beneficial relationship with cabaret singer Marlene Dietrich. He brings her stockings and she gives him sex. He trades a birthday cake Jean Arthur ferried across the ocean as a gift from one of his old girlfriends, selling it on the black market to buy a mattress for Marlene. Never was a gift less subtle.

Director Billy Wilder shows his cynicism and his delightfully naughty side in this movie. And it is a marvel he could temper the above noted rage against the German people with an affinity for them. He was, after all, a resident of this city himself at one time back in the ‘20s when it was decadent but entirely free.

So was Dietrich a Berliner. They met here years ago. They knew their own people.

Wilder has been accused at points in his career of being something of a misogynist, showing women in a demeaning light, sexualized or mocked. Some critics took umbrage with “A Foreign Affair” for what they felt was shabby treatment of Jean Arthur, that she was brutalized by being shown in such an unflattering manner. She was dressed and coifed with a severe appearance, and her jingoistic response to how are things back in Iowa, “still 62 percent Republican, thank you” sound as if he is chastising her for being one of the so-called American moral majority and making a fool of her for looking for sin in Berlin.

While I agree that Wilder does his best to show the character of Congresswoman Frost as a comic foil, nevertheless I disagree that he used Jean Arthur in a bad way. You have only to look at Jean Arthur in this movie to see how much fun she’s having.

Just her opening scene when the congressional committee flies over the ruins of Berlin. She is making notes, and when her attention is called by the others to look out the window at their vantage point, she takes her time, meticulous in removing her reading glasses and putting them away. Screwing the cap on her fountain pen and tucking it away. Zipping, snapping, and buckling pockets of courier bag and attache. The suspense of her thorough routine builds and becomes enormously funny, as funny as a Buster Keaton slide down a mountain, but she’s just sitting there putting her stuff away.

This is a lady who knows how to control a scene.

There are many opportunities for her to take the ball and run with it. When she’s picked up by two GIs on a bicycle-built-for-two and turn it into an impromptu bicycle built for three, and most spectacularly when she sings the “Iowa Corn Song” in the cabaret (the scene is below). There is nothing Jean Arthur enjoyed more than absurdity. She saw that in this character and in this movie, and she goes to town. That that town happens to be Berlin is the perfect irony and palette for Wilder’s story.

Marlene Dietrich is a rival romantically, but also politically. Miss Dietrich shines in this role. Her cabaret singer is world-weary, street smart, sexy of course, and most of all a survivor. She needs to be a survivor to live in a nearly demolished Berlin with the old regime gone and the new regime questioning her Nazi past and her licentious present.

We see Dietrich’s run-down bombed-out apartment. When we first see her she is in the most unglamorous position of brushing her teeth. She spits her mouthful at Lund and he grabs her and wipes his face on her hair. We see there is no tenderness to their relationship; that it is all business for her, and that his desire for her is accompanied by his contempt. She plays the role of the kitten as long as she’s getting presents. They are using each other, they both know and are both happy with the arrangement.

At the cabaret Dietrich sings about “the ruins of Berlin” and she is dolled up to the nines looking glamorous and svelte and utterly in command. The smoky room is full of civilians on a night out, American servicemen and jolly Russian servicemen who all mix with equanimity.

This is before the Russian blockade of Berlin and so the Russians are not viewed as the enemy yet. We are in the last days before the Cold War. They are shown, these actual conquerors of Berlin, as silly, playful, childlike comrades who sings songs and in a moment of jubilation grab a person from the crowd and throw him into the air like some college football rally. One Russian soldier is delighted when he is sold a Mickey Mouse watch by an American soldier on the black market. He can barely contain his excitement.

This is counterbalanced by Dietrich’s chilling remark, “What do you think it was like to be a woman in this town when the Russians first swept in?”  This is Wilder's restrained reference to the fact that tens of thousands of female Berliners were raped by Soviet soldiers.

And her deft mockery of America's untouchable superiority, “Wash your hands. Wash your lips. You’ve got so much soap in the United States.”

Millard Mitchell is the wry colonel who oversees Jean Arthur’s congressional visit and oversees John Lund’s mission to de-Nazify the Berlin population. But he knows something that John Lund does not. He knows that Marlene Dietrich was the consort of Nazi officials during the war, and moved in high circles. When Lund is eventually shown a newsreel of her partying with Hitler, he is sickened. Millard Mitchell also knows that there is a high-ranking Nazi official, a former lover of Marlene Dietrich, who was in hiding, but can be drawn out into the open by using Dietrich as a decoy.

