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Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Marlene Dietrich, Femme Fatale

Marlene Dietrich was glamorous in a way we can’t quite understand. Like Greta Garbo, the woman to whom she is so often compared, Dietrich was otherworldly, her face a mask across which emotion flitted and fought. Her every move seemed an exercise in control, a sort of beautifully molded artifice. But Dietrich was no confection: she was a masterpiece. Her formidable sexual appeal stemmed from a stunning androgyny, and an ability to simultaneously embody the passive and the dominating, the masculine and the feminine, the demure and the suggestive. While other Hollywood stars worked to make themselves seem “Just Like Us,” Dietrich was never like us. Her slinking accent, the alabaster face, the unerringly svelte wardrobe — all of it communicated as much. She was exquisite. There is no other way to put it.

But that exquisiteness has long been attributed to the work of her so-called “creator,” director Josef von Sternberg, a man of exacting tastes and tremendous talent who directed her in the eight films that have come to define her legacy. He was her Svengali, and she was a “pure vehicle,” according to film theorist Richard Dyer, for von Sternberg’s “fantasies and formalist desires.” Put differently, she was the canvas on which he painted his feminine ideal: complicated and beautifully lit, a hatchwork of shadows and desire.

Such a reading of Dietrich is, to some extent, supported by Dietrich herself, who oscillated between claiming dominion over her own image and declaring that it had nothing to do with her. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. Von Sternberg may have molded her, but the raw material which which he began — and continued to refine — was richly textured and remarkably resilient. Of course, the vast majority of classic stars were, in fact, art pieces. But those stars were archly American — art forms made to mimic real life — whereas von Sternberg was heavily influenced by German Expressionism, and Dietrich’s image mirrored those sensibilities: surreal, beguiling, angular. Reveling in its own excess. She fascinated, repelled, and confused American audiences, which is part of why her star image morphed iconic. Watching her today, I feel the same as audiences must have when they first saw her in 1930. The enigma endures. 


Dietrich was born Marie Magdalene Dietrich, the daughter of middle-class Berlin parents. At the age of 11, she combined her family nickname, Lena, with her first name, Marie, and made Marlene — “Mar-lay-na,” a then-novel name that, after she became a star, became ridiculously popular.

That reminds me of the time my 11-year-old self tried to make everyone call me Anna, and then Helen, and then realized that it’s impossible to change your name unless you move to another place. Just ask the girl on my campus who’s trying to get “Crow” to catch on.

Dietrich survived World War I, graduated from high school, and went about making her way as an actress. To pay the rent, she worked as a shoe and stocking model, setting the foundation for what would soon become an international obsession with her legs. (She also worked as a “record” model — dressed in sexy leg-baring outfits, she’d hold a new record. That’s one way to do it.) She appeared in a few chorus lines and cabarets (more legs), and made her first film appearance in 1922, playing a bit part in So sind die Männer. A series of minor film appearances followed, and, in 1924, Dietrich met and married director Rudolf Sieber in a civil service. Seven months later, a daughter, Maria, was born. Are you picking up what I’m putting down?

Despite her recurring appearances on the screen and stage, Dietrich was no star. She was, however, well known in the German cabaret scene as a garçonne (again, are you picking up what I’m putting down?), known not as a lesbian so much as a woman who pursued what she desired, regardless of gender. When Dietrich eventually moved to Hollywood, this queerness would be sublimated onscreen. In Germany, however, it might not have been common knowledge, but it was certainly no secret. How very European of them.

Enter Josef von Sternberg. Sternberg was born in Vienna, immigrated to America at age two, dropped out of high school, scrapped his way from film stock cleaner to assistant director, and made his first film, The Salvation Hunters, in 1925. Born Josef Sternberg, a producer added the “von” to the credits of a film to make it look more aristocratic. He would keep the affectation for the rest of his life, a testament to his willingness to transform himself and others as a means to an artistic end. Sternberg’s work caught Hollywood’s attention, and after several misfires, he established a career at Paramount, and became known for his dark, “proto-noir” silent films. After the success of Underworld (1927) and Thunderbolt (1929), he accepted an offer to direct a film starring German silent star Emil Jannings — the first recipient, in 1929, of the Academy Award for Best Actor.

With the rise of the “talkie,” Jannings, with his impenetrable German accent, was old news. Offended by studio attempts to dub his voice, he retreated to Berlin, and agreed to collaborate with von Sternberg on an adaptation of Heinrich Mann’s novel Professor Unrat — the tale of a “proper” man unravelled and and eventually debased by a seductive cabaret singer.

To find his femme fatale, Sternberg naturally began scouring the Berlin cabaret scene. A scout had put Dietrich under the category “Ingenue: Naive,” but Sternberg saw something more, something he could work with. Here the lore of transformation begins: Dietrich, without talent or distinction, is made remarkable, but only as seen through von Sternberg’s lens. Recall, however, that von Sternberg had something at stake in framing Dietrich as untalented before their encounter. The less talented she is to begin, the more impressive his feat of transformation.

Before sound pictures, the film business was truly international: it didn’t matter if a film was made in Sweden, the United States, Japan, or France, because the inter-titles could be translated to the language of the audience. The rise of “talkies” not only put actors with “unfit” voices out of work, but completely f-ed international distribution. Some films were shot in one language and dubbed into others, and some, such as The Blue Angel, were filmed “twice”: for every scene, they’d film it once in German, and again in English. Exhausting.

Watching The Blue Angel today it seems unpolished and scratchy. Like other early talkies, it seems like it’s just getting the hang of what it cinema could and could not do with sound. The mise-en-scene and performance still communicate much, much more than actual dialogue. When Dietrich sings “Falling in Love Again,” it’s clear she’s neither a singer nor a dancer, but it’s also clear that singing and dancing aren’t really the point. The song, like Dietrich herself, serves as a mesmerizing refrain.

When the Professor first sees her in action, it’s the beginning of his end. He can’t escape her, no matter how maddening its repetition becomes. And Professor, I totally feel you: the first time I heard that wavering, husky, amateur lilt, I was totally hers, too. I don’t entirely understand it, but if you don’t feel it, then you’re not paying attention.

And those legs! The advertisements focused almost exclusively on them, and the most famous still from the film still circulates widely today:

The film was an international smash, and the day of its Berlin premiere, Dietrich embarked for Hollywood. Paramount, eager for an “exotic” star to compete with MGM’s Garbo, issued her a seven-year contract. The plan — one that would last six pictures — was to pair Dietrich with von Sternberg and simply facilitate as he turned her into a star.

First move: cast her as a nightclub singer in Morocco, in which she seduces, rejects, and learns to love a very young Gary Cooper.

There’s lots of hemming and hawing and near-loving Adolphe Menjou-ing, but what really matters is how the film reinforced the foundation, already laid by The Blue Angel, of Dietrich as a sexually alluring yet potentially destructive woman (in other words, a femme fatale). What’s more, it provided the first instance of Dietrich, in exquisite drag, kissing a woman. The scene is just flat-out amazing. If you’re queer and haven’t ogled this scene (or if you’re straight and haven’t ogled this scene), your life is about to change.

Things I Love About This Clip:

1) The horribleness of Dietrich’s French.

2) How she plays TWO guy spectators in one song.

3) The assurance with which she straddles that railing.

4) The downing of champagne.

5) The extended pause — and hungry look — as she eyes the female companion.

The kiss might seem chaste in comparison to, say, The L Word, but YOU GUYS, THIS WAS 1931, ARE YOU F-ING KIDDING ME? And this was a mainstream, studio system, American film?!? Morocco was released two years before the enforcement of the Production Code, which would forbid even queen beds, and this sort of explicit queer affection wouldn’t reemerge onscreen until, I dunno, The Color Purple?

There was the kiss, but there was also the rest of the film — somewhat throwaway, in the grand scheme of Dietrich films, but she was stunning. Granted, von Sternberg had “strongly encouraged” her to lose weight — at 5’5”, she weighed 145 during The Blue Angel, but dropped to 130 for Morocco — and you can clearly see it in the angles of the jawbone. But he also labored to film her as gloriously as possible.

While von Sternberg didn’t shoot this publicity shot, it reproduces the precise lighting and angling he used with Dietrich. Through shadows, make-up, and masterful cinematography, he turned a “normal German girl” into a Hollywood star. Granted, nearly every star was the product of elaborate make-up and skillful photography, but von Sternberg magnified the concept, turning a beautiful woman into an enigma, a question mark, a proposal.

Next came Dishonored, with Dietrich as (you guessed it) a femme fatale who just happens to be a spy, and Shanghai Express, with Dietrich as an exotic courtesan named Shanghai Lily. The plot is complicated and takes place on a very Agatha Christie-like train, but the only thing you need to understand is that Dietrich’s co-star Anna May Wong is stunning, and that the film could be a teaching tool for chiaroscuro lighting:

Don’t know what chiaroscuro lighting is?


You do now.

Shanghai Express was a smash, and further substantiated Dietrich’s image as equal parts exotic, sexual, and man-eating. Which is why her next film, Blonde Venus, came as somewhat of a surprise — or at least its ending did.

Allow me to recount the plot for you, AHP-style:

1) Dietrich is German, and likes to go swimming in the nude, as German girls do, in German swimming holes.

2) Nerdy visiting American scientists on “walking tour,” spy nude German girls in pond; hilarity and much covering-up ensue. One bold nearly naked girl (Dietrich) tells them to “GO AVAY”; one bold student says no.

3) UNCEREMONIOUS JUMP CUT TO AMERICA: nearly naked girl, now clothed, holds a young son, and tells him that Daddy will soon be coming home. Daddy is none other than obnoxious visiting student!

4) But Dad is super sick. Not with cancer, not with the plague, but with radiation poisoning from his difficult science-ing profession.

5) Back at home, Small Child asks for the beloved bedtime story of his mother and father’s union (exposition alert): Dad saw Naked Mom in pond, Dad goes to theater that night and sees Clothed Mom onstage, Dad asks Mom to go on a walk, Mom and Dad “embrace,” Child appears. Origin story established.

6) Dad needs to go to Germany for Very Special Radiation Treatment. But Science-ing doesn’t pay, so Mom has a trick up her sleeve, and that trick is her past as an awesome German theater girl.

7) Mom auditions for caberet-ish part, wins, gets to play Gorilla (?).


Will you look at that swagger? (Bizarre African exoticism in background, I don’t even know what to do with you.)

8) OH LOOK, THERE’S YOUNG CARY GRANT, HE WANTS TO PAY MOM-GORILLA LOTS OF MONEY TO MAKE OUT. But he gives her money “just because,” she brings money home and says it’s an “advance,” Dad gets to try not to die in Germany.

9) Mom and Child see Dad off at docks, then Cary Grant shows up at said docks to pick up Mom. His proposal: I pay lots of money — enough for Dad’s treatment, enough for you to forget the Gorilla costume — and you hang out with me. A lot. Maybe naked. Who knows; we’ll see.

10) Time passes. Dietrich is living with Cary Grant, because, well, naturally. Dad is all better in Germany, telegraphs his imminent return. Mom and Cary Grant go on voyage of sublimated lovemaking before Dad’s return. Cary Grant says farewell, I’m off to Europe to forget you, Gorilla Dietrich.

11) Dietrich returns to apartment, where Dad is all kinds of pissed. He threatens to take Son away because Dietrich is a filthy rotten Cary Grant lover. Dietrich flees, boy in tow.

12) BREAK FOR SWEET MONTAGE OF MOM AND SON ON THE RUN. Dad puts police on her trail, so she has to hide out and, we are led to assume, perform erstwhile “duties” in order to survive. Pitiful, heartbreaking moment when Dietrich realizes that if she doesn’t do something, the son might end up like Christian from 50 Shades of Grey — in other words, this is not the life for him — and returns him to Dad. Dad dramatically/somewhat-understandably tells Dietrich that she will never see Son again.

13) Fast-forward: Dietrich as Huge Parisian Cabaret Star. She has taken her sorrow and transformed it into pure ice queen sexiness. We know this because she is wearing a white tux and ignoring Cary Grant again.

14) Grant naturally rediscovers Dietrich, swirls her away, and convinces her to marry him. But because this is early-era Grant — when his image was just handsomeness, not cleverness — he agrees to take her back to New York to see/steal her son. Lots of tuxedos and long evening gowns are necessary to make that conclusion.

