Sunday, February 25, 2007

DIETRICH - and the rest says it all

by nick zegarac

“If she had nothing more than her voice she could break your heart with it. But she has that beautiful body and the timeless loveliness of her face. It makes no difference how she breaks your heart if she is there to mend it.”
Ernest Hemmingway

Any vane attempt at quantifying what made Marlene Dietrich such an enduring iconic figure over the last 100 years presents the film historian with an immediate quandary. She was not filmdom’s greatest movie star, nor the stage’s most prolific chanteuse. Yet she dominated and captivated her audiences both on the screen and in live performance. While others of her generation were in a constant scramble to redevelop their own ‘image,’ Dietrich just ‘was;’ existing in a vacuum of her own device, and, quite fascinating no matter the venue.

At the peak of her career in the mid-1930s, Dietrich was Hollywood’s highest paid actress; the symbol and very essence of screen eroticism and sexual androgyny. Dietrich’s own frankness about this tabloid curiosity, surrounding her own rumored bi-sexuality, was summated by the great lady with In America sex is an obsession. In other parts of the world it is a fact!”

Like that other luminous European magnet of her generation – Greta Garbo – Dietrich was more of a presence than mere body; a movement rather than image. She seemed to appear as ageless spirit – supple and pure and free of earthly bonds. If Garbo was the movie’s sphinx, Dietrich was its haunting enigma; a ravishing creature of immense contradictions – both personal and professional. She was, and remains, the celebrity’s perennially radiant sun.

There was little in her youth to suggest as much – a period in her life that Dietrich kept secretive and silent while others were penning their tell-all memoirs later in life.
She was born Maria Magdelena in Berlin Germany. But the date initially published – 1904 – has since been proven off by at least three years. She was, in fact, given life on Dec. 27, 1901 - the stepdaughter of Edourad von Losch. Her real father, Erich Otto Dietrich was part of the aristocracy – a Prussian officer who died while Dietrich was still an infant.

Dietrich studied violin – her first love - and acting at the Deutsche Theaterschule. She made her film debut in a very brief walk-on in 1923’s Der Kleine Napoleon. A modestly more substantial role in Tragodie der Liebe the following year garnered Dietrich some encouraging notices. But more to the point, it introduced her to production assistant, Rudolph Sieber – her husband. The two were married when Dietrich learned she was pregnant. A daughter, Maria was born to the couple the following year.

Driven to succeed, but quickly tiring of her lack of advancement in films, Dietrich worked diligently in a series of undistinguished minor roles, usually as the coquettish socialite, most notably and effectively in G.W. Pabst’s Die Freudlose Gasse (1924), before departing for a two year self-imposed ‘retirement.’ She was hardly idle. Apart from her duties as wife and mother, Dietrich became a main staple of the cabaret circuit. She resurfaced periodically in films in 1926’s Manion Lescaut and Alexander Korda’s Madame Wuenscht Keine Kinder.

Yet, it was live performance that captivated and consumed Dietrich during this period. She seemed naturally at home on the stage and was able to communicate intimately with her audiences. So the legend goes, premiere director of German films, Joseph von Sternberg caught her act in the cabaret; Zwei Kravatten and instantly cast her in his pending film project; Der Blaue Engel (1930).
After screening a rough cut of the film, Paramount executives offered Dietrich her first American film – Morocco. Within several months, Dietrich had back-to-back successes playing in New York City. Overnight, she had become an international star.

In an unprecedented move, Paramount embarked upon an aggressive publicity campaign; signing Dietrich to a long-term contract and announcing in the trades that they had ‘discovered’ a star to rival the supremacy of MGM’s Greta Garbo. Their enthusiasm was perhaps a shay premature.

Dishonored (1931) was meant to combat Garbo’s rival like-themed spy thriller, Mata Hari. It was a smash, but judged by many critics as a thinly veiled attempt at copying, rather than emulating Garbo’s mystique. Shanghai Express (1932) followed – an infinitely more satisfying and original film that solidified Von Sternberg and Dietrich’s combined success.

Success and popularity, however, were short lived. A series of ill-timed projects, beginning with Blonde Venus (1932) in which Dietrich’s ambivalent sexuality proved more off-putting that erotic for American audiences, served only to illustrate the great divide between Europe’s more relaxed sexual morays and America’s rigidity. Rather than rethinking their strategy, Paramount – as MGM had done with Garbo and her mentor; Swedish director, Mauritz Stiller - chose to separate star and director.

The move was only partly for the sake of art and profit. Earlier in the year, Dietrich had been named in an ‘alienation of affection’ suit filed by von Sternberg’s wife. Dietrich, who neither denied nor confirmed that she and her director had had an affair, later mused about the accusation, saying, “Once a woman has forgiven a man she must not reheat his sins for breakfast.”

