Remembering Marlene Dietrich
Wearing a skin-tight sparkling white gown that matched her perfectly coiffed platinum hair, Marlene Dietrich oozed Hollywood glamour during a live concert I attended back in the 1960s. And she was close to 70 years old! Dietrich’s famous husky voice added to her allure as she seduced the audience with her unique rendition of such favorites as “Falling in Love Again,” “Lili Marlene,” “Little Joe,” “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have,” “The Laziest Gal in Town” and “When the World Was Young.”
Ah, yes, I remember it well -- and how thrilled I was to see Dietrich in person after admiring her sultry performances in films like Destry Rides Again, The Flame of New Orleans, Golden Earrings, Stage Fright, Seven Sinners, The Spoilers, Pittsburgh, Touch of Evil and Rancho Notorious. The list of her leading men reads like a Hollywood “Who’s Who” of A-list male actors -- Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Tyrone Power, Ronald Colman, Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland. But Dietrich’s defining role came early in her career -- and not in a Hollywood production. She played Lola Lola, a seductive vamp, in Josef Von Sternberg’s German film, The Blue Angel, which became an international success. Prior to the film’s release in 1930, Dietrich signed a contract with Paramount. Arriving in Hollywood, she was still under the influence of director Von Sternberg, who molded her into a woman of mystery with a persona similar to the woman she portrayed in his film.
Maria Magdelena Dietrich was born in Berlin on December 27, 1901. As a teenager, she studied the violin and hoped to play that instrument in concert halls. However, when she suffered a wrist injury, her plans changed. Dietrich joined a chorus line and toured with a musical revue for a while. Then, in 1922, she became a student at Max Reinhardt’s drama school. She played various roles on the stage and in German films, becoming very popular as a leading lady. In fact, many fans and critics compared her to the great Greta Garbo.
Although Dietrich married Rudolf Sieber, a Czech production assistant on Tragedy of Love, in 1925, she left her husband and their daughter Maria in Germany when she came to America. Sieber and Dietrich never divorced, but they lived apart most of the time -- even when Sieber and Maria moved to California. The most important man in Dietrich’s life seemed to be Von Sternberg, and her involvement with him led to an “alienation of affection” suit filed by the filmmaker’s wife.
Because of her German roots, Nazi agents approached Dietrich in 1937 about returning to Germany and making films there. She refused and became an American citizen. All during World War II, Dietrich helped the war effort by entertaining U.S. troops, selling war bonds and making anti-Nazi broadcasts beamed into Germany. For her patriotic efforts, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom.
Dietrich’s success as a cabaret performer and recording artist almost matched her illustrious film career. Fans flocked to see her in such diverse parts of the world as London, Paris, Moscow, Tel Aviv, Las Vegas, New York and Berlin. In 1975, while doing a show in Sydney, Australia, Dietrich broke her leg and never appeared on stage again.
During her last years, Dietrich avoided public appearances, but she allowed her friend Maximilian Schell to put together her screen biography, Marlene (1984), in which she’s heard on tape but not seen on screen.
When Dietrich died of kidney failure at age 90 in 1992, she was mourned throughout the world. Entertainment Weekly voted her the 43rd greatest movie star of all time, and Empire magazine named her one of filmdom’s 100 sexiest stars.