Golden Earrings, made by Paramount in 1947, is a decidedly odd little film. For one thing, given that the movie stars Ray Milland and Marlene Dietrich, you’d expect that the golden earrings of the title would be worn by Marlene Dietrich. In fact they’re worn by Ray Milland. And thereby hangs a tale.
It is 1946 and Major-General Ralph Denistoun (Milland) is a distinguished retired soldier. He’s well-liked and well-respected but there are a couple of intriguing mysteries about him. It is said that he was involved in a hush-hush cloak-and-dagger operation in Nazi Germany just before the war and had been captured. He came back a changed man. Changed for the better. He had been very much a regular army officer, all spit-and-polish and very proper and somewhat cold. When he returned he seemed to be a much more friendly and open chap, strangely happier and much warmer.
And the other mystery is, why on Earth does a retired British army officer have pierced ears?
An American journalist who encounters him rather hesitantly asks him about the ear piercings. Denistoun smilingly tells him it never was a secret, it’s just that no-one else had ever dared to ask him for an explanation. Denistoun then tells him his story.
Just before the outbreak of war Lieutenant-Colonel Denistoun (as he then was) and a young officer named Byrd were sent to Germany to make contact with a German scientist who had been working on a new poison gas. It all went horribly wrong and both Denistoun and Byrd were quickly captured. They managed to escape and then split up, arranging to rendezvous at a certain crossroads in a few days’ time.
On the night of his escape the weary and hungry Denistoun encounters a gypsy woman, Lydia (Marlene Dietrich). Oddly enough this gypsy woman was expecting him. The river spirits had told her that that night she would meet her man. One look at Ralph Denistoun and she is convinced that this is in fact the man for her.
Denistoun thinks this is silly superstitious gypsy nonsense but at the same time he is very hungry and he’s glad of the company and pretty soon he realises he might in fact be a lot safer travelling with Lydia than on his own. She’s strange and wild and rather uncouth and deeply eccentric but she knows the country and no-one takes much notice of gypsies. So Lydia turns him into a gypsy, with gypsy clothes and with his skin stained and with a pair of golden earrings. What he doesn’t yet know is that the earrings are more than just gypsy fashion accessories. They mean that he is now Lydia’s man.
The setup might lead you to believe that this is going to be an exciting spy adventure yarn but there’s actually not very much spy adventure stuff in this movie. It is very much a love story, and a very unconventional one.
Denistoun soon finds that he’s grown rather fond of this gypsy woman, despite some of her more outré habits (such as cleaning fish in bed and smearing cod liver oil on her hair, and even more disturbingly on his hair as well). With Lydia’s help he is able to evade recapture and eventually make his contact with the German scientist. And of course he is able to return safely to England after his mission (which is not a spoiler since we have known right from the start that Denistoun made it back to England). Along the way he finds himself having to fight the chief of the gypsy band, a man named Zoltan, with the prize being Lydia. After the fight Denistoun and Zoltan find themselves the best of friends.
But what happens to Denistoun and Lydia at the end? You’ll have to watch the movie to find that out.
This very offbeat romance is really so strange that it has no right to succeed, but somehow Milland and Dietrich make it work. They’re both terrific and they have a perfect chemistry - not so much a sexual chemistry (although that’s certainly part of it) as a warm and affectionate chemistry. We really do believe that this mismatched couple could fall in love.
There’s also some gentle humour, something that both Milland and Dietrich prove themselves to be very good at.
Mitchell Leisen directed and while he’s not perhaps the most visually inspired of directors it’s difficult to fault the job he does here. The screenplay, by Abraham Polonsky, Helen Deutsch and Frank Butler, is warm-hearted and amusing.
This movie is available on DVD as part of Universal’s superb Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection boxed set and the transfer is faultless.
Not a great movie perhaps but a thoroughly enjoyable and quirky love story that offers Dietrich the opportunity to have a wonderful time overacting outrageously but very entertainingly. Recommended.