Tepid box office continued to plague Dietrich’s next few filmic ventures; The Song of Songs (1933) was only a minor embarrassment. But the lavishly mounted and costly epic The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil is A Woman (1934) were colossal financial flops that threatened to push Paramount’s balance sheet into the red.
Clearly, von Sternberg’s vision had run its course. Amidst a flurry of speculation that both von Sternberg and Dietrich would leave Hollywood and go back to Germany (Chancellor Adolph Hitler had, in fact, ordered Dietrich to return to her native land), von Sternberg instead went public with a statement that he had taken his star as far as he could and would henceforth beg off future projects.

Paramount quickly launched Dietrich into a light-hearted comedy, Ernest Lubitsch’s Desire (1936) – a solid and quantifiable hit that suggested to executives that Dietrich might become a very lucrative comedian. However, quite unhappy with Lubitsch’s handling of I Loved A Solider (1936), Dietrich was loaned to producer David O. Selznick for a lavishly mounted Technicolor melodrama, The Garden of Allah (1936). Though Dietrich looked ravishing in color, the film was a rather abysmal and leaden excursion that failed to catch the public’s fascination. By all accounts, it appeared as though Hollywood might have no place for their most exotic foreign star.


“....this woman was not created by contemplation to be what everyone wants her to be, one for many. She emerges, is displayed, her wings rise, and, behold, she returns the look!”
-Elfriede Jelinek

Indeed, “the look” was beginning to run into minor controversy on the Paramount backlot by the time Dietrich reluctantly agreed to appear in Ernest Lubitsch’s Angel (1937); a project that rekindled her frequent and heated disagreements with the director.
Even before the production wrapped, a disquieting rumor began to surface; that Dietrich was a star too much in love with her own image and quite unable to work with anyone whose opinions contradicted her own. Her reputation worsened after director Mitchell Leisen refused her for his film, French Without Tears. Following even more diminished box-office returns, Paramount quietly bought out the rest of Dietrich’s contract, ending their association.

It was during this brief absence from the screen that Dietrich quietly developed her love/hate relationship with the studios. In the years to come, the studios would borrow heavily on Dietrich’s international fame – a trade for which Dietrich received hefty paychecks. In Germany, however, she was seen as something of a sell-out; denounced for her noncompliance with Hitler’s ‘requests’ to return to her homeland. Henceforth, her films were banned in Germany.

Meanwhile in Hollywood, for nearly two years Dietrich was virtually unemployable. Though projects were frequently proposed and rumors of a ‘comeback’ populated the fan magazines of the day, audiences had cooled to her once captivating asexuality. Undaunted, by the downturn in her popularity, Dietrich accepted $50,000 – a fraction of her usual salary – to appear opposite James Stewart in Universal’s Destry Rides Again (1939). A surprise smash, Dietrich was quickly snapped up by Universal Studios.

Her follow-up, Seven Sinners (1940) continued Dietrich’s resurrection, as did Rene Clair’s The Flame of New Orleans (1941) – though the latter lacked artistic distinction. But then came a trio of flops – The Lady is Willing, The Spoilers and Pittsburgh (all in 1942). Resigned to do something else with her life, Dietrich left films for nearly two years – embarking on a tireless tour to entertain American troupes, raise money and help sell war bonds.

Appearing frequently at The Hollywood Canteen, Dietrich was a popular favorite amongst service men, despite – or perhaps because of her defiance to return to Germany. But she was quick to set less glamorous women at ease with her no nonsense critique of what men found attractive. “The average man,” she reasoned, “…is more interested in a woman who is interested in him, than he is in a woman with beautiful legs.”

Dietrich solidified her contempt for the Nazis by becoming a U.S. citizen in 1943 and frequently appearing on the radio with anti-Nazi broadcasts. “The Germans and I,” she declared, “…no longer speak the same language.” Awarded America’s Medal of Freedom and France’s prestigious Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, Dietrich became a galvanic figure in the pro-Allied resistance.

MGM offered her a luscious part in their lavish – if absurd – Arabian Nights tale, Kismet (1944) opposite Ronald Colman. She also appeared as part of the all-star wartime cavalcade in Follow The Boys (1944).
But controversy dogged Dietrich’s refusal to appear in Marcel Carne’s Les Portes de la Nuit. Then considered Frances foremost director, Carne was not accustomed to dealing with selective actors. Dietrich found the script appalling and stuck to her guns. Marked as an obvious snub, her decision yielded negative reviews when she subsequently starred for Carne in Martin Roumagnac (1946).

Returning to the United States, Dietrich made back-to-back modest successes with Golden Earrings (1947) and A Foreign Affair (1948). The birth of a granddaughter that same year earned the star the moniker, “the world’s most glamorous grandmother.”
One of Dietrich’s most satisfying performances followed, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950). Cast as the haughty star of England’s music halls, Dietrich would later revive the character of Charlotte Inwood as part of her stage show repertoire in the late ‘60s.

If Hollywood’s fascination with Dietrich seemed secure, the feeling was not mutual. Reuniting with James Stewart for No Highway in the Sky (1951) and then appearing in Rancho Notorious (1952), Dietrich officially bowed out of film-making for the next four years. Seemingly content to tour the United States, performing her trademark songs with a rather risqué monologue, Dietrich’s popularity as an all around entertainer continued to grow.

