A brief guide to Marlene Dietrich

James Oliver 18 January 2021

Everything you need to know about the mysterious cinema icon, Marlene Dietrich

 

Marlene Dietrich was the quintessence of stardom; a legendary beauty, of course, not to mention poised and stylish. But few performers have been so aware of their obligations to those that worship them. It wasn't just that she knew how to manufacture mystique; she knew how to maintain it too, and did so to the end.


Shanghai Express
(1932)

“Marlene” Dietrich was her own creation, forming her stage name from a contraction of what she was christened—Maria Magdelene Dietrich. Born in 1907 to a well-to-do family, she grew up in physical comfort, even if it didn't shield her from tragedy; her father died when she was six.

"Domestically, she was settled, marrying Rudolf Sieber in 1923, and producing a daughter, Maria, a year later—but she was not quite ready to become a hausfrau yet"

The society in which she'd grown up was all-but destroyed by the First World War; had it not been, young Marlene would never have had the freedom to take to the stage. Her bourgeois mother protested but not too bitterly when she did: the family needed the money.

Theatre led to film and a modest, if not spectacular, career. Domestically, she was settled too, marrying Rudolf Sieber in 1923, and producing a daughter, Maria, a year later. But she was not quite ready to become a hausfrau yet. When she heard about an American director who was looking for an actress for his latest film, she went along to audition.


Marlene and Rudolf Sieber on their wedding day 

The American director was Josef von Sternberg. He'd come to Berlin to make The Blue Angel, about an upright school master emotionally destroyed by a seductive cabaret performer. Von Sternberg had looked at all of Germany's leading actresses for the role (including Leni Riefenstahl, later of “the Nazis” fame) but none were right.

Then he saw Dietrich...

The role she took, Lola-Lola, defined her thereafter as the ultimate vamp; in her top hat and assorted frillies, who wouldn't want to be destroyed by her? The world (not just the male half, either) was besotted.


The Blue Angel (1930)

And so she travelled to Hollywood. Sieber stayed in Germany; they remained married (or at least they hadn't divorced) until he died in 1976 but neither of them kept up their vows.

Established professionally (and also personally) with von Sternberg, she began one of the greatest sequences in cinema, six studies of erotic obsession and subjugation that show her either being destroyed by men (Morocco, Dishonored, Blonde Venus) or destroying them (Shanghai Express, The Scarlet Empress and, above all, The Devil is a Woman).

It's heady stuff now but was positively mind-blowing in the 1930s, not least because von Sternberg was such an exceptional pictorialist: the lighting was so stunning that the publicity department claimed they had actually sprinkled “gold dust” in Dietrich's hair. These are some of the most ravishing films ever made, in every respect. And initially, they were hugely successful.

Tastes changed sharply, however. The Scarlet Empress and The Devil is a Woman bombed and Dietrich was infamously branded “box-office poison”. With her domestic partnership with von Sternberg stumbling, the studio decided to prise them apart professionally too. No longer would she be so haughty; instead, a new vulnerability was discovered in film like Destry Rides Again and Flame of New Orleans, the ice-queen brought down to earth.


Destry Rides Again (1939)

Her Hollywood stardom was a source of great pride in her homeland, but there was irritation too: why could she not be tempted back to Germany and make films in her native language? This concern went right to the very top: Chancellor Adolf Hitler personally authorised an approach to Frau Dietrich, offering whatever it would take to bring her back to the fatherland.

She turned them down, of course. Not straight away: she was too clever for that, preferring to let her dismal suitors twist in the wind. The proposal was always doomed (she was firmly anti-Nazi) but there was a certain satisfaction in denying them something they wanted ever more desperately. This lasted several years: they only realised the jig was up when she became a US citizen in 1937.

"Dietrich was a liberated woman long before such things were fashionable"

She made herself more unpopular yet in Germany when America entered the war against them, and she went to the front to entertain the (US) troops. She sang, danced and was even sawn in half by Orson Welles.


Marlene and Rita Hayworth at the Hollywood Canteen 

As well as lifting morale, it marked a shift in her career. She continued to make movies. Indeed, some of her most memorable films were made post-war, including Rancho Notorious, Witness for the Prosecution and Judgement at Nuremberg, but she was mainly occupied as a singer, with residencies in Vegas and tours across Europe.

There had been upset in her private life too. It is not speaking out of turn to say Dietrich was a liberated woman long before such things were fashionable. When she first set eyes on John Wayne, she turned to her agent and said, “Daddy, get me that”. And The Duke was but one of her conquests—Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Claudette Colbert (she swung both ways), future president John F Kennedy, Errol Flynn and Frank Sinatra all succumbed to her charms.

Once, though, she had an affair that went deeper. She fell hard for Jean Gabin, France's greatest star (then, now, forever), but he wasn't going to leave his wife, not even for Dietrich. She pined for years. Is it significant that when she retired, it was to Paris, home of her greatest happiness?


Jean Gabin

Retirement came in the 1970s; her make-up artists were the best there were but not even they could hold time at bay forever. Mindful of appearances, she was virtually invisible for the last few years of her life—an interview film with actor Maximillian Schell embodied her as a voice alone, mindful of the image to the very end.

When she died, in 1992, the obituaries were illustrated by pictures of her as a youthful beauty, the shooting star. Age couldn't wither her. And thank goodness for that.

 

Read more: 10 Most romantic films of yester-year 

Read more: Obsession—Marlene Dietrich, The Pierre Passebon Collection 

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter