Texting with a friend earlier today, Marlene Dietrich came up as I’d just seen her famous white tie and tails in an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He asked “I assume she was a star?” The answer, of course, is “One of the greatest of her day, and she knew how to work her lighting!” While I am far from an expert on La Dietrich, I want to set forth a few aspects of her career that I love and enjoy.
First, Marlene was THE first woman to wear men’s evening clothes, which she did famously in Morocco (which I’ve never seen). This is the best footage I could find on YouTube.
The director Josef von Sternberg taught her everything she knew, especially about lighting. Their films together show to her marvelous advantage. A favorite of mine has always been Shanghai Express, which has the added advantage of including Anna Mae Wong, Warner Oland, and a fantastic ensemble cast.
Then there’s The Scarlet Empress of 1934 (not to be confused with The Rise of Catherine the Great, also of 1934), which is one mightily insane film. I gather it didn’t do well at the box office at the time. This scene of Catherine, ahem, “reviewing the troops” will give you an idea of her Marlene’s special quality.
During World War II she did a lot for the troops, and her song “Lili Marlene” became her theme song. She filmed in in the 1960s during her touring act.
After the war, one of her best film appearances was in A Foreign Affair, filmed in the ruins of Berlin. This scene with Jean Arthur is one of the best.
She sings “Illusions” in this film, which just electrifies me when I see it in the movie. Alas, the footage is no longer on YouTube!
One of my favorite Hitchcock films is Stage Fright, in which Marlene appears essentially as herself.
Tired Old Queen at the Movies gives a fab review of Stage Fright.
In her later years, she toured. When I was working at the Vendome in college, one of the “confirmed bachelors” who lived there told me that when he was young he saw her in concert. “The first five rows were filled up with sisters,” he told me, “but that night the sixth row was reserved just for her family, and she sang to them all night.”
This song, “Falling in Love Again,” was from her first film, The Blue Angel (which I just can’t bring myself to see. Downward trajectories bring me down.) But you can see why I forget which reviewer said that she was “pelted with shrubbery by epicene maniacs.”
So, that’s what I know about Marlene Dietrich. Go forth and explore on your own!