Bi 40s screen queens – Part 2: Marlene Dietrich

Marlene in "No Highway", 1951

Marlene in “No Highway”, 1951

“Darling, the legs aren’t so beautiful, I just know what to do with them.”

Marlene Dietrich is a legend, but a legend that was carefully constructed throughout her career. She was an actress, appearing in 30 films between 1923 and 1964, a performer, a singer, and an entertainer. She was one of the most celebrated women of her era. Her sex appeal was undeniable and her famous androgynous look made trousers for women fashionable. Her embodiment of beauty and seduction made her the object of both male and female desire; she was a passionate bisexual whose affairs often overlapped. She pursued that which she craved, regardless of gender.

Marie Magdalene Dietrich was born in on December 27th 1901 in Berlin to a middle-class family, the youngest of two daughters. Aged 11 she combined her family nickname Lena with her first name to create Marlene (Mar-lay-na) and it stuck. She was a musical girl and learned the violin while at school. She had hoped to become a professional violinist but a damaged wrist put an end to her dream. After graduating from high school she went about making her way as an actress. Theatre was in her blood; she devoured the playwrights and learnt their work by heart. To pay her rent she worked as a shoe and stocking model, unaware that her legs would later become an international obsession. In 1920 Marlene unsuccessfully auditioned for the Max Reinhardt Drama School. Minor parts followed, including the widow in The Taming of the Shrew, and though she was still acting and dancing, she also worked in a glove factory. It was a depressing and deprived existence.

Marlene met director Rudolf Sieber on the set of The Tragedy of Love and they married in 1923; she had her only child the year after. Theirs was an open relationship, more brother/sister than spouse, and he had a girlfriend in Russian actress Tamara Matul. It was they who raised the baby, releasing Marlene to act, enjoy the Berlin cabaret scene, and have innumerable affairs.

Berlin in the ’20s was a louche and sexually ambiguous place, the perfect setting for Marlene who felt no inhibition and who became the busiest bisexual in the theatrical city; she was often the only woman allowed in the gay bars. It was in this hotbed of homosexuality that she honed her seduction skills. She had a notorious and compulsive appetite for beautiful women, often enticing them backstage for a raunchy rendezvous. Marlene preferred the ladies for love, lust, and fun and dated men more for show. She admitted that she didn’t much care for sex with men, using it as a weapon of control and manipulation. With girls it was different. She enjoyed the sex and the relationships were much more satisfying; she was totally open about her homosexual liaisons.

In 1925 Marlene had a small role in silent German film The Joyless Street (Die freudlose Gasse). On set she met simple, sensitive 19-year old Greta Garbo. They had a passionate but doomed affair that went spectacularly wrong. Garbo was sexually confused and painfully self-conscious where Marlene was confident and passionate. Marlene mocked Garbo, calling her a peasant, laughing at her ignorance and lack of social polish, considering her nothing more than a plaything. Garbo was so deeply hurt by the betrayal they would both deny any involvement with each other until sixty years later. The rift was traumatic and they both found it easier to be strangers, deliberately managing to avoid each other in Hollywood (quite the achievement, considering how incestuous the industry was). Marlene even tried to erase her involvement in the film (not too tricky, it was before she died her hair blonde and lost weight). Indeed, they were supposedly “introduced” by Orson Welles in 1945. They exchanged pleasantries before once again ignoring each other. (For a fuller take on this tale, read Diana McLellan’s book The Girls: Sappho Goes To Hollywood.) So intertwined were the lesbians of Hollywood that her live-in lover Mercedes de Acosta gave up her affair with Garbo to be with Marlene. They were happy for some time, Marlene becoming a good housewife, before she once again got bored and moved on.

“Sex. In America an obsession. In other parts of the world a fact.”

Marlene was still on the edges of greatness, still working hard to make it professionally. In 1928 she achieved her first taste of notoriety with the revue It’s in the Air and a duet with Margo Lion. The song “Best Friends” begins innocently with two friends shopping before quickly turning up the gay with the girls flirtatiously comparing their lingerie purchases, all the while wearing violets – a known symbol of Sapphic love. Lion was openly lesbian and the two were rumoured to be lovers, no doubt helping the revue find an audience. Her career was about to explode.

In 1930, Viennese director Josef von Sternberg discovered Marlene, seeing the raw sexuality and the seductive vamp, he cast her in his film The Blue Angel. It was he who transformed her from brawny and slightly masculine into a glamorous creature and temptress. “Her personality was one of extreme sophistication and of an almost childish simplicity,” the director wrote. The song Falling in Love Again proved she wasn’t the most talented actress or singer but her performance even with her limited range was mesmerising. (Watch it here.) The film was an international hit and she moved to Hollywood, von Sternberg ‘s muse and star of a further six of his films for Paramount Studios (who wanted someone “exotic” to rival MGM’s star Garbo).