Though she refused the opportunity to star in several film projects during this period, Dietrich found the concept of performing a cameo for producer Michael Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days (1956) irresistible. Appearing for less than three minutes of actual screen time, Dietrich’s stint in Todd’s all star-spectacle paved the way for a starring role in The Monte Carlo Story (1957) a maudlin and rather careworn melodrama.

Dietrich was better served by her turn as the spurned wife of a man suspected of murder in Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Orson Welles’ pursued Dietrich for the role of a proprietress of a rather seedy bar/whorehouse in his penultimate directorial stint in the now classic, Touch of Evil (1958). The latter’s dynamic failure at the box office was enough to convince Dietrich that she and the movies had reached a crossroads.

Again, Dietrich vanished from the filmic spotlight – this time for three years, until Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). It was a part tailor-made for Dietrich. As the stoic, broken-hearted Madame Bertholt, Dietrich embodied the prewar woman trapped in postwar sensibilities. Accolades followed, but they were superseded by the abysmal public response to Dietrich’s last film; Paris When It Sizzles (1964). It was the end of an era. Marlene Dietrich would never again return to the cinematic spotlight.


“Marlene - with the unambiguous allure of the woman of yesterday and the ambiguous charm of the woman of today who has man not only about her but also within her.”
- Hanna Schygulla

The final act of Marlene Dietrich’s life probably brought her the most personal satisfaction. “I never liked making movies,” she once told a reporter. But Dietrich loved to perform. She launched into one of the most ambitious intercontinental stage tours ever – appearing across the world to record sell-out crowds.

Her shows consisted largely of personal reflections peppered with Dietrich’s inimitable gift for poking fun at her own glamorous image, all the while retaining that impeccable luster that was at odds with her commentary.
“How do you know love is gone?” she once mused, “If you said that you would be there at seven and you get there by nine, and he or she has not called the police yet - it's gone.”

Playing to the crowd as an icon of love and love making, Dietrich turned everything into a private joke and let the audience in on it for a few hours. “Latins are tenderly enthusiastic,” she would say, “In Brazil they throw flowers at you. In Argentina they throw themselves.”
Dietrich continued on a schedule that most actresses half her age would have found exhausting. She even came full circle, returning to Berlin by invitation, where it seems the intervening years had mellowed public animosity over her earlier defection and denouncement of her people.

By the end of the 1970s, Dietrich curtailed her public appearances to all but a sporadic few. Instead, she withdrew into the insular sanctuary of her Paris apartment, content to let the years take hold. Ill health confined her to bed for the last twelve years of her life, but she maintained active in her telephone conversations and correspondences with close friends and associates saying, “It’s the friends you can call up at 4am that matter!”

On May 6, 1992, Marlene Dietrich died in her sleep. Services were held at La Madelaine in Paris on May 10, and her last request to be buried next to her mother in Berlin was honored on May 16, 1992. “When you’re dead, you’re dead. That’s it,” Dietrich was fond of saying.

So, what would she make of her enduring legacy now - over ten years removed from her own passing and some fifty years distanced from her last major film role?

Well, Dietrich once said that the only place to see courage and grace were in the bullring – yet, in her own meteoric rise to international fame, her numerous setbacks and multiple comebacks, she exhibited both the courage to defy any obstacles set in her path, and the grace not to harbor lingering resentment for those discouragements along the way.
In this final assessment, Marlene Dietrich was perhaps ultimately mistaken about death – most certainly about her own. She continues to live on – in spirit, memory and simply, as an enduring icon, the allure of which time has been quite powerless to distill.

“She remains what she has been for many years - an absolutely strange delight, whose gift lies outside her achievement as an actress, is not tied to a specific time and does not depend on the taste of the moment, not even on common sense.”
- Cecil Beaton
@Nick Zegarac 2007 (all rights reserved).

Friday, February 02, 2007


The 1930s are gone...but oh, how their memories linger on!
In retrospect, and unlike the 1930s in life, the 1930s on film were a decade of elegance, glamour and Garbo. Coming of age as they did at just the right moment when America – beginning its slow recovery from the stock market crash and dust bowls, needed its inimitable escapist daydream; the movies and 30s Hollywood were both a continuation of those hedonist heydays that had transformed the fledgling industry into its own empire, and, the beginning of the end of their all pervasive supremacy as the sole purveyors in mass entertainment.
If films did not present the world as it was, they fairly accurately reflected a collective wish fulfillment from a society desperate to believe that the worse was behind them; that better days were still ahead.

It is only in retrospect that the year 1939 is sited as the single most influential and probably, most artistic moment in the history of Hollywood; a flourish of technical prowess awash in a zenith of star talent. Yet, it is important to recognize that neither Hollywood nor its critics then regarded film with much appreciation. In fact, there was a considerable disdain applied by both critics and intellectuals to the Friday night ritual of ‘going to the movies.’

