By James Colt Harrison
Barricaded in her Paris apartment for the final decade of her life, Marlene Dietrich made a career out of being mysterious in her films as well as in real life. She never appeared in public after retiring from the silver screen.
It was different during her heyday. At the height of her career she made a terrific impact with her strong, sensual screen image. Women adored her for her independent spirit. Men scrambled over each other to get what was available but couldn’t control her. They had to accept her as she was or not have her at all. Marlene was freedom personified.
Dietrich was the first German import to make an impact of such magnitude on the American — and world — public. She was born in the sinful city of Berlin, December 27, 1901. The first few decades of the 20th century saw Berlin become the center of European arts. Talented people flocked there to make their marks in the theatre, ballet, music, films and politics.
While Germany was nurturing the budding Dietrich (born Maria Magdalene Dietrich), it was also cultivating someone who would later want to see Marlene dead: Adolph Hitler.
Young Marlene originally wanted to be a concert violinist. An injury prevented that direction of her career, so she turned to films as a lark to work as an extra. While she was languishing in the chorus of a stage revue, director Josef von Sternberg (born in Vienna in 1894 but raised in Queens, New York) discovered her. Von Sternberg was in Germany to direct German actor Emil Jannings in UFA Studio’s first talking picture, The Blue Angel. He needed a leading lady who exuded the raw sexuality of the vamp, Lola Lola. He felt he invented the screen Dietrich and was later quoted as saying, “In my films Marlene is not herself. Remember that Marlene is not Marlene. I am Marlene.” Dietrich became an overnight sensation. Paramount Studios signed both her and von Sternberg to contracts and brought them to Hollywood.
Von Sternberg directed Dietrich’s first seven films in Hollywood, and he transformed her into a glamorous woman of mystery. Her first film at Paramount’s Hollywood studios was Morocco (1930) in which she is seen traipsing across the desert in high heels and flowing gowns in hot pursuit of her man, the handsome Gary Cooper. Not very realistic, but glamorous. In 1931 she made Dishonored, in which she sacrificed her own life rather than betray her lover. Shanghai Express once again saw her self-sacrificing side when she gave up her body to save her leading man’s life. When Blonde Venus completed the three-film bomb combo at the box office, Paramount hired Rouben Mamoulian to direct Song of Songs (1933). It didn’t amount to much, either.
In order to make Dietrich happy, the studio reteamed her with von Sternberg. She played Catherine the Great in Scarlet Empress in 1934, a film of startling images that helped her use her powers of sexuality to secure the throne. Her final film with her Svengali-like director was The Devil is a Woman (1935) in which she played a woman whose main goal was to ruin men’s lives.
While in England filming Knight Without Armor in 1937, she was approached by Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s ambassador, with an offer to return to German films. Dietrich hated everything the Nazis stood for and snubbed the demonic dictator. Hitler was furious and banned her films from being shown in Germany. He also put her name at the top of his hit list.
In the meantime, Dietrich became an American citizen in 1939. Her film career began to fizzle with such lackluster films as Garden of Allah, Desire, and Angel. Those pictures drove audiences to cover their eyes in the theaters. Dubbed “box-office poison” (along with Katharine Hepburn!), she spent the next two years at home baking apple strudel.
What the dazzling star needed was another chance, and she got it in Destry Rides Again with James Stewart. The picture was a huge smash and it revitalized her career. She followed with the hit films Flame of New Orleans (1941) and The Spoilers (1942). Interspersed with her film making, she gained the love and respect of French and American GIs by endangering her life to entertain troops overseas, often right at the front lines. She was wildly popular with the boys because she never failed to show off her beautiful legs, an item that was in short supply. She brought some much-needed feminine beauty to many remote battle areas. For her patriotism and courage, she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom and the French Legion d’Honneur.
After the war she didn’t make many distinguished films. Among the very best were Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright in 1950. One of her better parts was as a lady outlaw in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious in 1952. It was four years before she appeared on screen again in a cameo for Mike Todd’s extravaganza Around the World in 80 Days, along with nearly every star in Hollywood.
As her film career waned, Dietrich found new fame and a whole legion of new, enthusiastic young fans when she began appearing in Las Vegas and in concerts around the world. She still possessed that elusive “star quality” when she appeared in a flesh-colored gown sprinkled with a few sequins that gave the impression she was nearly nude.
The world’s most glamorous grandmother — as Dietrich called herself — wound up her screen career with a few more guest-starring roles in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) and in Judgement at Nuremberg. Dietrich’s final screen appearance was in a star cameo bit in Paris When it Sizzles in 1964 when she is seen swathed in white furs emerging legs first, from a white Rolls Royce. She was glamorous to the end.
We won’t see the likes of Marlene Dietrich again. Dietrich died in her Paris apartment May 6, 1992. So long, Marlene, and see what the boys in the back room will have.
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