Marlene Dietrich (born today in 1901, died 1992) came to the U.S. too late to be in American vaudeville, but she performed in the German equivalent, the Berlin cabaret scene during the years of the Weimar Republic. Her show biz entree came as a violinist in a silent movie pit orchestra in 1922. Within a few months she had become a chorus girl in Guido Thielscher’s Girl-Kabarett and in Berlin revues produced by Rudolf Nelson. Throughout the 1920s she got increasingly large roles in revues, musicals and dramas, both on stage and screen.
Her breakout role was the iconic one, that of Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel (1930), directed by Josef von Sternberg. The film was the source of her signature song “Falling in Love Again”, or as I like to call it, “Fallink in Luff Again.” Dietrich then followed Sternberg out to Hollywood, where she starred in a number of hit films that cemented her legend: Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), The Blonde Venus (1932) etc.
These roles often seemed to amplify Dietrich’s own legend as a performer: she was a cold hearted siren who lured men to their dooms. Those enormous green eyes could stare a scene partner down with such terrifying dispassion. At the same time, she possessed a smoldering sexuality, legs that wouldn’t quit, and a penchant for male drag, all of which added up to an explosion of contradictions, not unlike the Expressionistic artworks she had originally exploded out of. She was like a Dada collage; jagged fragments glued together; beautiful pieces reassembled in such a way that forbid you to own them as strictly beautiful. She was her own Deconstruction. She always looked ready to break you into pieces, just as she had been used — only it was obvious that you would never survive the process as well as she did.
By the second half of the 30s, Dietrich’s star was on the wane but then she rebounded with Destry Rides Again (1939). She continued to expand her range throughout the 40s and 50s, at the same time transitioning back to her original love, live performance in the form of a nightclub act and Broadway shows. Some classic later performances include Rene Clair’s The Flame of New Orleans (1941), The Spoilers (1942) with Randolph Scott and John Wayne, Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950), Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952), Billy Wilder’s take on Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), and Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). And of course, Madeline Kahn plays hilarious tribute to her in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974).
Dietrich retired in 1975 when she broke her hip (followed by the death of her husband the following year). She did emerge one last time however, to play a role in the German film Just a Gigolo with David Bowie in 1979. I also highly recommend Maximillian Schell’s 1984 documentary Marlene. Dietrich participates, but only off-camera in audio interviews. And she is just what you want her to be, elusive, vain, in denial, jealous, wise, extraordinarily intelligent and cultured (she spoke many languages). It’s astounding that someone like that could make a go of it in Hollywood. But she was beautiful and talented and in every way a star, and the film colony has always respected those things even when unable to appreciate the complexities that sometimes go with them.
Dietrich was reviled in her homeland for many decades for choosing the American side rather than the German in World War II, but they now honor her in Berlin: