Our old movies feature returns, as we celebrate the screen work of Marlene Dietrich: and you never forget your first Dietrich film.
If you think of Marlene Dietrich, there’s almost certainly an image that comes to mind. A smoky parlour as she sings in a tuxedo, seductively kissing an unexpecting woman. A lovelorn healed walk across the heated desert as she follows her lover to war. A series of shadows casts suspicions across a beauties face.
If you’ve watched at least one Marlene Dietrich movie, then there are plenty of moments that are seared indelibly within you. Or, if you were like me, you were first introduced to the German idol thanks to Sasha Velour’s drag parody on RuPaul’s Drag Race – that’s fine. After all, what is art and drag if not to educate our young LGBT people about pioneers. Certainly, Marlene Dietrich is one – a queer icon for every age – and her contributions to cinema and the world should be celebrated.
Note: there are not enough words in the English vocabulary to explain the impact and brilliance of Dietrich, but I am certainly going to try.
As I said then, there’s a moment where you are captured by Marlene Dietrich, like a movement in your soul. A pirouette into obsession. For me it was Morocco (1930) which caught me in the Dance of Dietrich two minutes into the film. Starring opposite Gary Cooper, the film sees a cabaret singer and a Legionnaire fall in love during the Rif War. Bound by passion and torn apart by jealousy, this pair conduct an illicit affair.
The opening sequenced caused quite a stir as it saw Dietrich perform dressed in a man’s tailcoat, and she happily kisses a woman in the audience. In a smoky parlour of the titular country, Marlene’s lustful stare caught me in a rapture. Within the black and white world, director Josef von Sternberg utilises shadows and buildings to capture Dietrich and Cooper in their heated relationship. As the last scene fades, seeing our cabaret singer join a caravan of wives following their husbands into war, the footsteps stay forever imprinted into the sands of your mind.
Dietrich’s collaborations with German director von Sternberg continued for seven movies. German movie The Blue Angel (1930) was actually the first film to propel Dietrich into Hollywood fame. It sees a professor fall in love with a sultry singer Lola and the former is driven mad by his love for her. Marlene’s dance sequences are memorable as she points the spotlight across the crowd as though she were searching for her next victim.
Yet Lola’s biggest crime uses Dietrich’s fateful glare as a weapon. As the professor is demeaned on stage, another man embraces and kisses her. Marlene’s subtle look is piercing, provocative, and powerful. You can understand a man’s downfall. I nearly tumbled myself.
von Sternberg just knew how to frame Dietrich. The director utilised her great skills, keeping her secrets away from the surface and luring you into her story and plight. This is best used in the gorgeous Shanghai Express (1932) as secrets and politics unfold upon a moving train.
Other highlights for me include her work with my favourite directors. Rouben Mamoulian’s The Song Of Songs (1933) was a surprising detour from her femme fatale performances. In fact, she plays a light-hearted, innocent maid Lily. Dietrich also worked with Ernest Lubitsch on Angel (1937) though it wasn’t critically or commercially famous.
Off-screen, Dietrich worked tirelessly in anti-Nazi activism. During World War II, Dietrich was outspoken about her political viewpoints and worked actively to help Jews escape from Germany. Alongside director Billy Wilder, Dietrich used a lot of her earnings to create a fund to help those fleeing Germany and France. Marlene even performed for Allied troops in many countries during the war. She was so well known for her humanitarian efforts that she received the Medal of Freedom.
Post World-War II, Dietrich did films with acclaimed directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang before returning to the stage and in cabaret for most of the remainder of her life.
Though she was supposedly a private person, in Old Hollywood, Dietrich certainly sparked controversy as bisexual woman. She would regularly attend drag shows and gay bars and be outspoken about LGBT rights. Dietrich, despite being married to Rudolf Sieber from 1923 to his death in 1978, had numerous affairs with both famed actors and actresses of the time such as Gary Cooper, Mercedes del Rio, Errol Flynn, and was rumoured to also have slept with Edith Piaf.
Marlene was well known to slip into conversation the phrase sewing circle, which was a euphemism for underground, closeted lesbian, and bisexual film actresses. Marlene’s Sewing Circle was a supposed personal club which included del Rio, Claudette Colbert, and Ann Warner. Why no one has done a film about this is beyond me but if a Hollywood executive is reading this, contact me and we’ll do a deal.
Marlene Dietrich is and continues to be an icon, wearing gender-bending attire and championing rights of everyone, everywhere. I cannot wait for you to watch a film of hers for the first time. It is a magical experience.
The Blue Angel and Morocco are on streaming platforms like BFIPlayer and Amazon Prime. If this article has yet to convince you, then let me earnestly say that exploring Dietrich’s filmography is a must. She can deliver an insult with the rise of an eyebrow. She can grapple with passion in the flow of her eyesight. She can capture the war within a woman with poise and posture. And Dietrich made the world better as she did.
You’ll never forget your first. Please come back to tell me what image of Dietrich is now seared into your soul.
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