I have seen only a few of Marlene Dietrich’s films and know little about her life and career. And yet, I was in Berlin a few years ago with my friend Alistair who has been a Dietrich fan since his teens.
I accompanied Alistair to the fabulous Dietrich Archive at the Film Museum.
When I thought about writing about this remarkable woman who was one of the biggest stars of Classic Hollywood, who better to answer my many questions than Alistair .
My thanks go to Alistair for most of what is in this post. His personal reminiscences have proved invaluable and so interesting.
I have already started catching up on Marlene’s films – well, I watched ANGEL , that’s a start!
Reading about Marlene’s life, watching documentaries and hearing Alistair’s opinions has been a fascinating experience.
Born in 1901 ( though she often said 1904), her full name was Maria Magdalena Dietrich, but she shortened her Christian name to Marlene. She married Rudi Sieber in 1922 and had a daughter, Maria in 1923.
Although she later said that The Blue Angel was her very first film, she had In fact made several silent films before 1930.
She was already on her way to the States when The Blue Angel (which had been filmed in German and English ) was released to great success in Europe. Paramount held up releasing The Blue Angel in America till after issuing Morocco there.
And Marlene immediately had the song which would be hers for the rest of her life – “Falling in Love Again”.
Director Josef von Sternberg had seen Marlene in a play in Berlin and had her audition for the role of Lola Lola.
In Hollywood, Marlene and von Sternberg made 6 films together for Paramount between 1930 and 1935.
When the collaboration started to decline in box office success, Marlene took a break from filming then returned with great success in a completely different role as saloon girl ‘Frenchy’ in Destry Rides Again in 1939.
She only made just over 20 more films in the next four decades, including three with John Wayne. And two with her old friend Billy Wilder – A Foreign Affair and Witness for the Prosecution, plus a Hitchcock film, Stage Fright.
Alistair talks of that special day in May,2013 in Berlin when we visited the Museum housing the Dietrich archive!
…..”Our first trip in the morning was to the Marlene Dietrich Textile Archive in Schichauweg in a warehouse unit belonging to the German Film Museum.
Barbara Schroter, who showed us around, kindly looked out some things she thought would be of interest – the ringmaster’s outfit worn by Marlene at Madison Square Garden; one of the dresses (and matching unterhosen – knickers to you and I ) from “Destry Rides Again”; a red blouse from “The Devil is a Woman”; a suit from “Witness for the Prosecution “; and assorted shoes, handbags, luggage etc.
Marlene never threw anything away. She was an inveterate hoarder and had even cut off designer labels from some of her costumes to avoid paying customs duty on them. But she kept all the labels in an envelope!
………In the afternoon we made our way to Potsdamer Platz for our appointment with Silke Ronneberg , head of the Marlene Dietrich Collection at the Filmmuseum there.
Like Barbara at the textile archive, she couldn’t have been more welcoming to a couple of Scottish film fans.
In a refrigerated storeroom we saw some of Marlene’s jewellery , including a brooch I recognised – a pair of legs in gold, one of which is in a cast. It was given to Marlene when she broke her leg during the making of “The Lady Is Willing.”
We also got to see scripts, costume designs and stills. Silke had also looked out some of Marlene’s correspondence from her two Edinburgh one- woman shows in 1964 and 1965, which was very thoughtful of her.
Back in Silke’s office, we were shown some of Marlene’s home movies on a TV monitor.
One of the best days of my life!
(Alistair, I wish we could go again – I would appreciate it even more now!)
Marlene’s grave. Although she spent the last 13 years of her life in seclusion in Paris, she wanted to be buried in Berlin alongside her mother. She was a prolific letter writer and phone caller during these last years.
The gravestone inscription translates to “Here I stand at the marks to my days.” She was posthumously made an honorary citizen of Berlin in 2002.
Marlene’s vast memorabilia collection was purchased from her family by the city of Berlin in 1993 for $5 million .
The archive includes 300,000 pages of written material including 45,000 pages of correspondence and 16,500 photos ( including 6500 set and production stills.). And 350 posters!
Her private library contained 1800 titles including 355 signed copies.
Visitors to the collection are welcome ( in non- Covid times)- the website is deutsche- kinemathek-de. Silke Ronneborg can be contacted at sronneborg@deutsche-kinemathek-de
I found a quote from Marlene – “I dress for the image – clothes bore me.I’d wear jeans.”
“Marlene was a keen fashion trendsetter for most of her life- she was the one who popularised the wearing of trousers by ladies in the 1930s: and even in the 1960s she set many trends.”
How do you account for her longevity:
“She was savvy enough to know that once you reach a certain age, Hollywood pigeonholes you into character parts and when she was offered a chance to do a cabaret act at the Sahara hotel in Las Vegas, she jumped at the chance.
She was used to performing on stage from her early days in Berlin and also doing many troop concerts during World War II, so it was a seamless transition to recreate her act for a paying audience .
They loved her in Las Vegas and her original contract was extended. After that, she took her act all over the world until an accident in the 1970s in Australia ended that part of her career.”
Having become a U.S. citizen in 1939, when America entered the war, Marlene toured U.S.bases in 1942/43 and as part of the U.S.O, she went overseas and entertained the groups in Britain, France and finally Germany. She also did a lot of bond raising for the military effort.
In 1947, Marlene received the highest civilian honour in America, the Medal of Freedom.
Marlene had studied the violin when she was young, and while entertaining wartime troops, she played a very unusual instrument – the musical saw.
On seeing Marlene in person, Alistair remembered:
“I had seen and loved a couple of her films on BBC television in the early 1960s, notably THE SCARLET EMPRESS, and when I saw she was scheduled to appear at the 1964 Edinburgh Festival in a week of late-night engagements at the Lyceum Theatre, my best school friend,Richard and I, rushed out and got tickets.
We went to one performance and waited at the stage door for her to come out afterwards. I was also keen to see Burt Bacharach who was her accompanist and arranger at that time, as I loved (and still do!) his songs written with Hal David for Dionne Warwick.
She didn’t disappoint her many fans who were also waiting – she came out with Burt and graciously and patiently signed autographs and chatted to the crowd.
We were right at the front and had a great view of her and Burt – I asked her about ‘The Scarlet Empress’ and she seemed surprised that an 18 year old was so fascinated by it.
Richard and I were so star-struck that we went up nearly every night after that, to hang about at the stage door and see her come out. I managed to get three or four autographs over the week – if we only had had access to phones with cameras in those days!
Marlene was the first Hollywood star either of us had seen in person! She came back again the next year and we repeated the process again. Burt was there again – this time with his wife, Angie Dickinson. They made a lovely couple.
Are there any of her films that rarely get shown -or that you have never seen?
“ ‘Martin Roumagnac’ , her French film with her then lover, Jean Gabin is one that has escaped me so far, and many of her silents prior to ‘The Blue Angel’ are also rarely seen these days.And she denied their existence in many interviews over the years, claiming her film career started with ‘The Blue Angel’.
The wartime film ‘Follow The Boys’ offer us the opportunity to see Marlene get sawn in half by magician Orson Welles and isn’t shown often.
Hitler’s government wanted Marlene to return to Berlin but she refused and became an American citizen in 1939. Can you talk about her reception in Berlin when she finally returned there in 1960?
Many Berliners hated her when she went back there to perform . I get the feeling that they think she deserted them. There were protestors outside the theatre with banners. But later appearances in Germany were well received.”
Could you name five favourite Dietrich films:
”Scarlet Empress”: Josef von Sternberg’s visual style at its most decorative.”
”A Foreign Affair” – Billy Wilder’s Classic set in post-war Berlin : his wry humour at its most acerbic. I love the line Marlene speaks to costar Jean Arthur – “ Let’ s go to my apartment. It’s only a few ruins away.”
”Witness for the Prosecution “ is another Wilder gem , and although Marlene plays second fiddle to Charles Laughton, she acquits herself well in this Agatha Christie whodunnit.”
Witness for the Prosecution.
”Stage Fright”, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is another Marlene favourite of mine. It seems to capture the grim post-war British atmosphere well.”
”Shanghai Express”, Von Sternberg’s ‘Grand Hotel’ on wheels. There are some excellent performances in this, including Louise Closser Hale’s frosty landlady, complete with pooch in basket: Anna May Wong as a Chinese courtesan, and of course,Marlene as ‘Shanghai Lily’. She even manages to make woooden Clive Brook look interesting.”
Her only Oscar nomination was for MOROCCO. Any other deserving roles?
“Witness for the Prosecution”, “Judgement at Nuremberg”, “Desire” are a few I think she excels in.”
I listened to Marlene’s “Desert Island Discs” ( thanks, Alistair) from 1965 when she was appearing at the Queen’s Theatre in London.
Here are some of her comments ,spoken very matter of factly:
”Making films is a very difficult task. It was hard work all along the line…”
”I’m not a singer. I need the words very much to give expression to the song.” “I never listen to my own records.”
”I loved Edinburgh. I carry with me a little bunch of white Heather that I received there, that the people of Scotland brought me. I take it with me wherever I go.”
(Someone described Marlene’s voice as a “husky whisky tenor”!)
This post really only scratches the surface of Marlene Dietrich’s life. Alistair has 22 books about her – and indicated there are more! He recommends the biography by Steven Bach.
Marlene never divorced Rudolph Sieber . Alistair commented: “I think it was convenient for her to be married but it didn’t interfere in any way with her own liaisons.” (Of which there were many!)