(director: Tay Garnett; screenwriters: story by Ladislas Fodor & Laslo Vadnai/John Meehan/Harry Tugend; cinematographer: Rudolph Mate; editor: Ted Kent; music: Hans Salter/Frank Skinner; cast: Marlene Dietrich (Bijou Blanche), John Wayne (Lt. Dan Brent), Albert Dekker (Dr. Martin), Broderick Crawford (Edward Patrick ‘Little Ned’ Finnegan), Anna Lee (Dorothy Henderson), Mischa Auer (Sasha Mencken), Oscar Homolka (Antro), Billy Gilbert (Tony), Samuel S. Hinds (Gov. Harvey Henderson), Reginald Denny (Captain Church); Runtime: 83; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Joe Pasternak; Universal; 1940)

“Marlene Dietrich thrives as the loose-living sexy chanteuse.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writers John Meehan and Harry Tugend base it on the story by Ladislas Fodor and Laslo Vadnai. Tay Garnett (“The Postman Always Rings Twice-1946”) does a fine job creating the riotous barroom mood where Marlene Dietrich thrives as the loose-living sexy chanteuse Bijou, who causes so much excitement that her appearances usually bring about a nightclub brawl and get her deported from a number of South Sea islands as an undesirable. After one such brawl, she’s deported with her navy deserter self-appointed protector Edward Patrick Finnegan (Broderick Crawford) and fellow admirer riff-raff magician, card sharp, and pickpocket Sasha (Mischa Auer). En route to her next stopover in Boni-Komba, she’s befriended by the ship’s alcoholic world-weary Dr. Martin (Albert Dekker). At Boni-Komba, Bijou oogles the handsome, broad-shouldered Lt. Dan Brent (John Wayne), who was sent by the island’s new governor, Harvey Henderson ( Samuel S. Hinds), to escort his ship-arriving daughter Dorothy Henderson back to her new residence. Bijou heads to the Seven Sinners Café and belts out a line from the song “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and is reunited with the befuddled café owner Tony (Billy Gilbert). He’s reluctant to give her a singing job because he remembers the last time she worked for him his place was wrecked. But knife-wielding bad dude Antro (Oskar Homolka) insists and she’s hired, as well as Finnegan as a bouncer and Sasha as a magician.

At a reception party for Dorothy, Brent dances with her. When he notices the other navy officers have left to attend Bijou’s performance and gush over her, he’s angered at their lack of respect and goes to the café to give them the business. Bijou dressed as a dyke in a navy uniform sings a song about liking a guy with broad-shoulders, and Brent admits to himself that he desires her. The two later meet in the street and begin a romance, but the governor forbids the slutty Bijou from attending a boat party for the navy. He requests that Brent’s superior Captain Church order Bijou off the ship. On board, she sings “I’ve Been in Love Before.” It turns out that both Brent and Bijou apparently love the navy even more than they love each other, so they agree to split. But first she must sing one more song for her navy boy at the café and that leads to a barroom brawl between Bijou’s would-be jealous suitor Antro and Brent. It concludes with Bijou leaving before she’s deported and hooking up again with the desperate Dr. Martin, while Brent ships out with the navy.

For some unfathomable reason the film was remade in 1950 as South Sea Sinner, and starred Shelley Winters and Liberace. I took a pass on that one; this one had the fun-loving Dietrich, who can make even a bad film passable, such as this one, if it’s played on her deliciously mischievous terms. It’s much like how von Sternberg used her as an icon, but without any of the emotional depth.