821575Von Sternberg encouraged Marlene to lose weight, her jaw line and cheekbones now more chiselled, coached her in the acting department, and he turned her into a star. He used every means at his disposal to make her remarkable. Through the use of shadows, make-up, and crack cinematography, including something called “butterfly lighting”, she metamorphosed into a Hollywood star.

The use of light and shadow and the impact it had combined with the meticulous attention to detail on all aspects of production created some of the most visually arresting and stylish pictures of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Their first American film was Morocco (1930) , famous for the scene in which Marlene is dressed as a man and plants a passionate kiss on a girl’s mouth in a café. Two years before the introduction of the Production Code banning all kinds of sexual behaviours, it became an iconic moment in cinema and she acquired a cult following of men and women, gay and straight. Kenneth Tynan, who wrote a profile of Marlene said, “She has sex but no particular gender. Her ways are mannish: the characters she played loved power and wore slacks and they never had headaches or hysterics. There were also quite undomesticated. Dietrich’s masculinity appeals to women and her sexuality to men.”

Marlene and von Sternberg’s association ended in 1935 and von Sternberg’s career floundered. Away from Paramount Marlene earned huge amounts of money, becoming one of the highest paid actresses of the time. But her two vehicles were costly to make and didn’t recoup financially. She was labelled “box office poison”, rejected offers to return to Germany, and took a break. In 1939 she played against type in a Western opposite James Stewart, taking similar roles in later films with John Wayne (with whom it is reported she had an affair). While she continued to appear in movies for some of the most distinguished directors, her career never again reached the same heights. But she had other things to do.

“This is the only important work I’ve ever done.”

The war years were to be Marlene’s finest hour as a performer, cementing her star status. Refusing Hitler’s offer to return to the Third Reich and make whatever films she wanted, she was one of the first celebrities to raise war bonds and was reported to have sold more than any other star. She toured the US from January 1942 to September 1943 and then toured overseas, performing for Allied troops on the front lines of Algeria, Italy, Britain, and France, even returning to her native Germany with General Patton. She assumed the honorary rank of Colonel and dressed in an elegant version of the military uniform. It seems she liked being one of the boys. She was awarded the Medal of Freedom and was made a Knight and Officer of the Légion d’Honneur.

While Marlene made more films after the war, including, to great acclaim, Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1947), she was cultivating a stage presence that would be unrivalled. She made her debut at the Sahara in Las Vegas in 1953 (earning $30,000 a week) and the next year took London by storm at the Café de Paris, descending the staircase in iconic fashion to Noel Coward’s introduction. She toured the world, always with Burt Bacharach whom she described as her “arranger, accompanist and conductor”. She took all that she had learnt from von Sternberg’s lighting and make-up to the stage and never looked anything less than perfect. Her sultry and dramatic voice still had the power to move, she remained glamorous and oozed sex appeal, but more than anything she adored the applause. (Watch her 1972 London concert here and be amazed. Also note the Edith Piaf song and be aware that they had an affair – it gives a new meaning to La Vie en Rose).

“If God exists, he needs to review his plan.”

Increasingly frail, Marlene started to have accidents, breaking bones with alarming frequency. Her fall into an orchestra pit in Sydney in 1976 broke her thigh and she gave up performing. She was never officially seen again, becoming a recluse, alcoholic and dependent on painkillers. She died in her Parisian flat on the 6th of May 1992, aged 90.

Marlene Dietrich entranced the world by being able to fulfil any fantasy. AFI named her the 9th greatest female star of all time. Her legacy lives on in fashion and film. She will always be an icon.


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A Jill of all trades, mistress of none, Kate has tried everything: prison psychology, volunteering with homeless people, teaching English abroad, and editing a magazine in China (thankfully not in Chinese!). A born procrastinator, she's been working on her autobiographical sex book for the past four years and has got nowhere. She's hoping to find some motivation on the open road - a born traveller she's hoping to leave for America very soon. Happiest performing her comedy poems at spoken word nights and getting inordinate amounts of attention, Kate is a whirlwind of a woman.

One Response to Bi 40s screen queens – Part 2: Marlene Dietrich

  • janis hetherington says:

    Stunning article about a really stunning ladye. Sadly Garbo never did come to terms with her lesbian longings although she spent a large part of her life as a ‘recluse’ dressed as a chap!!!!. Lovely writing Kate. Well done..GARBO NEXT ???? There is a great quote about Marlene and Kate Hepburn by Mae West who drawled ‘it’s bad enough having that German broad coming onto me now I’ve got the skinny one from Philly after my assets… if ahh hadda choose ? well I’d give both a good licking” One assumes that was firmly ‘tongue in cheek’.

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