John Lund is the epitome of the American problems in Berlin, a metaphor for our conflicted attitudes. On the one hand he has a duty to perform. He must stand back objectively and judge these people. On the other hand he wants to let bygones be bygones. And get what he can for himself.

The songs Marlene sings, about “lovely illusions” and the black market, and the ruins of Berlin, are presented like a good stage musical. They are not sung for diversion; rather they further the plot and tell the back story. Never was music employed in a non-musical in such an intelligent fashion. That’s Friedrich Hollaender at the piano, who wrote these songs and was Dietrich’s long-time accompanist and composer.

Billy Wilder walks a fine line in this movie and walks it very well. There is much cynicism, much political and social accusation against American hypocrisy, and in fact this movie was condemned on the floor the House of Representatives for its satirical treatment of Congress. The military complained because it showed them in a less than flattering light. But it is satire and is meant to hold a mirror up to ourselves.

We can tell who the liberals are among the congressmen and who are the conservatives: debate on the plane about giving the starving a loaf of bread, “that’s democracy”, but if you leave the wrapper on - i.e., let them know it’s from the Good Old USA - “that’s imperialism.” We have discussion of “dollar diplomacy”, about labor versus industry that still resonates today. We are about to leave a decade-long military involvement in Iraq, with reductions of troops as well in Afghanistan. These issues raised in Occupied Germany are still with us.

Congresswoman Jean Arthur icily rebukes Dietrich: “We increased our national debt by some 350 billion dollars to win this war. I would regard it as a waste of money if we didn’t eliminate types like you.”

How timely is that? We Americans have always demanded a return on our investment.

Conversely, we are reminded of the horrific regime that ruled here when Millard Mitchell takes the congressional committee, and us, on a Jeep ride with rear-screen projection of the Reichstag, and the Brandenburg Gate, and always sobering devastation of the ruins.

Dietrich tells Arthur, “Let’s go to my apartment. It’s only a few ruins away from here.”

Wilder softened the political edge by adding silly comedy that also works as a wonderful metaphor in this movie.

Both Wilder and Dietrich were hard, cynical people who came of age in a hard and cynical Berlin. They came to America and made their careers in a United States that was and always probably will be remain unabashedly sentimental. We are a nation addicted to happy endings. Neither Wilder nor Dietrich seemed entirely comfortable with wide-eyed optimism.

Millard Mitchell brings the congressional committee to watch German kids playing sandlot baseball taught to them by American soldiers. Mitchell remarks that a local family “has already christened a kid DiMaggio Schultz. That’s when I started believing we really won the war.”

Mitchell is a kind of narrator, a Greek chorus to the story, reminding us of American good intentions that must certainly soften things for Wilder if not for the message of the movie:

“When we moved into Berlin, we found open graves and closed hearts.”

“We’ve tried to make them free men and give them some dignity.”

Added to the soup is the ingredient of American sentimentality, and that is Jean Arthur who does it better than anybody else. Yes, she is foolish. But she is also resilient and strong and brings a sense of hope to the proceedings. She is the American that the Europeans love to mock, but whom they inevitably look to as an example of success. They see her derisively, and enviously, as being in her own protective little world and nothing can really hurt her. Almost nothing.

When John Lund, trying to throw her off her investigation, begins to woo her as a diversion, she falls for him. Jean Arthur has several excellent scenes. First there is a scene in the file room where she talks about a former beau, a fellow member of Congress from the South, and when she talks about her memory of him, her chirpy voice becomes slow and soft and gentle almost with a slight hint of the southern accent. There is a sad, lovely wistfulness to her behind the officious façade she presents.

But the façade is riot. She tells fellow Iowan John Lund news from back home, “We had the lowest juvenile delinquency rate in the country until two months ago. A little boy in Des Moines took a blow torch to his grandmother…We fell clear down to 16th place. It was humiliating.”

And she notes that Main Street had its name changed to Iwo Jima Boulevard -- the kind of memorializing that happened all over the US, which Wilder mocks with his crisp script and Miss Arthur’s incomparable delivery.

“You’re so naïve, you Americans,” Marlene teases John Lund.

“So we are. What of it?”

Lund, despite himself, begins to have feelings for Jean Arthur. He doesn’t fall head over heels - such violent passion might be too much for Wilder - but he grows protective of her. There is the sweet scene when she comes down a long staircase in a too large dress she bought on the black market, (Et tu, Congresswoman Frost?), when he is to take her out on a date.

“I look just awful. It’s like a circus tent in mourning for an elephant that died.” Her trademark running a fine line between humor and pathos. Nobody does it better.

