Wednesday, December 21, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Marlene Dietrich — Movie Goddess, War Heroine, Master of Her Image!

by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Marlene Dietrich — Movie Goddess, War Heroine, Master of Her Image!

“NOW WE all might enjoy seeing Helen of Troy as a gay cabaret entertainer, but I doubt that she could be one quarter as good as our legendary, lovely Marlene!”

That was Noel Coward introducing his dear friend Miss Marlene Dietrich on the opening night of her London appearance at the Café de Paris in 1954.
Noel Coward welcomes Dietrich to London, June 1954.
BY the time Noel introduced Marlene — whose career as a “gay cabaret entertainer” was still fairly new — she had been famous in America since 1930 and “The Blue Angel.” Prior to that, she was one of Berlin’s most well-known, indeed notorious stage stars, and had made a name in a few silent films.  

Dietrich would continue to fascinate the public well into the 1970s, when infirmity stopped her from maintaining concert work and her indelibly glamorous image.  If longevity makes the greatest stars,  Marlene is right up there with the greatest.  But, of course, there were so many mysteries, fantasies, illusions wrapped around Dietrich — most created by the lady herself.  And so many questions.
Was she an actress or merely a mannequin?  Was she singer or an arch stylist?  Was she a beauty or a figure of total artifice?  Did she crave men or women?  Was it love of her work and Prussian discipline or sheer egomania that drove her on?

Few answers to these questions arose during Dietrich’s long life.  She was never inclined to let the public in, and despite several massive biographies — including the deliciously mean-spirited tome written by her daughter, Maria Riva — Marlene remains marvelously enigmatic, but compellingly human. (Maximilian Schell’s brutal, brilliant documentary, “Marlene” is a testament to every aspect of her personality — raging, canny, witty, impatient, and, in the end, tearfully sentimental!)
Mother and daughter.
A much greater star than Garbo, in my opinion, if for no other reason than she continued to live and learn and expand her art. 

The idea of a rootless, unemployed Marlene Dietrich, fleeing from paparazzi and living only to escape fame — an impossible task — is absurd. 

As a human being, Marlene Dietrich had her flaws — who doesn’t?  As an iconic goddess, a survivor, mistress of her image, she was non pareil.
Born Maria Magdalene Dietrich in 1901, the future movie goddess came from a well-to-do Berlin family.  Her father was a police lieutenant, who died when Marlene (we’ll call her that from now on) was only six. She forever credited him with instilling discipline and a tireless work ethic. 

Although young Marlene studied the violin and more serious aspects of music and theater, an injury to her wrist ended any thoughts of becoming a concert violinist — thank goodness!   She became known as chorus girl, and soon graduated to leading roles in various stage shows.  Berlin loved her legs and her languor, punctuated with an earthy girlishness.  Berlin also loved her sexual ambiguity; she was linked to other female stars of the Berlin cabaret scene, even after she married Rudi Sieber and had a child, Maria. 
Little Marlene (right) with sister Elizabeth, mother Josephine, father Louis Otto. Berlin, 1906.
Dietrich’s attitude toward her wedlock could be summed up in the Cole Porter ditty, “Always True to You (In My Fashion.”)  They would never divorce, Rudi would live most of his life with a mistress and Dietrich cut a sexual swath through Europe and Hollywood almost unmatched by any other star — Sinatra, Mike Todd, Yul Brynner, Mercedes de Costa, perhaps Garbo, Eddie Fisher and on and on. But she dressed superbly, had a foreign accent and never took another woman’s husband or another husband’s woman — for long.  In short, despite the stricter moral codes of the time, nobody thought of Dietrich as a slut.
Dietrich with Rudolf Sieber and daughter Maria in London in the '30s
In 1929, the esteemed movie director Josef von Sternberg caught one of Marlene’s stage performances.  He claimed, then and later, to have been unimpressed.  He lied.  In fact, he was obsessed.  He tested Dietrich for the role of the heartless, sluttish singer, Lola Lola in “The Blue Angel.” 

Dietrich herself, in bending her myth, would later claim she had no interest in becoming a movie star, didn’t know who von Sternberg was.  Indeed, she was just “a girl studying music” when the director noticed her.  She left out her stage career and especially her German films.  But Marlene was no fool.  And she was 29.  She knew time was not on her side. 
“The Blue Angel” established Marlene Dietrich as a great star in Germany.  More importantly, the film was seen by executives at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood.  Her English was good enough to dub the film for American release.  She traveled to Hollywood with von Sternberg, setting up a household, submitting to a strict diet, expert cosmetics and von Sternberg’s lighting techniques, which would render Dietrich more beautiful — and more artificial — than Berlin had ever known her to be. 

The Dietrich/von Sternberg collaboration would deliver six more films, including “Morocco” (her only Oscar nomination), “Shanghai Express,”  “Blonde Venus,” “The Scarlet Empress” and “The Devil Is a Woman.”  The director seemed less interested in Dietrich the actress than he was compelled to enshrine and envelop her in veils, smoke and shadows. Critics complained that her vivacity was being drained, in favor of von Sternberg’s “vision” of her.
These films are rich with fantastic imagery, but Dietrich is very much her mentor’s puppet.  She loved the way he made her look, but their movies were not financially successful.  Her glamour seemed oppressive, only occasionally breaking free.  Her acting was stiff, but she was undeniably fascinating. 

However, they parted after 1935’s “The Devil Is a Woman” in which Dietrich gives a wildly preposterous, but electrifying performance.
Dietrich as Concha Pérez in “The Devil Is a Woman."
Almost immediately after jettisoning von Sternberg, she relaxed, charming in “Desire” as jewel thief.  