If films were regarded at all outside of the glittering Mecca that produced them, and, apart from their diversionary effectiveness on the masses, then the stories Hollywood told were viewed as incendiary and needlessly flamboyant.
The Catholic League of Decency in particular began to interpret the movies as subversive propaganda put forth by the more liberal cultural mandarins of their day. The movies were dangerous; mildly addictive and cathartic aphrodisiacs imposed on the unsuspecting viewer with subliminal indoctrinations and hidden political agendas. They would surely lead to the downfall of contemporary society.
True to its bottom line, Hollywood dismissed these misperceptions as clearly out of touch with what the general public wanted, expected, and by the limited understanding of their largely uneducated studio moguls, desperately required to anesthetize them from the horrors of poverty. Where else could a meager farmer living in Omaha Nebraska get the opportunity to see the caliber of spectacle as presented in, say, Marie Antoinette (1938) for example, except within the darkened recesses of his local theatre?

No, the movies were an honorable estate – at least, so far as the studio dream merchants were concerned. Indeed, it was difficult to argue with their success. By 1934, Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (the most technically proficient and artistically accomplished of all dream factories) was the highest paid individual in America. Mayer, who scarcely a decade before had been the son of a struggling junk dealer and modest investor in a string of movie houses and his own fledgling production company, ascended to the throne as undisputed ruler of his kingdom – Hollywood’s Raja, so aptly dubbed, for his authoritarian rule dictated the continued success of MGM for many years to come.

The studio system, less than ten years old, a mere neophyte in the art of motion pictures had become an industrial/artistic colossus; a cultural leviathan; an factory-like complex with each studio producing and releasing one movie per week – to say nothing of the countless short subjects, cartoons, news reels and B-pictures that became main staples throughout the 1930s. Mayer and his contemporaries (Darryl Zanuck, Jack Warner, Carle Lemmle, et al) wielded their autonomous scrutiny and control over public tastes.

There was no television, no foreign market to intervene in these halcyon days. If anything Hollywood had monopolized its foreign market – circling and saturating the globe with the celluloid likenesses of Gable, Crawford and Cooper until they and the system were the envy of the world.

Perhaps, in part because Hollywood studios were mass entertainment personified, those seated behind their imposing desks inside the front offices were more nuanced in generating diversity in their product, marking their territory with a distinction in costume, lighting and set design that undeniably established each studio’s output distinctly from its competition.
If these same moguls began the decade with only an abundance of faith, pride and blind ambition to guide them in their new-fangled transference from Nickelodeon to movie palace, by the end of the decade that faith and ambition had yielded enduring and emblematic masterworks; two since made iconic touchstones of our collective consciousness (The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind – 1939), each a definitive example of what the Hollywood of yesteryear exemplified: resplendent escapism.

They were, of course, working from extraordinary material and from a seemingly untapped infinite wealth of contracted thespian talent unequaled in their diversity and proficiency since. Though Hollywood has always been a sucker for pretty faces, in the thirties at least, good looks and youth were not everything.

One of the most endearing aspects about films of the 1930s is their rich affinity for grandfatherly/motherly and parental figures, helmed by old hands (Will Rogers, Lionel Barrymore, Charles Grapewin) and hams (Marie Dressler, Edna May Oliver, Charles Winninger) with equal aplomb. These dexterous performers both looked and behaved according their years. Theirs was a celebration of the twilight of life that Hollywood sought, if not to place at the forefront of its motion picture output, then as solid backup to anchor their stories in a sort of cultural permanence strangely absent from today’s film culture.

In fact, the spectrum of talent acquired and fostered by the studios throughout the ‘30s ran the gamut in maturity, from child star Shirley Temple to aged George Arliss; from teenage Judy Garland to established Flora Robson; from dashing twenty-something Robert Taylor to wily boulevardier Frank Morgan. Diversity also was reflected in the background that actors possessed before becoming stars; from the seemingly overnight discovery of sweater girl Lana Turner inside Schwab’s drug store to the dedicated athleticism of ice skater Sonja Henie or from champion Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmueller; to radio personality Bing Crosby – each new star was a total original in this burgeoning firmament.

If American talent was in more high demand than the sultry Europeans who had been the main staples less than a decade before, this new surge of flag wavers did little to fade the popularity of intercontinental charmers like Maurice Chevalier, Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and of course, the ever-mysterious and illusive Garbo. Talent was where one found it, and Hollywood proved Dorothy’s adage; that there indeed was “no place like home”.

That philosophy extended to shooting schedules as well. Except for the occasional trek ‘on location’ to a handful of privately owned and appropriately rustic ‘ranches’ in the general vicinity, all film production resumed on the studio’s illustrious backlots or inside their cavernous stages that had been erected to accommodate sound recording in late 1929.