15) Dietrich returns to semi-squalid apartment home, where frumpy Scientist is all sorts of protective of son but, jeez, okay, fine, you can see him. Like all annoying movie kids, he wants a story to go to sleep, and not just any story, but the “Germany” story of his parents’ love. She begins to tell it, and she and Science Dad lock eyes, and we’re left to believe that she chose German Bill Nye over Cary F-ing Grant in suit-and-tails. All for the sake of the child.

What happened to man-eating Dietrich? Why is she suddenly so moral?

You need some further backstory to understand why.

As eminant film scholar Janet Staiger (who just happens to have served as my dissertation chair) explains in The Romances of Blonde Venus, the original script for Blonde Venus went through three revisions. In the first, written by von Sternberg and/or Dietrich, Dietrich’s character willingly commits infidelity and prostitution. But the governing body of the Hollywood studios (then known as the MPPDA) was trying to curtail potential boycotts from religious groups (I’m talking to you, Catholics). The studios submitted to censorship for multiple reasons, many of them laid out in earlier SoCH pieces, but at this point, the MPPDA was still just offering strong suggestions, not mandates. Studios thus tread a fine line between titillation (what audiences wanted) and morality (what Catholic bishops said they should have).

The studios thus previewed potential scripts for the MPPDA, which would suggest edits that would help the final film adhere to the Production Code. In short: these guys would tell the scriptwriters and directors when, and how, they were being too scandalous, and make sure they knocked that shit off.

The first script for Blonde Venus was a no-go, so they tried a second: Dietrich loves both Science Dad and Grant, and the ending reveals that Science Dad also had an affair, which frees Dietrich to guiltlessly marry Grant. But the board didn’t like this version either, and was especially annoyed by two of Dietrich’s cabaret songs — “I’m Getting What I Want” and “I Couldn’t Be Annoyed.”

Back to the drawing board. Dietrich never loved Grant; all the dancing and prostituting and lovemaking was for the benefit of her child and ailing husband. Dietrich, the self-sacrificing, righteous mother, always just wanted to be with Science Dad. That’s the script we see onscreen, but it’s totally unbelievable — and not just because Early Grant > Science Dad. Here’s why:

– While the third version changed the ending, it forgot to change minor details — like the fact that Grant never gave Dietrich any money, and that she willingly took a two-week vacation with him before Science Dad returned. Dietrich’s bona fide affection for Grant simply does not fit with the ending. Pretty straightforward.

– Any fan of Dietrich’s (or the movies in general) would have known a bit about her real life backstory, which, very amusingly, featured her own German husband and left-behind child. In the beginning, the fan magazines underlined her devotion to husband and child: she “did not go to parties but stayed home reading books her husband sent her.” BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

As both Dietrich and von Sternberg’s profiles became more public, rumors began to circulate about their relationship, explicitly framing him as her Svengali … with benefits. When von Sternberg’s wife attempted to divorce him for “alienation of affection,” the rumors gained traction. And here’s where it gets good: Photoplay started publishing satire of Dietrich’s image as a doting mother and devoted wife. The magazine also insinuated, over the course of several issues, that Dietrich was “hanging out” with French star Maurice Chevalier.

If any audience member was reading gossip columns — or even talking to other people who read gossip columns — then she could read the revised ending as a joke. But this wasn’t the only other version available. To publicize the film, Paramount permitted Screenland to publish a “short story” version of the script — a common practice at the time. But the version that made its way to Screenland wasn’t the third, approved version, but the second version, when Dietrich gets to declare her love for BOTH Science Husband and Grant. Anyone who read Screenland and saw the movie could easily opt for the version that pleased them most — like how I can watch the film and TV versions of Friday Night Lights and decide whether I like Mrs. Coach/Connie Britton best in the ‘80s or ‘00s.

Which is all to say: when the ending doesn’t work, fans will “write” one that pleases them, using extra-textual materials and gossip as their guide. It’s like 1930s fan-fic, only without comment trolls. So if, like me, you don’t like the last 15 minutes of Blonde Venus, just turn off the movie when Dietrich takes off the white tux. That’s my strategy with Legends of the Fall (if I turn it off after Brad Pitt and Isobel Two get married, then nothing bad ever happened, no never), and it works well here.