Later films such as “Knight Without Armor” and “Garden of Allah” seemed to be backtracking, trying to recapture the von Sternberg Dietrich — the one who was beautiful but distant. (She was wonderful in the daring, underrated “Angel” but that, too, flopped.)
As heiress Domini Enfilden in "The Garden of Allah."
Dietrich was declared “Box Office Poison” but rallied in 1939’s classic western “Destry Rides Again” with James Stewart.  She was rowdy, bawdy, earthier — much of the old Berlin cabaret star was evident. The film was a smash and paved the way for a series of “hard-boiled-dame” roles; the best of these, “Seven Sinners” with John Wayne, was also successful.  (In this she dons men’s clothes again, as she did in “Morocco,” to warble “The Man’s In The Navy.” She had not forgotten her Berlin roots and the power of sexual playacting.) 
Dietrich and Stewart in 1939’s classic western “Destry Rides Again."
As Bijou in “Seven Sinners."
However, over the next few years, this image too began to pall, and Dietrich was again at a career crossroads.  To recover, she needed more than a new picture, she needed a cataclysm.  It came in the form of World War II.

Dietrich had rebuffed Adolf Hitler’s offer to come back to Germany and reign as her homeland’s greatest star.  In time, she was declared persona non grata, an enemy of Germany.  She openly loathed Hitler and Nazis.  She became an American citizen, raised war bonds and entertained troops stationed in the U.S.

 Then, in 1944 and ’45, Dietrich embarked on two extended tours, performing for Allied troops all over Europe.  She was often close to the front lines and in danger of losing her life, or worse — being captured by the Germans, who now considered her a traitor.  This was the defining work of her life, and if she traded on it for effect in later years, it takes nothing from what she did or when she did it. It was heroic and inspiring.
If there had ever been a question of the “reality” of Dietrich, it was answered in the countless photos of a weary, lined woman, improbably dressed in sequins or Army fatigues, chowing down with “the boys.”

After the war — and a torrid affair with actor Jean Gabin — Dietrich’s film career needed a boost.  She was closing in on fifty.  Billy Wilder offered her the role of a cabaret singer in Berlin, a Nazi sympathizer.  At first Dietrich refused. Didn’t Wilder know where she stood on this; what did he think she had been doing for the past several years? But when the script of “A Foreign Affair” arrived, she could not refuse.
This acid, cynical comedy, which co-starred Jean Arthur, about post-war Germany offered Dietrich a great role and three magnificent songs — “Illusions,” “Black Market” and “The Ruins of Berlin.”  As an actress she had advanced significantly from her von Sternberg beginnings. One did not have to agree with her character’s ingrained politics, to sympathize and be impressed (“Do you know what it was like to be a woman when the Russians swept through?” she asks Jean Arthur.  “It was living hell.  But I survived.” It was an Oscar-worthy turn.)
Dietrich gave performances of similar quality in “Stage Fright” (a subtle, underrated Hitchcock masterpiece) ... “Touch of Evil” (a cameo, but classic!) ... “No Highway in the Sky” ... "Witness for the Prosecution” and “Judgment at Nuremburg.” Not that her film career mattered much.  She had become the “World’s Most Glamorous Grandmother” and a live performer who dazzled in her semi-transparent Jean Louis gowns that gave the illusion of pristine firm flesh. She remained, if not “youthful,” then eerily preserved and forty-five-ish.

Her concert career flourished. She defied the decades. She defied Germany, returning controversially to her homeland — both lauded and spat upon.   She defied Israel when she visited, and sang her songs in German, to weeping thousands of expatriates for whom German was the language of their own country — a country that had slaughtered so many of them.   She defied war-mongers when she recorded Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” giving historical relevance to the horrors of world conflict.

In time, only time could stop Dietrich! Under her gowns, increasingly constricting, and her painful wigs and the inevitably heavier make-up, the mortal Dietrich was, well — mortal.  In her last years onstage she gave some of her greatest performances, but the price of her discipline and/or ego was high. Too many accidents, one too many horrifying stumbles into the orchestra pit ended her.  She was mocked — “Falling Off Stage Again,” ran one cruel editorial.

She withdrew. However, in 1978, she was lured out of her Paris apartment for one more go at the screen. It was titled “Just a Gigolo” and starred David Bowie and Kim Novak.  Not commercial! Set in Berlin, after World War I, Dietrich was wanted for the role of a madam who has a few lines and sings the title song. Needing the money (or so she insisted) the star accepted.
No matter what it cost — in terms of tension — and what miracles had to be performed to reconstruct Marlene for her final appearance, she is magic in this last hurrah. Still playing with sex, still mixing it up.  Still re-inventing morality and appropriate roles for men and women.

Her song, a whispering nod to her mortality and the ambiguities of her image, was haunting perfection: “Just a gigolo, everywhere I go people know the part I’m playing/Paid for every dance, selling each romance, every night some heart betraying.

“There will come a day, youth will pass away/then what will they say — about me. When the end comes I know they’ll say just a gigolo.

“And life goes on without me.”

The outside world would go on without Dietrich until 1992. She died in Paris, in the apartment she would not leave. Still vital mentally — and with a whiplash tongue — ut crushed by the ruin of her body and health. 

“Just a few cans of celluloid on the junk heap,” she said dismissively as movie star Monica Teasdale in “No Highway in the Sky.” 

Perhaps. But what a glorious junk-heap!

Dietrich — the one, the only, the incredible.
Contact Liz here.