Whatever the mood, flavor or background of a particular project, the studios relied on their armies behind the curtain; craftsman, set designers, construction workman, engineers and their formidable art departments to evoke the flair of a stylized New York or ultra chic Paris. If what was depicted on screen was not historically ‘accurate’ it at least represented a reconstitution of places that most of the paying public, recovering from the great depression, were not likely to witness first hand in their lifetimes.

Necessity and healthy competition expedited the film factory’s journey from one reel silent features to lavish sound and Technicolor spectacles. Yet the transition had not been a smooth one. For example, few sitting inside those mausoleum-like early recording booths, fretting over the heartbeat of an actress overpowering her dialogue, could have predicted how efficiently movies graduated from the early stilted complexities of The Jazz Singer (1929) to the swirling smoothness in The Great Waltz (1938). Nor could anyone have forecast that the cumbersome two strip Technicolor process used to photograph key sequences in the silent, Ben-Hur (1929) would eventually eclipse the artistry of black and white photography, the then presumed enduring main staple for the industry.

What is remarkable about the 1930s; that brief span culminating with the penultimate moment that was 1939 – now, almost a forgotten flicker in that immense cavalcade of movie art - is how effortlessly steeped in positivism the output was. In part, due to that self-regulating ‘code’ of ethics that precluded the movies from offering anything but life-affirming, sexless, ‘justice will overcome’ edicts, sanctioned by the Breen office, film art presented the world to the world as a wonderland full of extraordinary possibilities; a luminous manufactured dreamscape that one quickly became disillusioned not to find in nature.

The early days of the gritty gangster, typified by The Public Enemy or Little Caesar (both in 1931), were translated into more glamorous – if tempered - fare about the underworld by the end of the decade (The Roaring Twenties 1939). But more to the point, such explorations into corruption, and those investigating fear – perhaps best exemplified by Universal’s monster series (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy et al) - were increasingly being replaced in popularity by the fanciful Astaire/Rogers or Busby Berkeley musicals, sumptuous costume dramas (Anna Karenina 1935, Maytime 1937) and light-hearted all-star comedies (Dinner At Eight 1933, The Women 1939).

Not surprising then, the alternatives Hollywood cultivated for its patrons were in essence regressive portraits of positivism that systematically ignored the forward looming motion of world events. Thirties films took on history, but with a glittering sheen and star studded patina that extolled the greatness of mankind while discounting its perverse atrocities. They deified historical vignettes, sufficiently removed from the present to allow for a re-visitation through rose-colored glasses.

As a rule of thumb minorities were excluded from the ‘30s white paradise. Those who had made modest inroads into the community during the ‘20s, like the less offensive Anna May Wong gave way to the more atypical stereotype of Charlie Chan. Native Americans were perennially depicted as blood-thirsty cutthroat savages; orientals, to be mistrusted; Mexicans quaint, though feeble-minded. African Americans, arguably the most highly visible and profiled minority in 30s films were background fodder and comic relief; butlers, valets, maids or other menial labor.

To illustrate these shortcomings is to accept them as part of the American tapestry of life rather than stand in contemporary judgment to condemn the cultural mindset that went into crafting its works of art. The Hollywood product of the ‘30s is distinctly American for that period in American history. The best American films of this vintage are unique in that even today they retain their ability to entertain us.

Long after the death of individual craftsman and the studio system - under which such confections of ‘light’ entertainment could only have been made possible – Hollywood’s best loved and most fondly remembered 30s films exist as enduring reflections. In the final analysis, 30s cinema presented the world not as it was, but as we would have liked it to have been and continue, at least on some subliminal level, to hope in vain that it may someday become.

The movies offer glimpses into imperfect moments in history, yet always with the most idyllic frames of reference. We are entertained, not indoctrinated, and led to no finite conclusions – apolitical or otherwise – other than coming to the realization that we have been made a little bit better for the experience. The recent compost that is our movie-going exercise is perhaps more culturally sensitive, though far from being more culturally advanced.

What the 1930s represent best is a level of craftsmanship and artistry that can never be equaled. True, it is a world of cliché, but presented to the paying public at a time before ‘cliché’ itself could be applied with any degree of certainty.
To assuage cultural mistakes as obvious does not degenerate the timeless allure of these movies into the oft’ bastardization of incremental nostalgia. In fact, it only serves to reinforce the resiliency of movies as art. Never again in the history of American films would any one decade become so entrenched in our collective cultural consciousness. We continue to leave 1930s celluloid confections with a smile – an enduring emotional response, both heart warming and life affirming.
In the immortal words of George Gershwin
“Who could ask for anything more?”


After a chaotic period of retooling their dream factories for sound recording, the movies settled in for a heady decade of production. Ironically, war pictures proved the most popular with Universal’s All Quiet On The Western Front winning the Best Picture Oscar. As Hollywood struggled with the fact that many of their greatest silent stars spoke with thick foreign accents or perceivable lisps exaggerated by early microphones, the era of the talent scout was born. Actors with even the most scant résumé made the journey to Hollywood in the hopes of becoming famous. While Broadway experience was still regarded as the golden ticket – many on the Great White Way regarded film as ‘dumb show’ and downgrade from their present artistic stature.

