Friday, May 26, 2023

Billy Wilder’s Adult ‘A Foreign Affair’ 1948


Jean Arthur & Marlene Dietrich square off in Billy Wilder's post-war comedy-drama,
 1948's "A Foreign Affair."

Even for Billy Wilder, setting an adult comedy-drama like A Foreign Affair in the ruins of post-WWII Germany was pushing the envelope. Wilder shot most of the footage for this film in Berlin, a city in ruins, making it a most bleak backdrop. Billy's forte for balancing acerbic comedy mixed with adult drama miraculously works. Wilder’s humanity is clear beneath the surface cynicism over the spoils of post-war life. A Foreign Affair is a nearly flawless satiric comedy, unless you’re expecting the slapstick of Howard Hawks’ I Was a Male War Bride.

Love this foreign poster for Billy Wilder's 1948 "A Foreign Affair."

Wilder’s critics mistake his cynical attitude as uncaring. Billy may be a curmudgeon, but he does cares—very much so. Billy Wilder who served the US as a film maker during WWII, wanted to show what war had wrought.

Jean Arthur as Congresswoman Phoebe Frost, checking on the morale--and morals!--
of American soldiers in post-war Berlin, in Billy Wilder's "A Foreign Affair."

Jean Arthur plays the lone female member of a congressional committee sent to Berlin to check on the morale of U.S. soldiers. She soon finds it’s their morals that need to be held in check! John Lund’s Army captain plays both sides to the middle, getting his job done, while bending the rules to enjoy the spoils. One of these is Marlene Dietrich’s German nightclub singer, whom Lund lavishes with black market gifts for her favors. All three disparate characters undergo a change of heart and attitude during A Foreign Affair.

Could be just the timing, but Jean Arthur's body language looks less at ease than
Marlene Dietrich's, on the set of Billy Wilder's "A Foreign Affair."

It’s commendable that Billy Wilder cast two actresses he admired, despite even by the late 1940s, with divas in their late ‘40s, was more than a bit unusual. Leading man John Lund was a decade younger than both—usually such casting was the other way around!

Marlene Dietrich gets to use her seldom utilized flair for sardonic comedy as the cynical chanteuse Erika, whose side she is on is whoever’s in power. She is warm, sexy, complicated, pragmatic, and worldly. Marlene gets to warble three numbers by Friedrich Hollaender, which underline the action. “Black Market,” in particular, gives movie audiences a chance to observe Dietrich’s interpretation of a song that would make her a concert legend.

Billy Wilder watches as Marlene Dietrich's about to sing a number in "A Foreign Affair."

Jean Arthur makes her comedic last hurrah as the mid-west politician there to inspect morale. However, she gets caught up in some questionable morals herself! As Iowa-proud Phoebe Frost, Jean Arthur goes from comic perfectionist to a romantic whose steel trap mind slowly opens up for love. I’m not a die-hard fan of Jean Arthur’s eccentric persona by any means, but she was aces as a comedic actress who could segue into drama with ease.

Nothing escapes Jean Arthur's congresswoman, except that she's about to fall in love,
in 1948's "A Foreign Affair."

John Lund, as Captain John Pringle, was considered the weak link of A Foreign Affair’s romantic triangle. Paramount was then trying to give Lund the buildup, but it’s too bad Wilder hadn’t discovered William Holden yet, also a Paramount star. Also, Tyrone Power could have been quite good, as Ty and Marlene proved a decade later in Witness for the Prosecution. Wilder liked John Lund a great deal, thought while he was a solid actor, but correctly felt that Lund didn't have the star quality to hold up his end with these two dynamic divas. Especially since post-war, films were back to the male star dominating the show.

Marlene Dietrich & John Lund pose for publicity photos, in 1948's "A Foreign Affair."

Wilder was disappointed by the reception that A Foreign Affair received, but it got mostly good reviews, and it was a moderate box office hit, making around $150 million in today’s dollars. There are some biting lines by screenwriters Wilder and Charles Brackett about the spoils of war that still sting today. A Foreign Affair is intelligent, adult, with some memorable set pieces. 

