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.”
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!”
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.
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).
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.
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.
MORE THAN BLONDE VENUS
“....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!”
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.
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).
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.”
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.
LARGER THAN LIFE…
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”