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Marlene Dietrich
1901 - 1992
 

 

 

Actress, singer. Born Maria Magdalene Dietrich on December 27, 1901, in Berlin, Germany. One of the most glamorous leading ladies of the 1930s and 1940s, Marlene Dietrich is remembered for her smoldering sex appeal, distinctive voice, and unusual personal style. Her police officer father died when she was young, and her mother later married Edouard von Losch, a cavalry officer. Growing up, Dietrich studied French and English at her private school. She also took violin lessons with the hopes of becoming a concert pianist.

While in her late teens, Dietrich gave up music to explore acting. She attended Max Reinhardt’s drama school and soon started to land small parts on stage and in German films. Because of her family’s disapproval of her career choice, Dietrich chose to use a combination of her first and middle name professionally.

In 1923, Dietrich married Rudolf Sieber, a film professional who helped her land a part in Tragedy of Love (1923). The couple welcomed their only child, Maria, the following year. They later separated, but never divorced.

Dietrich’s career in Germany began to take off in the late 1920s. Making film history, she was cast in Germany’s first talking picture Der Blaue Engel (1930) by Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg. An English language version, The Blue Angel, was also filmed using the same cast. With her sultry good looks and sophisticated manner, Dietrich was a natural for the role of Lola Lola, a nightclub dancer. The film follows the decline of a local professor who gives up everything to have a relationship with her character. A big hit, the film helped make Dietrich a star in the United States.

In April 1930, shortly after the premiere of Der Blaue Engel in Berlin, Dietrich moved to America. Again working with von Sternberg, Dietrich starred in Morocco (1930) with Gary Cooper. She played Amy Jolly, a lounge singer, who gets entangled in a love triangle with a member of the Foreign Legion (Cooper) and a wealthy playboy (Adolphe Menjou). For her work on the film, Dietrich received her one and only Academy Award nomination.

Continuing to play the femme fatale, Dietrich challenged accepted notions of feminity. She often wore pants and more masculine fashions on- and off-screen, which added to her unique allure and created new trends. Dietrich made several more films with von Sternberg, including Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), and The Scarlet Empress (1934), in which she played the famed member of Russian royalty, Catherine the Great. Their last film together was The Devil Is a Woman (1935)—reportedly her personal favorite film. Considered by many to her most ultimate portrayal of a vamp, Dietrich played a cold-hearted temptress who captivates several men during the Spanish revolution.

Dietrich later softened her image somewhat by taking on lighter fare. Starring opposite Jimmy Stewart, she played a saloon gal in western comedy Destry Rides Again (1939). Around this time, Dietrich also made several films with John Wayne, including Seven Sinners (1940), The Spoilers (1942), and Pittsburgh (1942). The two were said to have had a romantic relationship, which later turned into a strong friendship.

In her personal life, Dietrich was a strong opponent of the Nazi government in Germany. She had been asked to return to Germany by people associated with Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s to make films there, but she turned them down. As a result, her films were banned in her native land. She made her new country her official home by becoming a U.S. citizen in 1939. During World War II, Dietrich traveled extensively to entertain the allied troops, singing such songs as “Lili Marlene” and others, which would later become staples in her cabaret act. She also worked on war-bond drives and recorded anti-Nazi messages in German for broadcast.

After the war, Dietrich made several more successful films. Two films directed by Billy Wilder, A Foreign Affair (1948) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957) with Tyrone Power, were among the most notable from this period. She also turned in two strong supporting performances in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).

As her film career faded, Dietrich began a thriving singing career in the mid-1950s. She performed her act around the world, from Las Vegas to Paris, to the delight of her fans. In 1960, Dietrich performed in Germany, her first visit there since before the war. She encountered some opposition to her return, but she received a warm reception overall. That same year, her autobiography, Dietrich’s ABC, was published.

By the mid-1970s, Dietrich had given up performing. She moved to Paris where she lived out the remainder of her life in near-seclusion. In the mid-1980s, she did provide some audio commentary for Maximillian Schell’s documentary film on her, Marlene (1984), but she refused to appear on camera.

Dietrich died on May 6, 1992, in her Paris home. After her funeral, she was buried next to her mother in Berlin. Dietrich was survived by her daughter Maria and her four grandchildren. Her daughter later wrote her own biography of her famous mother, Marlene Dietrich, in the mid-1990s.
 


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Film star Marlene Dietrich (1901 - 1992) was one of the twentieth century's most enduring style icons. The German - born actress made several notable movies with director Josef von Sternberg in the 1930s, beginning with what was perhaps her most memorable work, "The Blue Angel", and her films remain cinema classics thanks in part to a cool, ethereal beauty that the era's black - and - white film stock only maximized. She was, noted "People"'s Marjorie Rosen, a "woman whose screen image bespoke glamour so dazzling and mystery so provocative that no other compared. Her face, with the arched brows and world - weary blue eyes, could exude spoiled insolence, frosty indifference or smoldering lust."

