Hollywood Grande Dame. Marlene Dietrich
Born Marie Magdalene Dietrich on 27th December 1901 in Berlin, Germany. She was nicknamed Marlene (a combination of her first and second name) as a child. As a teenager, she became fascinated with poetry, music and the theatre, initially her first love was the Violin. However this was not meant to be due to a wrist injury.
Dietrich started her acting career on the stage in the 1920’s. She achieved moderate success, even appearing in productions in Vienna. 1929, was professionally a turning point for Dietrich. Since it was here that she met the man who would alter the course of her life forever. Josef Von Sternberg is the man credited as being the one who ‘discovered’ Dietrich. He was able to see her true potential, creating her look and finding camera/lighting tricks to enhance her presence. Their first collaboration was with ‘Blue Angel’ in 1930. Playing the part of Lola, a cabaret singer. ‘Blue Angel’ was important not just for what the film did for Marlene Dietrich’s career but it was the first German film to use sound. Unsurprisingly, Hollywood took notice of the beguiling Dietrich and asked both she and Sternberg to come to Los Angeles. Leaving Berlin would not likely have been Dietrich’s choice. However, since she left Germany before the Great Depression and more importantly before the Nazis choked the life out of artistry. It was really the best possible outcome for Dietrich as I am sure that she would have drowned under Goebbel’s relentless censorship and propaganda. After signing with Paramount Studios, Dietrich and Sternberg made their first Hollywood film ‘Morrocco’. What history remembers the most about ‘Morrocco’ was Dietrich’s iconic turn in a gentlemen’s tuxedo. While it may seem histrionic but ‘Morrocco’ was not without controversy. In one scene, Dietrich kisses a woman, not sensual or erotic but a small peck. Nowadays two women kissing would hardly raise an eyebrow, in fact many men would be delighted. 1930’s America on the other hand, was ruffled over the sight of a woman in ‘drag’ and said woman engaging in lesbian actions. Even with the fuss made, Dietrich was nominated for her only Oscar. Following on from the success of ‘Morrocco’ with ‘Dishonoured’ (1931), ‘Blonde Venus’ (1932) with may I add an unflattering peroxide blonde wig and ‘Shanghai Express’ (1932). Here is where Sternberg’s method of lighting truly reached epic proportions. By using the butterfly technique (where there is a primary and an additional secondary light) and using light filtered through a veil and slatted blinds. Please note that Dietrich did more than just stand under special lighting. Though the nuisances of their partnership is not completely known. According to Dietrich’s daughter Maria Sieber (later Riva), She had a keen instinct for what her character’s would have worn. Dietrich would collaborate with studio designers such as Travis Banton, ensuring that all details was executed perfectly. Sternberg and Dietrich’s last film together was ‘The Devil is a Woman’ in 1935. Once their partnership dissolved, neither Sternberg nor Dietrich ever quite reached the same heights as they had during together. Dietrich made a few hit films including ‘Desire’ and ‘The Garden of Allah’ (both in 1936).Though Dietrich was one of the highest paid stars of the early 1930’s, she soon became ‘box office poison’. Offers of film work still came towards; working with Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Wells and Fritz Lang. A comeback was managed in 1939 in ‘Destry Rides Again’.
Courted by the Nazis to return to Germany, Dietrich a staunch anti-Nazi activist elected to become an American citizen in 1939. So that’s a firm no then! Not known for taking rejection, the Nazi party barred all of Dietrich’s films from being shown. Dietrich became one stars to raise war bonds, but her involvement in the war effort went further. Sure she did the usual, entertaining the troops recording anti-Nazi songs in Germany. So appreciated were Dietrich’s war efforts, that America awarded her with the Medal of Freedom in 1945 and France matched the U.S.A’s efforts with the Legion d’honneur too.
Once the 50’s began Dietrich effectively left Hollywood and turned to Cabaret. From the 1950’s until the mid 1970’s, Dietrich was one of the most highly paid entertainers. Starting off each show, wearing her ‘nude dress’ and Swansdown coat. Then change into her trademark masculine attire for the second half. Working with Burt Bacharach to expand and elevate her nightclub routines into a more theatrical experience. So good were Dietrich’s shows that she even made it to Broadway (1967-68), winning a Tony Award the following year. By the mid 1960’s, Dietrich’s health stared to decline. Surviving Cervical Cancer and poor circulation took a toll which Dietrich remedied with Alcohol and painkillers. After falling off the stage in Sydney, Australia in 1975 Dietrich’s stage career ended. Spending the last 11 years in Paris, a virtual recluse. Death finally came for Dietrich on 6th May 1992 at the grand age of 90.
Unlike most Hollywood stars, Dietrich was more comfortable in more masculine clothes. Many claim that Katherine Hepburn was the first to popularise men’s trousers as a female fashion choice. However it was Dietrich who endured the criticism for wearing men’s clothes, she was even barred from certain hotels in Paris due to her ensemble. Ah how the rule breakers of style must endure ridicule and snootiness before being accepted. It was Dietrich who challenged (not consciously) the idea that a woman cannot wear men’s clothes and still be feminine and sexual.
Openly bisexual, Dietrich enjoyed dalliances with Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Yul Brynner, John Kennedy, John Wayne, George Bernard Shaw, (and rumoured) Anna Mae Wong. However she stayed married to her one and only husband, Rudy Seiber. Despite their mutual philandering, they were an oddly commited couple. Marlene appeared to really respect Rudy’s opinion and treated him as a equal.
Like everything Dietrich did, she was both effortless yet purposeful. Craving out her own path, style and conduct, not caring how it was perceived by anyone. A created beauty yes, but no less striking or iconic.