Burgeoning new talents were Jean Harlow and John Wayne. Harlow’s inexperience was painfully on display in Howard Hughes’ Hells Angels – though two-strip Technicolor and a harrowing bi-plane action sequence seemed to mask her shortcomings where the public was concerned. Wayne appeared as a western extra and stunt rider, churning out an endless string of ‘B’ movies for Monogram – a poverty row studio. Director John Ford saw something in the lanky young man and recommended him to Raoul Walsh for The Big Trail – a film shot in an experimental widescreen process (a precursor to Cinemascope that would stay buried until the 50s).

Wayne was such an abysmal bomb that his fledgling career practically ended before it had begun. Comedian Harold Lloyd made one of his last great comedies, Feet First. The man of a thousand faces, Lon Chaney starred in his only ‘talkie’ The Unholy Three before succumbing to cancer on Aug. 26. Marlene Dietrich and Humphrey Bogart were signed to studio contracts – she at Paramount, he at Warner Bros. By all accounts, and the ledgers, it was full steam ahead.


James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson exploded onto the screen in The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. Moral activists decried both films as glorification of the gangster life. By now, 85% of movie houses in the United States were equipped for sound. Working with inferior equipment, studios nevertheless managed to refine their recording techniques.
The last silent star to speak – Garbo – made a resounding success of Eugene O’Neill’s seedy waterfront melodrama, Anna Christie. The wooing of Broadway’s biggest names continued; Lunt and Fontaine reluctantly agreed to appear in MGM’s The Guardsman which they had made famous on Broadway. It was a flop that convinced the celebrated duo to return to the stage. They never again appeared in films.
Bette Davis’s fledgling career was nearly sandbagged by narrow-minded Carle Lemmle who first, attempted to transform her into a blonde beauty, then went on record with “She has as much sex-appeal as Slim Summerville!”

Meanwhile at MGM, a rivalry developed between reigning ‘queen of the lot’ Norma Shearer and aspiring social climber Joan Crawford. “How can I complete with that?” Crawford loudly objected, “She sleeps with the boss!” True – but Norma was also the wife of VP Irving Thalberg. Relatively soft spoken English actor, Boris Karloff and Hungarian born Bela Lugosi terrorized audiences with definitive versions of Frankenstein and Dracula.
Oscars favored RKO’s Cimarron as Best Picture, despite the fact that its elephantine investment practically bankrupted the studio. Statuettes also went to Helen Hayes for The Sin of Madelon Claudet. Shot under its working title; Lullaby – the project had been shelved, but was resurrected by MGM’s VP in charge of production, Irving Thalberg who re-shot the ending and changed its title. The film was a resounding success. Wallace Beery took home Best Actor for The Champ – a sentimental melodrama about a washed up prize fighter and his undying devotion to his young son.


Under Thalberg’s guidance, Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel became the first all-star movie masterpiece. MGM threw every major talent it had into the production including Joan Crawford, Lionel and John Barrymore and Garbo. At first assuming that Garbo’s reclusive nature was akin to snobbishness, John Barrymore soon became a life long admirer and friend after realizing that the screen’s most enigmatic star suffered from acute insecurity in front of the camera. “You have no idea what it means to me to appear opposite so great a star as you,” Garbo reportedly told Barrymore on the set.

Joan Crawford, who regretted that her co-star billing offered her no scenes opposite Garbo, gave her most startling performance as Sadie Thompson in Rain – a colossal flop. New England blue blood, Katherine Hepburn appeared in Bill of Divorcement for RKO and was hailed “the find of the year.” But her subsequent appearance in Christopher Strong did much to brand her box office poison a few short years later. Cecil B. DeMille made the Biblical epic, The Sign of the Cross.

Following the resounding success of 42nd Street, Busby Berkeley became the most celebrated hot property on the Warner backlot. Olympic swimmer, Johnny Weissmuller debuted opposite Maureen O’Sullivan in Tarzan The Ape Man, Their skimpy costumes prompted outrage from the Catholic League of Decency. In Germany, Chancellor Adolph Hitler banned the film. At Oscar time, Walt Disney received a special citation for the creation of Mickey Mouse – then as big a star as any in Hollywood. Oscars too for Fredric March’s chilling performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Grand Hotel – Best Picture.


Mary Pickford – once dubbed America’s sweetheart – made her last screen appearance in Secrets. Pickford’s popularity had waned since the talkies and with all her wealth and popularity in tact she wisely chose the private life instead. Barbara Stanwyck’s sexual escapades in Baby Face prompted cries of moral outrage from the pulpit. The Three Stooges debuted minus their former boss, Ted Healy in a Columbia 2-reel comedy – Women Haters. It would be the first of over 200 shorts made at the studio.