Lund fixes the dress for her, adjusting the bodice and pinning it in the back with expert fashion sense, and then wipes the excess lipstick from her mouth with his handkerchief, and then swipes an ornate table covering for her shawl. He’s like all the mice in Cinderella helping her to get ready for her night on the town.

And what a night it is.

Her political sparring with Marlene is matched by her becoming a romantic rival for John Lund’s affections. Dietrich is wonderfully bold with Jean Arthur, caging the hostility she feels for this sanctimonious American with sleek, sophisticated sarcasm. She criticizes Arthur’s appearance, and with audacity at their first meeting, notes, “Perhaps if you would change the line of your eyebrows a bit,” as she slowly swipes her door key she has tossed out into the street for Lund, as a pointer, tracing Arthur’s brow with it. The gesture is sultry and brazen.

Later, she will attempt to humiliate Jean Arthur by encouraging her to sing in front of the cabaret audience. Arthur is reticent, but she’s also a bit tipsy, and belts out her old campaign song, the “Iowa Corn Song”.


I think it was Katharine Hepburn who was said that acting is like standing up naked and turning around very slowly.

Jean Arthur’s “Iowa Corn Song” rendition is like naked comedy.

She is pathetically awful, disarmingly hilarious, and ultimately endearing. She really gives it the old college try like nobody’s business. Have a look at the scene here, beginning at 8:06. Please remember to scroll down to the bottom of the page first and mute the music so you can hear the video.



There is no reason, ever, to doubt Jean Arthur’s superior acting ability, but if you did, just compare this performance with her next film role, “Shane” which we discussed here. Night and day. You wouldn’t know it was the same woman. She really had remarkable range.

This goofy gal changes yet again later on in the evening to a bitter, and emotionally violated woman. Dietrich, who first does her a favor by getting her out of trouble when the cabaret is raided by police, mercilessly sets her up, letting Jean observe from the shadows Dietrich’s true relationship with Lund.

Dietrich’s triumph over Jean is complete. “Four hours ago you were in a position to have him court martialed and send me to a labor camp. Not now. Not anymore. You’re one of us, now.”

The hostility between Marlene Dietrich’s and Jean Arthur’s characters is a driving force in this movie. The magnetism of these two actresses makes their face-offs fascinating and almost sensual, where in the hands of two other actresses the scenes might only be shrill and without depth. There is great power to their scenes together, and I think this is due more to their unique talents as actresses, rather than the fact that they disliked each other in real life.

Which they did.

Jean Arthur’s famous insecurity made working with Dietrich, who could be openly derisive to others and had industrial-strength self confidence, a nightmare. According to author Kevin Lally, Dietrich called Arthur, "That ugly woman with that terrible twang."  Dietrich also disliked John Lund. She got along with Wilder, with whom she shared many conversations in her dressing room in German about the Berlin of the old days, but even Wilder got on her bad side when he insisted she perform the scene where she parties with the Hitler look-alike.

Dietrich was openly anti-Nazi, and had won America’s Medal of Freedom for her efforts entertaining the troops during World War II. She may have reveled playing a hardened chanteuse, but being seen hanging on “Hitler’s” arm was too much for her.  Both Berliner and naturalized American, she may be the ultimate metaphor in this film for the conflicted emotions of the uneasy victor.

Jean Arthur was almost paranoid in her jealousy of Wilder’s attention to Dietrich, and perhaps in a moment of one-upmanship, insisted that she perform her own stunt when Congresswoman Frost is shown to be tossed into the air by the jolly, drunken Russian soldiers after her song at the cabaret. That’s really Jean Arthur you see getting chucked into the air.

According to the biography on Billy Wilder, “Wilder Times - The Life of Billy Wilder” (Henry Holt and Company, NY, 1996), author Kevin Lally notes that after the take was shot, “Arthur threw back her head and gave the director a piercing look. ‘What will you require next from me, Mr. Wilder?’” The crew and extras applauded her.

For his part, Billy Wilder was exasperated with one actress who constantly looked at herself in the mirror - Dietrich, and one who self-consciously refused to look in a mirror at all - Arthur.

It is interesting to compare the two women in real life. They were born about a year apart, and died about a year apart. Arthur hated stardom and avoided it. Dietrich craved stardom and worked harder on her screen image than her acting. Just before this film was made, Jean Arthur was attending college in the Midwest. She had left Hollywood after her Oscar-nominated role in “The More the Merrier” which we discussed here, to pursue university studies. I can’t think of any other actress, particularly at the top of her game and earning power, who would do this.

But she left school to do this film which she must have realized was a golden opportunity and possibly one of her last, to do screwball comedy.

