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Marlene Dietrich

MarleneWith her sultry glamour and sex appeal, Marlene Dietrich was a German-American actress and singer who broke all the rules in her long career by continually re-inventing herself both professionally and personally. At a time when women were portrayed as the weaker sex and needy, Marlene, whether on screen or in cabaret exuded sex appeal, confidence and sophistication. Her sexuality was tangible and often shocking and she was both audacious and witty.

Known best as the cabaret entertainer of Weimar-era Germany, Dietrich was personified as Lola-Lola, the seductive cabaret singer in top hat and silk stockings whom she portrayed in ‘The Blue Angel’. Both on stage and in her private life, Marlene showed herself as a liberated woman of the world who earned her own living, chose her own men and whose sexuality was palpable.

Marlene Dietrich’s sultry, seductive image came to the fore in the Berlin of the 1920’s where she appeared in plays, cabaret and in various films. It was the American director Josef von Sternberg who cast her in ‘The Blue Angel’ in 1930, filmed in both German and in English that made her a star and won her a Hollywood contract. She went on to star in six more Von Sternberg movies; ‘Morocco’ in 1930 where she again played a cabaret singer opposite Gary Cooper; ‘Dishonoured’ in 1931 where she played a spy and ‘Shanghai Express’ in 1932 where she plays a prostitute. These were followed in 1932 with ‘Blonde Venus’, a motherlove soap opera; ‘The Scarlet Empress’ in 1934 about Catherine the Great and ‘The Devil is a Woman’ – her favourite. With each of these indulgent, exotic romances, her sultry image was perfectly moulded – down to the golden blond hair, dreamy eyes and seductive gaze filmed through soft focus, gauze-covered lenses – and for that she became a legend.

The movies directed by Von Sternberg were not box-office successes and Paramount barred him from directing her again. So began a new phase in her life where she made popular and successful movies such as the comedy ‘Desire’ in 1936 again with Gary Cooper, followed by ‘Destry Rides Again’, a 1939 spoof of the Old West.

Marlene’s manner was that of a serpentine lasso whereby her voice casually winds itself around our most vulnerable fantasies. She has sex but no positive gender. Her masculinity appeals to woman and her sexuality to men” Critic Kenneth Tynan

MARLENE – THE FEMINIST AND THE ACTIVIST

As World War II loomed, Marlene, who was a Berliner, was an early and aggressive opponent of Nazism and reacted to the arrest of Jews by financing the escape of several friends. Whilst filming the melodrama ‘Knight without Armour’ in England, Marlene was approached by agents of Hitler offering her large sums of money to return to Germany to star in movies of her choice. Rejecting his offer, her movies were banned in Germany and in defiance she took out American citizenship in 1939, made anti-Nazi broadcasts in German and entertained Allied troops and war prisoners across North Africa and Western Europe. Her song ‘Lilli Marlene’ became an international wartime theme song. After the war, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour; France named her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour and Belgium dubbed her a Knight of the Order of Leopold.

Post-war, she continued making movies, among them the ‘Golden Earrings’ in which she played an exotic gypsy with Ray Milland, again a Berlin cabaret singer in Billy Wilder’s ‘Foreign Affair’ in 1948; a saloon manager in ‘Rancho Notorious’ in 1952; a brothel-keeper in Orson Welles’ ‘Touch of Evil’ in 1958; an aristocratic widow in Stanley Kramer’s ‘Judgement at Nuremberg’ in 1961. Her last film was a small role in the 1979 melodrama ‘Just a Gigolo’ and in 1986 Maximilian Schell made a documentary about her, entitled ‘Marlene’ and although she was interviewed and her voice heard almost continually, she refused to appear on screen. From the 1950’s to the early 1970’s, Marlene performed in cabarets all over the world, in London, Las Vegas, Paris, New York, Montreal, Johannesburg, Tokyo and Tel Aviv.

Marlene continued to propagate that image in real life, setting a fashion trend that became the ‘Dietrich silhouette’ of wearing trousers and mannish costumes, whilst still looking feminine and sexy. She was a close friend of many famous people, including Ernest Hemingway and Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin. She also had widely reported love affairs with the writer Erich Maria Remarque and actors Jean Gabin, Michael Wilding and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr.

“I’ve always been attracted to intelligent men. I can pick them in a full room, just like that. I don’t care what age they are.” Marlene Dietrich

A LIFE WELL LIVED

Marie Magdalene Dietrich was born in Berlin on December 27th 1901 to Louis Erich Otto Dietrich, a police lieutenant and former cavalry major and Wilhelmina Elisabeth Josephine Felsing, the daughter of a well-to-do watch merchant. Her father died when she was 9 years old and her mother married Edouard von Losch, a cavalry lieutenant who was later killed on the Russian front in 1918. Both her and her sister Elisabeth were raised in an upper-middle class Prussian home, attended private schools, studied French and took music lessons. A hand injury at 18 forced Marie Magdalene to abandon a musical career and try dramatics and it is at this point that she decided to join her two names to Marlene as her family disapproved of acting. She attended the Reinhardt Drama School and had small roles on stage and in German films. She married Rudolph Sieber, a young Czechoslovakian production assistant in 1924 and had a daughter, Maria. Their marriage was distant, with Sieber taking movie jobs in New York and Hollywood and in 1953, he became a chicken farmer in California. They never divorced, but lived apart for most of their remaining years. Rudolph Sieber died in 1975. Their daughter, also an actress, married William Riva, a scenic artist in 1947 and had four sons. Marlene was devoted to her family, helping them financially and was a familiar sight in Central Park in New York, wheeling their prams and looking after them. In 1972 she moved to Paris and lived the last years of her life as a recluse.

MARLENE DIETRICH’S LEGACY

Marlene was very knowledgeable about antiques, and owned paintings by Delacroix, Cezanne, Utrillo and Corot. Although admired both in Europe and America as an important actress of her time, Marlene Diedrich’s memorabilia - unlike that of other stars of her day - has not fetched anything significant on auction. Pieces from her jewellery collection were sold for a total of $56 000 at auction in the USA. With only one bidder for each item, a diamond and emerald necklace fetched the highest price at nearly $20 000. Personal items, including a doublebreasted tuxedo and the dressing room door plaque from her 1964 solo show at Queen’s Theatre, London failed to attract any bids.

 

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