Dietrich was born on December 27, 1901, in a suburb of Berlin, Germany, called Schöneberg that later became part of Berlin proper. She was named Marie Magdalene Dietrich, and followed an older sister in a household headed by their father, Louis, a former Prussian cavalry officer who was serving as a police lieutenant in Berlin by the time she arrived. She and her sister were raised by their mother, Josephine, after the death of their father when "Lene," as she was known, was nine years old.


Berlin Chorus Girl

As a youngster, Dietrich emerged as a talented violinist. She attended the Augusta Victoria School in Berlin, and during World War I the family moved to Dessau when the Dietrich girls' future stepfather, an army officer, was mobilized into military service. After the end of the war in 1918, Berlin became a politically unstable place to live, and Dietrich finished her education at a boarding school in Weimar. It is known she was back in Berlin by late 1921, where she found work playing the violin at a movie theater. Her dreams of a concert career ended with a wrist injury, and she became a chorus girl in Berlin's heady nightclub scene. Deciding to try her luck at acting, she began studying at Berlin's Deutsche Theaterschule in 1922, which was affiliated with one of German theater's greatest names of the era, Max Reinhardt, a director and producer.

After debuting in a September 1922 stage production of Pandora's Box, Dietrich went on to appear in a number of other plays while also landing small roles in the nascent German film industry. Her screen debut came in a 1922 movie, So sind die Männer (Men Are Like This), and her first lead came six years later in Prinzessin Olala (Princess Olala). Stardom eluded her, however, and she remained a relative unknown until von Sternberg cast her in Der blaue Engel, also known by its English - version title, The Blue Angel. It was the first full - length German "talking" film, utilizing the new medium of synchronized sound, and Dietrich caused a sensation with her portrayal of the voluptuous, heartless cabaret singer Lola Frohlich. She appeared opposite Emil Jannings, a Swiss - born actor who was a silent - screen star at the time in both Europe and Hollywood; he had even won the first Academy Award for best actor in 1927. Jannings played the rotund, prudish schoolteacher determined to keep his pupils from frequenting Lola's stage show, but when he pays a call on her to voice his objections, he is instantly smitten. Lola proves his undoing, and he loses his job and becomes a comic prop in her act as his final humiliation.

Dietrich delivered a pitch - perfect performance of a femme fatale in The Blue Angel that was said to have been not far off the mark; rumors swirled that her own teachers had been smitten with her, and she seemed to have been suddenly removed from the Weimar school by her mother at one point. Dietrich sang in the film, in her smoky, innuendo - laden voice, while Sternberg's camera lingered often on her famously long legs. The director himself was said to have been enchanted by her, and she soon followed him to Hollywood after extricating herself from her contract with UFA (Universum Film AG), the leading German movie studio.


"Glowed Like a Full Moon"

By the time of The Blue Angel 's Berlin premier in April of 1930, Dietrich had began to heed Sternberg's makeover advice, and had noticeably slimmed down from her "Lola" portrayal. The noted director also provided tips on makeup and how she might best highlight the unusual symmetry of her face, and his camera would depict her in the most flattering and ethereal light over the course of their collaboration. These films are considered the high point of Dietrich's career, and include Morocco in 1930, followed by Dishonored, 1932's Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus, a turn as Russia's Catherine II in The Scarlet Empress in 1934, and The Devil Is a Woman, a 1935 work that was allegedly her personal career favorite. Cinema historians consider them classics, though they were mostly box - office flops. Michael Atkinson, writing for London's Guardian newspaper, called the seven films "masterpieces of vapour, shadow and lust, and in them Dietrich glows like a full moon."

Headstrong and opinionated, Dietrich ran into problems with her Paramount bosses as early as the making of Blonde Venus, and her career in Hollywood failed to fulfill its early promise. Her stardom and blonde beauty did attract attention back in Germany, and she was reportedly contacted by agents for the government of the country's Nazi Party leader and new chancellor, Adolf Hitler, who offered her a posh berth back home in exchange for her return. She loathed the fascist Nazis, however, and spurned their offer. She even went so far as to become a naturalized American citizen in the fall of 1937, which launched a torrent of hateful editorials in the government - controlled Nazi press and caused her films to be banned for a time.


