DIETRICH ,MARLENE (Maria Magdalena Dietrich) (1901–1992) Actress, Singer
Mysterious and alluring, Marlene Dietrich brought to Hollywood a European sophistication that made her an icon. She was born in Berlin on December 27, 1901, as Maria Magdalena Dietrich. Nicknamed Leni, she trained to become a concert violinist but decided to become an actress instead after injuring her hand.
Sporting bobbed hair and often men’s suits, Dietrich embraced the freewheeling atmosphere of post–World War I Berlin. While studying at Max Reinhardt’s acting school, she sang in cabarets and played small roles in films. Professionally, she called herself Marlene (pronounced Mar-LAY-na), a confiation of her first and middle names. While on the set of Tragedy of Love (1923), she met Rudolf Sieber, a casting assistant. She and Sieber married and had one child, Maria. They soon separated but never divorced, though Dietrich had many affairs with lovers of both sexes during their marriage. By the 1930s, Dietrich had established herself in German film and theater. On the strength of one of her performances, director Josef von Sternberg invited her to star in his film version of Professor Unrath, a novel by Heinrich Mann. The film, Der Blaue Engel (1930), told the story of an amoral nightclub singer, Lola Lola, who uncaringly destroys a pompous professor who has fallen in love with her. As Lola Lola, Dietrich sang her trademark song, “Falling in Love Again,” and created an indelible femme fatale that made film an enormous hit with German audiences. During the filming, Mann predicted, “The success of this film will be found in the naked thighs of Miss Dietrich.”
The film’s English-language version, titled The Blue Angel (1930), became Dietrich’ s ticket to Hollywood. With von Sternberg, she was courted by Paramount, which hoped they could have the same success with Dietrich as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had with its exotic European beauty, GRETA GARBO. The studio set about giving Dietrich a glamorous new image. She lost 30 pounds, had cosmetic surgery to slim her nose, and possibly had molars removed to make her sunken cheeks even more dramatic. For Paramount, Dietrich made six more films with von Sternberg at the helm. They included Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), and Shanghai Express (1932). In these Dietrich–von Sternberg collaborations, Dietrich played variations on the same character, a world-weary woman with no illusions about romance who nevertheless in the end sacrifices all for love. The formula was embraced by American moviegoers, who made Dietrich one of the highest paid stars of the early 1930s.
Dietrich and von Sternberg’s last film, The Devil Is a Woman (1935), failed at the box office. Feeling defeated by the American film industry, von Sternberg returned to Germany. Dietrich stayed on but found her popularity slipping away. After making the disappointing Angel (1937) with director Ernst Lubitsch, Dietrich was labeled by film distributors as “box-office poison.”
Paramount dropped her contract, and she considered permanently returning to Europe to try to revive her career there. Instead, Dietrich took a chance, playing a saloon girl named Frenchy in satire of Westerns titled Destry Rides Again (1939). She approached
the role with enthusiasm, drawing on her cabaret experience to give a first-rate comedy performance. Her old fans enjoyed this new Dietrich, and once again she was considered a major star.
Her comeback, however, was soon interrupted by World War II. Dietrich was invited by Joseph Goebbels to come back to Germany to star in Nazi propaganda films. She refused, instead renouncing the Nazi regime and her German citizenship. During the war, she traveled widely, performing in more than 500 shows for the USO. For her efforts to build troop morale, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom.
After the war, Dietrich returned to Hollywood and acted in films by many of the world’s greatest directors, including Billy Wilder (A Foreign Affair, 1948; Witness for the Prosecution, 1957), Fritz Lang (Rancho Notorious, 1952); and Orson Welles (A Touch of Evil, 1958). Few were profitable, however. By the late 1950s, Dietrich tried to branch out. After two failed attempts of radio shows, she developed a nightclub act, following the example of JUDY GARLAND. Dietrich’s show was a great success and had runs in Las Vegas, New York, and London. She even briefly appeared in Berlin, although many Germans still considered her a traitor for her anti-Nazi stance. Dietrich recast the act as a full-scale musical revue, which ran on Broadway for six weeks in 1967.
Dietrich moved to Paris in 1972. She gave her final live performance in 1975 and appeared in her last film—Just a Gigolo, opposite David Bowie—in 1978. Dietrich also lent her voice, though not her face, to Marlene (1979), a documentary made by her friend, actor Maximilian Schell. She refused to appear on camera, explaining to Schell in the film, “I’ve been photographed to death and I don’t want any more.” On May 6, 1992, Marlene Dietrich died at 90, leaving behind a wealth of celluloid images showing her as wished to be rememberedintriguing, seductive, and always beautiful.
Dietrich, Marlene. Marlene. New York: Grove Press, 1989. Spoto, Donald. Blue Angel: The Life of Marlene Dietrich. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Blue Angel (1930). Madacy Entertainment, VHS, 1997.
Destry Rides Again (1939). Universal, VHS, 1993.
An Evening with Marlene Dietrich (1973). MPI Home Video, VHS, 1999.
A Touch of Evil (1958). Universal, DVD/VHS, 2000.