Dietrich and von Sternberg followed Blonde Venus with The Scarlet Empress, which takes the ornate cinematography of their past collaborations to its logical conclusion. The film is so over-the-top, so elaborate and melodramatic and deliriously opulent, it reliably induces vertigo. Undergrads watch it and leave the theater shaking like they’ve been punched in the head and stomach. Dietrich begins the film as a blonde naif — Princess Sophia — whose scheming, ambitious mother arranges for her to wed the Grand Duke of Russia and eventual heir to the throne.

There’s something uncanny about Dietrich’s veneer of innocence in the beginning of the picture. It’s not exactly right: a mixture of pure performance, a simulacrum of innocence that’s compelling nonetheless. You can see it in the arch of the eyebrow here, the just-too-doe-eyed-ness.

The excess is everywhere: why have a dozen Gargoyles and dripping candles to convey creepiness when you could have five hundred? Why have a two-minute claustrophobic wedding scene when you could make it 15? Why have one grotesque animal carcass at your banquet when you could have several — plus goblets shaped like skulls?!? Why have a mildly bumbling Grand Duke when you could make him an inbred half-wit? (Think Pee Wee Herman’s Prince Gerhardt on 30 Rock.)

The film is von Sternberg’s most purely German Expressionist work, in which artifice, shadows, and excess communicate and support the narrative as much as any single performance.

It’s an art piece, which is also why it alienated audiences. But there’s certain triumph in Dietrich’s transformation from Princess Sophia to Princess Catherine — the woman who, after years of suffering and deceit, would stage a coup, exploit all sorts of underlings, turn into a sort of sexual dominatrix, and become Catherine the Great, The Scarlet Empress: a ruler of men.

It was all slightly more than audiences could handle. Both The Scarlet Empress and von Sternberg and Dietrich’s final collaboration, The Devil Is a Woman, underperformed. Dietrich would continue to appear in films, but she somehow lacked the vivacity — the palpable allure and threat — that characterized her work with von Sternberg. By 1938, she was labeled “box office poison.” She traveled to Germany, refused an offer to become the Biggest Star of the Third Reich (smart move, Marlene), but the film she completed upon her return was such a disappointment that Paramount chose to buy out the remainder of her contract.

Dietrich enjoyed a moderate comeback with her turn in Destry Rides Again (1939), yet nothing could soften the belief that she had, indeed, been a product of von Sternberg’s manipulation, unable to “be Dietrich” without his constant coaching, lighting, and direction.

It’s hard to argue with that, as much as this feminist would like to. Some people — male or female — only do their best when they’re paired with someone who understands them, and they’re capable of, perfectly. Instead of thinking of von Sternberg as the evil puppeteer, we might think of the ways in which he, like so many mentors, brought out the very best in his pupil. I don’t mean to denigrate Dietrich or her allure, but the reality is that every star from the classic era — from Garbo to Monroe — was the product of lighting, direction, and publicity. Von Sternberg’s “production” of Dietrich’s image was simply more visible, in part because he was operating under the aesthetics of German Expressionism: the manipulation should be obvious, because it makes you think about it — and the ideologies, politics, and conundrums it makes visible — more.

In this way, Dietrich encouraged audiences to think of her as an image, a projection of male fantasy — the threatening, the glamorous, the virgin and the whore — and not a real, embodied woman. Even after she and von Sternberg parted ways, Dietrich managed to live with the ghost of her image for the rest of her life. It haunts her appearance in Touch of Evil, and lured hundreds of thousands to the cabaret appearances that stretched for decades after her film career had wound to a close.

But through it all, there was her voice. Low and beguiling, with or without von Sternberg’s coaching. As Ernest Hemingway, who had long loved her from afar, put it, “if she had nothing more than her voice, she could break your heart with it.” And even as Dietrich’s body aged, it was her voice that kept audiences coming to see her sing all the old songs, to recall the years when the construction of the star image was an art in itself. Marlene may never have been “Dietrich.” But it must have been so much fun to play her.

Previously: The Passion of Laurence Olivier.

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.


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