Some contend she was the second most famous German during World War II. She certainly had more American fans than that other guy.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to speculate on that Thirties-Forties Hollywood wonder, Marlene Dietrich.
Let’s dispense with the politics first. Dietrich was an outspoken anti-fascist who despised Hitler and the Nazis. She became an American citizen in 1939 as World War II was brewing in Europe. And, throughout the war, she loved entertaining the American troops (as you can see above).
Now, let’s get to the interesting part: Dietrich as a young actress created by her personal svengali, director Josef von Sternberg; and Dietrich as a Thirties Hollywood sensation who openly celebrated her lusty and unconventional private life. (Her one marriage, in 1924 to producer Rudolph Sieber, effectively lasted only about five years; Dietrich never divorced her husband and the marriage ended in 1976 with his death.)
By all accounts a joyous bisexual with an appetite for many lovers, declared author Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon, his “scandalous” 1975 critique, Marlene kept the magpies chirping right through the Thirties.
Her passel of girlfriends was dubbed ‘Marlene’s Sewing Circle.’ They were not lesbians … but good-time Charlenes…who swung both ways. Marlene was ascribed a passionate affair with fellow Paramount star, Claudette Colbert, as well as one with Lili Damita. (Dietrich, of course, also cavorted with many leading actors.)
There’s no question that after her Hollywood debut (in 1930’s Morocco) Dietrich paraded around in male attire — suits, tuxedos and long pants, thus setting off a nationwide fashion vogue. In her middle years, when she was a bigger Las Vegas cabaret star than Hollywood movie queen, she would show off her famously shapely legs and upper anatomy via see-through tops that tantalized her fans.
Born in 1901 in Berlin, as Marie Magdalene Dietrich von Losch, the daughter of a military officer, she was a rambunctious teenager and deemed herself an aspiring singer in the infamous “Life Is A Cabaret” Berlin Twenties.
After a series of appearances in about 10 German films, Dietrich linked up with Sternberg — who always claimed that he alone recognized her as a star, a quality she herself didn’t know she had — in 1930’s The Blue Angel.
Hollywood followed and so did the core of Dietrich’s classic movie legacy, all under director Sternberg at Paramount.
Besides Morocco, there were 1931’s Dishonored, 1932’s Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus, 1934’s The Scarlet Empress and 1935’s The Devil Is A Woman. Along with The Blue Angel, writes British critic-author David Thomson, Dietrich made with Sternberg seven masterpieces, films that are still breathtakingly modern.
For our money, Dietrich still amazes with the power of her seductive performance as ‘”Shanghai Lily” in Shanghai Express. If you haven’t seen this classic lately by all means take another look. As Thomson puts it, she simultaneously emphasized the erotic and the ridiculous in sexuality.
Dietrich’s movie career, comprising about 55 titles and lasting until through the Sixties and into the Seventies, includes such worthy titles as Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, Billy Wilder’s Witness For the Prosecution, and Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg. We especially like her turn as the world-weary, chili-making fortune teller in Orson Welles’ superb 1958 thriller, Touch of Evil.
In her later years, Dietrich repaired to her Paris apartment, and shut herself off from the rest of the world. Supposedly she was bed ridden for the last dozen years of her life. Nonetheless her legendary career still fascinated many show biz veterans including actor-director Maximilian Schell.
In 1984, he tried to get Dietrich to appear on camera for a documentary he was making titled simply, Marlene.
After repeated refusals, Schell gave up and found himself interviewing her through the closed front door of her Paris flat. We hear an 82-year-old Dietrich but never see her. Eight years later she was gone.