Entertained Allied Troops at the Front

Dietrich threw herself wholeheartedly into her new mission - to discredit the Nazi regime that attempted to discredit her. She traveled overseas to entertain American troops near the frontlines during World War II - reportedly amidst terrible conditions - took part in Hollywood - publicized war - bond drives, and even delivered anti - Nazi broadcasts in German that aired overseas. True to form, she was said to have become romantically involved with the famous American general, George Patton. Her film career, meanwhile, had stalled. She made a Western with Jimmy Stewart, Destry Rides Again, and worked with noted director Billy Wilder in A Foreign Affair, set in Berlin during the war. Her later films of merit include Stage Fright, a 1950 Alfred Hitchcock work, Orson Welles's 1958 noir classic Touch of Evil, and Judgment at Nuremberg in 1961, an account of the Nazi war - crimes tribunals.

In the late 1940s, Dietrich began a recording career, and began playing the haute - nightclub circuit. She earned top dollar for performing her signature song from The Blue Angel, "Falling in Love Again," and others, and continued well into the 1970s. By then, however, the stage had been considerably darkened to camouflage her age, and she resorted to a number of painful tricks to maintain her glamorous image. These included braiding her hair tightly before donning a wig, and wearing a tight, allover girdle under her elaborate costumes and gowns. The ironclad garment restricted her movement, however, and she once fell into the orchestra pit and broke her hip at a Washington performance. Reportedly debilitated by arthritis, she was said to drink heavily in her later years to quell the pain.


Grew Increasingly Reclusive

Dietrich lived mainly in Paris after 1968. She had married in 1923 or 1924, to Rudolf Sieber, a casting director, with whom she had a daughter in 1924. The marriage was short - lived, but she and Sieber remained friends, and he served as her business manager for many years. In his old age, she often visited him on his California chicken ranch and spent days cooking meals for him. The rest of her real - life romances rivaled any on - screen saga: only in later years were rumors of her bisexuality openly discussed in the media, and she was said to have had a long relationship with writer Mercedes de Acosta, who was also the lover of Dietrich's archrival, Greta Garbo. Other dalliances included men as well as women, and her conquests reportedly included the writers Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway, and even President John F. Kennedy. In 1967, her much - younger lover, a Polish actor, came to see her off at a train station, and tripped and fell onto the track, where he was crushed by a train. The following year, another lover, an Australian journalist, was decapitated in a helicopter on his way to see one of her concert performances. Told of his death, Dietrich went onstage anyway that night.

Dietrich's last film appearance was in 1979's Schöner Gigolo - armer Gigolo (Just a Gigolo), which starred her opposite a new generation's androgyne, David Bowie. The onetime screen siren was "filmed through gauze, croaking her way through a parody of her Blue Angel persona," noted Sunday Times journalist James Dalrymple. "The results were appalling and she wept as she saw how the fragile erotic image she had created had become a monstrous piece of burlesque."

Dietrich emerged as an icon long before her 1992 death. Maximilian Schell pestered her for his 1984 documentary Marlene, and she finally agreed to participate only if she was not filmed; her words appear only in audio interviews overlaid over the rest of the film's footage. She delivers generally caustic comments, and derides her numerous biographers. She was a recluse in her final years, bedridden at her Avenue Montaigne apartment. A paparazzo once paid a tree - cutting crane operator to help him take photographs through her window, and the images sold for a small fortune. "They showed a small, defenceless figure in a crumpled bed in a shabby room," wrote Dalrymple in the Sunday Times. "Nearly 90, there was only one recognisable feature of the classic beauty that had haunted the 20th century[:] the eyes. Once they had been steely, mocking and defiant. Now they were filled only with fear, bewilderment and hopelessness."


Circus - Like Funeral

Dietrich died on May 6, 1992, in Paris, but controversy over her legacy swirled for some time after her death. She allegedly wanted to be buried in France, while others claimed she had hoped to be laid to rest next to her mother in a Berlin cemetery. The German side won, and her funeral there became a circus. The Berlin homecoming was all the more bittersweet for the fact that she had remained a pariah in Germany long after the end of World War II and the Nazi defeat. The conservative press regularly vilified her, and protesters turned up outside one series of concert engagements. Even after her death, a debate whether to name a Berlin street in her honor raged for months.

The final indignity, for a woman who had guarded her private life so valiantly, came a year after Dietrich's death, when her daughter Maria Riva wrote a scathing memoir that excoriated the star's longest role, that of mother. Nevertheless, Dietrich was close to Riva and to her grandchildren, and spoke to them on a near - daily basis in the years before her death. Riva's reasons for writing her tell - all book, in which Dietrich comes across as callous and demanding, might be summarized by one of her mother's many famous pronouncements: "We all regret our youth," she said, according to People, "once we have lost it."

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008