Rival producer on the MGM backlot, David O. Selznick made his own all-star spectacle; the delightful drawing room comedy, Dinner At Eight. Director Frank Capra produced two films of artistic merit; the epic The Bitter Tea of General Yen and poignantly sentimental Lady for A Day – only the latter was successful.
Radio crooner Bing Crosby made the most of his signing a deal at Paramount, but a similar attempt to acclimatize the popular radio personality Kate Smith with a forgettable project, Hello Everybody! was not successful. Cary Grant – who, despite his good looks, had been struggling to make inroads to fame and fortune, scored a coup opposite risqué Mae West in She Done Him Wrong.

Garbo gave a towering performance as Queen Christina – her sexual ambivalence and hinted lesbianism prompted a growing need for film censorship. Kate Hepburn scored in Morning Glory – taking home the Best Actress Oscar. Charles Laughton in The Private Lives of Henry VIII won Best Actor. 20th Century-Fox’s familial tragedy, Cavalcade – Best Picture. Silent star Renee Adoree died of a respiratory ailment. Disgraced pie-face and rotund comedian Fatty Arbuckle was stricken by a fatal heart attack.


W.S. Van Dyke made Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man in 12 days on a shoe string budget; one of the most adroit detective pictures to emerge from Hollywood in years. Shirley Temple became Fox’s number one star after Stand Up and Cheer and Little Miss Marker – outranking such heavy weights in screen popularity and fan mail as Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Mickey Rooney. Of his pint size costar, Adolph Menjou commented, “She knows all the tricks. She’s Ethel Barrymore at age six!”

On the more lavish side was Thalberg’s The Merry Widow with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald – a titanic hit. Success reigned with such intoxicating confections as The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Broadway Bill, Imitation of Life and Twentieth Century.
Frank Capra scored for Columbia Pictures with It Happened One Night – a film no one except Capra had any faith in. Upon its completion, costar Claudette Colbert lamented “I’ve just made the worst picture of my career.” She won the Oscar for her efforts.
Ditto for Clark Gable, who had been loaned out to Columbia as punishment for refusing a part for his alma mater - MGM. Gable’s lack of undergarments in a key scene in the film caused sales of undershirts to plummet nation wide. Oscars for Best Film and director too. Imminent playwright

George Bernard Shaw put in his own two cents about the movies popularity with “Cedric Hardwicke is my fifth favorite actor, the first four being The Marx Brothers!”


After defying studio edict and attempting to make a film away from Warner Bros. Bette Davis was corralled back into the fold, winning an Oscar as the incendiary bitch in Dangerous. In the trades: Joseph Schenck appointed Darryl F. Zanuck production head of 20th Century-Fox. Zanuck, a film maker at heart, would be the driving force of that studio for the next 3 decades. David O. Selznick launched his own independent production company – Selznick International.
Becky Sharp – one of the first films to be photographed in the newly perfected 3-strip Technicolor process was a glossy, colorful epic that oddly failed to find its audience. So too did success prove illusive for Warner Bros. lavish attempt at fantasy with Shakespeare’s A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream. But a new hero on the Warner backlot emerged when Tasmania born Errol Flynn donned tights and indulged in swordplay opposite Basil Rathbone in Captain Blood.

Amiable Fred MacMurray, suave Charles Boyer and wholesome Ann Sheridan were three new faces who debuted with a bright future ahead of them. Robert Taylor became MGM’s latest heartthrob. Musicals and costume dramas proved the most satisfying to audiences; David O. Selznick’s meticulously crafted David Copperfield; Garbo’s version of Anna Karenina; Gary Cooper’s star turn in Lives of a Bengal Lancer; Nelson Eddie and Jeanette MacDonald’s most glorious operetta, Naughty Marietta and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers best film to day - Top Hat among the year’s most illustrious output.

Only three years earlier – Astaire’s screen test had come back with the hand written note; “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” He was, by 1935, already considered the premiere dancer in American movies. Time has done little to diminish that latter assessment of the Astaire style.

Best Picture to MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty – a thrilling sea epic starring Clark Gable. America’s most celebrated moralist, Will Rogers tragically died in a plane crash. More mysterious was the sudden passing of gifted, Thelma Todd – a death/murder never fully explained away.


As far as product was concerned – few years in recent history compared in quality; Mr. Deeds Goes to Town; William Powell’s refreshing and adroit, My Man Godfrey, Universal’s version of Show Boat; Gable’s celebrated disaster epic, San Francisco; Garbo’s greatest tragedy, Camille; Astaire and Rogers best musical - Swing Time; Romeo & Juliet; Rose Marie and The Great Ziegfeld topping everyone’s favorite ‘must see’ list. ‘Ziegfeld’ won the Best Picture Oscar.

Its heroine, Viennese Luise Rainer took home the first of her two consecutive statuettes as the year’s Best Actress. Color photography, publicly denounced as inconsequential by producer Irving Thalberg, made a splashing addendum to the otherwise leaden offerings of Ramona and The Garden of Allah – the latter an over blown melodrama produced by Selznick that bore the unmistakable producer’s hallmark of meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail. Two shake ups in management rounded out the year – top heavy mismanagement deposed Carle Lemmle from Universal Pictures in favor of Charles R. Rogers. MGM’s V.P, Irving Thalberg died suddenly of a heart attack. He was 35 years old.