Billy Wilder found Marlene Dietrich easy to get along with...
Jean Arthur, not so much! On the set of "A Foreign Affair."

Though two actresses couldn’t be more opposite, Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich shared some interesting similarities in their later careers, despite their essential differences.

Jean was a year older than Marlene. Arthur was born in October, 1900 and Dietrich was born in late December, 1901. While Marlene Dietrich moved heaven and earth to look eternally young her entire career, Arthur actually looked youthful her entire public life. Now, while Jean fretted about how she was photographed (Wilder was one of several who cited this) and she probably used wigs, tapes, and makeup tricks as well, Arthur always looked like “herself.” Whereas as time went by, Marlene's face looked like a glamorous mask of her former self, much like the latter day Cher. Off-camera photos of older Arthur shows some lines, but essentially looking like herself, much like Doris Day when she retired. Coincidentally, they both retired to Carmel—a showbiz Shangri-la? 

Jean Arthur looked amazing at 66 in her short-lived 1966 sitcom.

Arthur's insecurities resulted in her only acting intermittently from the mid-1940s on. Sadly, Jean dropped out of two stage classics, Born Yesterday and Peter Pan (though she did perform the latter briefly.) Typically, most film stars’ final movies or roles are reduced, yet Arthur had the biggest hit in her film finale, 1953’s Shane. Thereafter, she only acted before the camera on two TV shows, Gunsmoke, and The Jean Arthur Show, cancelled after 12 episodes. And Jean looked amazing at 66!

Marlene Dietrich segued from movie star to sequined concert star. Here she is,
at nearly 75, before a fall ended her performing career.

Marlene Dietrich's films became more infrequent after the war years, as well. However, there were some diamonds amongst the dross: Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, and Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg. Along the way, Dietrich became a concert performer, giving her a whole new career. Marlene performed until 1975, when a final fall caused her to break a hip. 

Jean Arthur at 75, with Melvyn Douglas, on stage in "First Monday in October."

Both Jean and Marlene essentially retired after 1975. Arthur performed a handful of stage performances with Melvyn Douglas in First Monday in October. Marlene only made two more films after the '75 fall: a cameo in 1979's Just a Gigolo and then audio recordings by director Maximilian Schell for the 1984 documentary, Marlene

Marlene Dietrich, giving pesky paparazzi hell, in the early '70. Go, Marlene!

Though Marlene Dietrich enjoyed public life, Jean Arthur didn't. Yet both became reclusive the last years of their lives. When Marlene died, there was a huge funeral, attended by thousands of people in Germany. With Jean, at her request, there was no funeral. Jean Arthur died in 1991 at age 90. A year later, Marlene Dietrich died at the same age.

A Foreign Affair is an adult take on a movie love story, mixing clever comedy with heartfelt romance, with a smart view on life after war.

Here’s my take on Jean Arthur’s last film, the western classic Shane:

Here’s my look at one of Marlene Dietrich’s final films, Billy Wilder’s all-star courtroom mystery, Witness for the Prosecution:


The cinematic triangle of Billy Wilder's "A Foreign Affair": Marlene Dietrich,
John Lund, & Jean Arthur.




  1. loulou de la falaiseJune 1, 2023 at 10:38 AM

    I remember Marlena vigorously brushings her teeth with all that toothpaste foam!

    1. That was considered a risque moment back in '48, and Wilder's co-writer Brackett hated it! I think it's charming!

  2. I really enjoyed "A Foreign Affair." A postwar comedy and rubble film for adults. Your write-up is very informative. And for once, I could read all the way through on the first go-round because I had already seen the film!

    Have you read the novel "Delayed Rays of a Star"? The main characters are movie people: Marlene, Anna Mae Wong, and Lina Riefenstahl! I enjoyed that too, but it's very different.

    1. Thanks, Marianne! And I will look up the novel, sounds intriguing. Cheers, Rick