Dietrich was fighting time as well. She had just become a grandmother, which according to her daughter, she did not like at all. She turned her career to real-life cabaret work and was a success, the irony being she really did not sing well. Jean Arthur, for all her foolishness during the “Iowa Corn Song” routine, had no less singing range than Dietrich.

But Dietrich had that powerful stage personality she created from girlhood, it was her bastion, and bread and butter. 

Until old age took it from her. In their senior years, Jean Arthur returned to college, this time to teach. Dietrich’s health began to fail, and her glamour waned, and she shut herself up in her Paris apartment, bedridden, a recluse who allowed only a very few to visit. 

Jean, who was reclusive her entire life to varying degrees, enjoyed a pleasanter old age in the company of a small group of friends, young and old, her pets, and her house by the Pacific Ocean. They both lived to be 90 years old.

Dietrich, who had been eschewed by Berlin for her pro-American stance in the war, is buried in Berlin, and much of her belongings have been bought by Berlin for a museum collection.


The film “A Foreign Affair” was not seen in Germany until 1977, (in West Germany), when at last, it was appreciated by a German audience. That it took so long to be seen there may be testament to the power of Billy Wilder’s biting political mockery. Comedy can be a dangerous thing.

Come back next Monday for our next in this series on Uneasy Victors when we stay in Berlin to tackle, “The Big Lift” (1950) with Montgomery Clift and Paul Douglas.

16 comments:

Nick said...

Very good article. Love Jean Arthur.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Nick. Glad to know Jean Arthur still has fans.

Stefan said...

Thanks for a wonderful article Jacqueline, you see so much more than I do! I'm going to rewatch this film right now.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Stefan. I don't really see more than you do; I just obsess over it more. Enjoy the movie.

Grand Old Movies said...

Excellent post! Marlene may not have had much of a voice, but she knew how to put a song over, and that's what counts. What I don't understand is why Arthur was given that absolutely hideous and unflattering hair style. But in her speech about seeing the boat (in the clip you included), she looks utterly radiant, as if transformed by a vision. A wonderful actress!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you. You're right, Marlene could work her material to full effect and knew how to use her persona. I guess Arthur was made to look unattractive to make her appear pathetic, and therefore comic. She went beyond that though, by the sheer force of her own abilities, and as you note, could still appear "utterly radiant".

panavia999 said...

My impression of Jean Arthur's look in the film was to make her appear very business like and unadorned. The complete opposite of the Dietrich character. Emphasizing her austereness, not dorkiness. Her look says, she is serious, business like and unhumorous. The character is so dedicated to her job (and pre-conceived notions) that she left her humor behind.
I love that business in the beginning with her packing her materials on the airplane It really establishes the character in few seconds.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

The tight braids across her crown certainly helped her become "Gretchen Gesundheit" when she wanted to hide her identify to the two dogfaced soldiers trying to lure her with candy.

policomic said...

Thanks for this wonderful article, which has me yearning to rewatch this film.

However Wilder might have regarded Jean Arthur (and however maddeningly insecure she may have been), there's something indomitable about her. I don't think I've ever seen a performance of hers where she failed to make me fall in love with her by the end of the film. John Lund never had a chance.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Well put, policomic. I love this: "John Lund never had a chance."

Indomitable, and adorable, she is.

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, I was wowed by your post about A FOREIGN AFFAIR, and fascinated by the backstory of both the film and the drama of the very real political difficulties in Berlin. It always surprises me when I find out certain actors are painfully shy or down on themselves; I can't decide whether they chose a career in acting so they wouldn't have to be themselves, or what. Then again, I also wonder if the rivalry between Marlene Dietrich and Jean Arthur made the film that much better because their rancor enriched the characterizations. Such a great post -- you rock!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Dorian. I agree that it's fascinating how some actors are drawn the profession because they are introverts. I don't know if the rivalry between the ladies helped the film, but I guess they were professional enough not to let it hurt the film.

Caftan Woman said...

"A Foreign Affair" is a movie that deserves several viewings to appreciate - well, it did for me. After each turn, Billy Wilder moved up another notch on his pedestal. You have given me even more to look for on that inevitable next viewing.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I think you're right, CW, that "A Foreign Affair" is better appreciated after seeing a few times.

Vienna said...

What a superb review and great pictures.
As a big fan of Jean Arthur I've enjoyed this film many times.
I often wonder if John Lund was Wilder's first choice for the male lead. But John was just perfect in the part. Just a shame it didn't lead to lots of big parts for him.
Still, he got to partner Barbara Stanwyck in NO MAN OF HER OWN, another favorite of mine.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Vienna, and that's a good point you raise about John Lund. I think Lund was great in this role, but I wonder if he was Wilder's first choice? A very good actor.