Seventy percent of the world’s entertainment was being made in Hollywood. The best of the lot; the Oscar-winning, The Good Earth; Selznick’s The Prisoner of Zenda; Columbia’s zany screwball, The Awful Truth; RKO’s frank Stage Door, The Hurricane, MGM’s Captain’s Courageous and Frank Capra’s most ambitious project, Lost Horizon all attested to a high standard of quality and craftsmanship.
But the most celebrated coup of the year was a project that had initially been dubbed in the press as “Disney’s folly”Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs emerged as spellbinding entertainment.

Borrowing against his own life insurance policy, Walt staked both his reputation and future success on the first full length animated feature. The gamble paid off handsomely. MGM’s A Family Affair launched a successful film series with Mickey Rooney playing the irrepressible teenager in perpetual love and heartache, Andy Hardy. Screen siren Jean Harlow collapsed on the set of Saratoga and died at the age of 26 from uremia three days later, forcing MGM to use a double in long shot to complete the film. Clark Gable, Harlow’s costar followed up this project with his only flop for MGM; Parnell.

A new discovery, Hedy LaMarr made her American screen debut. By now the film censorship production code wielded absolute authority over what was seen on the screen. When L.B. Mayer discovered LaMarr had appeared in the raw in a Czechoslovakian film his first question was “Did you look good?” “Of course,” LaMarr replied. “Then everything’s alright!” Mayer reasoned.


Marie Antoinette – a project begun in earnest under Thalberg’s regime in 1936, and starring his widow, Norma Shearer finally made it to the screen; heavily revised, shortened, and, shot in B&W instead of color. It was a success but one whose extravagances L.B. Mayer was determined not to repeat. Television was in its experimental stages. It would debut at the New York World’s Fair one year later before being quashed by the onslaught of WWII.

Big ticket items of the year were Boy’s Town (for which Spencer Tracy won an Oscar), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, George Cukor’s sublime anti-capitalist, Holiday and Errol Flynn’s most lavish swashbuckler to date; in Technicolor - The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Cary Grant played it stuffy in Howard Hawk’s riotous Bringing Up Baby. Said Grant – “I don’t care how ugly they make me in pictures if they just let me play a part with character and substance.”

Determined to rival MGM’s supremacy in musicals, Darryl F. Zanuck premiered his costliest film to date; 20th Century-Fox’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Gable’s reputation as a he-man was kept in tact with Test Pilot – a high flying adventure flick. New faces with a bright future ahead of them included William Holden, John Garfield, Betty Grable, Roy Rogers, John Payne and David Niven – briefly glimpsed the year before in The Prisoner of Zenda.
Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes – both imports from France and England were hugely successful with American audiences. But The Life of Emile Zola won Best Picture Oscar.


The year it all came together. Hollywood produced more contenders for the Best Picture Oscar in this single year than at any other time. The list is endless, but the best of the best included George Steven’s Gunga Din; Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Samuel Goldwyn’s Wuthering Heights; George Cukor’s The Women, and, Merian C. Cooper’s Stagecoach that finally made a star out of John Wayne – cast as the loveable desperado; the Ringo Kid.
Relatively unknown, soft spoken British actor Robert Donat walked off with the Best Actor honors for his touching and thoughtful performance in Goodbye Mr. Chips. The film costars Greer Garson – who would become one of the most popular leading ladies of the 40s and whom L.B. Mayer had first discovered in a play on London’s West End.

Series film making was at its zenith with stellar installments to Andy Hardy, Tarzan, The Thin Man, Sherlock Holmes, Maise and Dr. Kildare immensely contributing to the studios coffers. Garbo finally appeared in a comedy, and one of the best – Ninotchka. A year later she would retire from the screen.
Swedish discovery, Ingrid Bergman illuminated in Intermezzo: A Love Story. But the really big news of the year belonged to two Technicolor super-productions: MGM’s The Wizard of Oz and Selznick International’s Gone With The Wind. Oz made Judy Garland a household name. She took home the Oscar for Best Performance by a juvenile.
Bette Davis – who had desperately wanted to play Scarlett O’Hara was well compensated for the loss – she starred in back to back successes; The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex, Dark Victory and Juarez.

GWTW’s Vivien Leigh – a virtual unknown to American audiences towered above the rest to win Best Actress as Scarlett O’Hara. Hattie McDaniel became the first African American so honored with a statuette – as the defiant Mammie.
Gable’s animal magnetism was cemented for posterity by madcap comedian and lover Carole Lombard
“Clark’s a wonder. I’m really nuts about him…Not just nuts about his nuts!”
By all accounts 1939 should have been the beginning of something big. Instead, with the encroachment of Hitler’s forces decimating the European market, it was the end of the yellow brick road for many years to come.

@Nick Zegarac 2007 (all rights reserved).