Happy birthday, Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich was born on Dec. 27, 1901.

Peter Bogdonavich on Dietrich:

What a remarkably dedicated Old World artist she was! The only German superstar, the one European with the longest international appeal — and this despite two World Wars that made Germany not exactly the most popular country to be from. In a brand-new medium for which no one really knew the rules of the game, Dietrich — which means “passkey” in German — had to make them up for herself. There was no way to predict the price she woudl have to pay: her last ten-plus years in seclusion so as not to destroy the legend she had created, the myth that was a part of her art, both of which — though pretending otherwise — she took very seriously. Her unique qualities and upbringing, and fate, gave her the remarkable ability and opportunity to express — through the first six decades of women’s official emancipation (the right to vote) — the many faces of Woman: sacred to profane, victim and killer combined, nurse, bohemian artist, siren, vamp or love goddess to Great Earth Mother.

Marlene’s German-born mother — “the good General,” she called her — had told Dietrich repeatedly: “Do something.” And to her European sensibility, implicit in that injunction was: “Do something well.” Marlene did everything extremely well, made it all look so easy that many people eventually took her for granted. Many still do: separating her always from the ‘serious’ actors of the time, as opposed to ‘personalities’. But personality-actors were those star-players whose actual personae were uniquely appropriate to the closely analytic eye of a camera: the character and actor merge into one — a seminal difference about this new performing art-form.

From the extensive obit in the Times (well worth reading – lots of good background for those of you who don’t know anything about Marlene Dietrich), I found this:

Perhaps the best description of her face was provided by Erich Maria Remarque, her longtime friend, in his novel “Arch of Triumph”:

“The cool, bright face that didn’t ask for anything, that simply existed, waiting — it was an empty face, he thought; a face that could change with any wind of expression. One could dream into it anything. It was like a beautiful empty house waiting for carpets and pictures. It had all possibilities — it could become a palace or a brothel.”

The face of an icon. “One could dream into it anything.” People continue to project fantasies and dreams onto the face of Marlene Dietrich – her face existed in the realm of fantasy. She knew it – which was why she lived as a recluse for the last years of her life. Sure, she was probably very vain – didn’t want people to see her as an old woman – but on another level – she didn’t want to ruin the fantasy for others. The fantasy of Marlene Dietrich. Best to just disappear quietly – and leave the face intact in the mind of the world – so that they can continue dreaming, speculating, projecting …

They don’t make ’em like Marlene Dietrich any more.

Peter Bogdonavich, in his book Who the Hell’s In it, describes meeting Marlene Dietrich in his chapter about her. It’s a wonderful story. Here are some excerpts:

“Marlene Dietrich’s taken your seats.” The assistant director was a little out of breath. “You don’t care, do you? She likes to sit in the first two on the right. They moved you guys behind her.” It was September 1972, and Ryan O’Neal and I were at Los Angeles International Airport with a few others of the cast and crew of Paper Moon, which we were flying to Kansas to shoot. I said we didn’t mind.

Ryan was incredulous. “Marlene Dietrich is on our plane going to Kansas?”

No, it turned out she was flying to Denver (we had to switch planes there) to give six concert performances at the Denver Auditorium. Hard to believe, but sure enough, there she was, sitting across from us at the gate, all in white — wide-brimmed hat, pants, shirt, jacket — looking great and also bored and a little suspicious of the noisy good spirits around our group.

We went over to say hello. I introduced myself. Ryan said, “Hello, Miss Dietrich. I’m Ryan O’Neal. Love Story?” He grinned.

“Yes,” she said. “I didn’t see it — I liked the book too much. I won’t see The Godfather for the same reason — Brando is too slow for it anyway — why didn’t they use Eddie Robinson?” She had that deep voice and distinct German accent.

There were several people I knew who had worked with and loved her, and I mentioned a few of them, trying to get a conversation going, but she was a little frosty, so we slipped away after a few moments. Ryan said, “I think we did great,” but I didn’t.

She was right behind us as we waited to have our hand baggage searched, not a common event then, and I can’t recall why it was done. We tried again; she was nicer this time. “I saw The Last Picture Show,” she said to me; the film had opened a year before. “I thought if one more person stripped slowly, I would go crazy.”

“Did you see What’s Up, Doc?” Ryan said. “We did that together.” The picture was still in theatres at the time.

“Yes, I saw it,” she said and nothing more.

Not an auspicious beginning, huh? But during the flight she warmed up. Not only did she warm up, but she basically joined their entourage and they all had a riotous flight together – with Bogdonavich pumping her for information about her career. She was more than forthcoming.

The next excerpt from Bogdonavich:

On the plane she sat in front of us, with her blond girl Friday, and by now, she had obviously decided we weren’t so bad; she spent almost the whole flight turned backward and leaning over the top of her seat, on her knees, talking to us. She was animated, girlish, candid, funny, sexy, with her baby-talk “r” (that becomes “w”) and everything.

I told her I was trying to stop smoking again. “Oh, don’t,” she said. “I stopped ten years ago and I’ve been miserable ever since. I never drank before — and now I drink. I never had a cough when I was smoking — now I cough. Don’t stop — you’ll get fat and you don’t want to do that.”

We talked about movies she had been in and directors she had worked for. After a while, it became apparent to her that I had seen an awful lot of her pictures. “Why do you know so much about my films?”

“Because I think you’re wonderful, and you’ve worked for a lot of great directors.”

“No,” she said dubiously. “No, I only worked for two great directors — Sternberg and Billy Wilder.”

“And what about Orson?”

“Oh, well, yes. Orson — of course.”

I guess she wasn’t so impressed with Lubitsch or Alfred Hitchcock or Fritz Lang, Raoul Walsh or Tay Garnett or Rene Clair or Franz Borzage.

Here’s a picture of her from Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.

Bogdonavich talked with her about her performance in Touch of Evil:

I had read somewhere that her own favorite performance was in Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958).

“Do you still feel that way?” I said.

“Yes. I was terrific in that. I think I never said a line as well as the last line in that movie — ‘What does it matter what you say about people …?’ Wasn’t I good there? I don’t know why I said it so well. And I looked so good in that dark wig. It was Elizabeth Taylor’s. My part wasn’t in the script, you know, but Orson called and said he wanted me to play a kind of gypsy madam in a border town, so I went over to MGM and found that wig. It was very funny, you know, because I had been crazy about Orson — in the forties when he was married to Rita Hayworth and when we toured doing his magic act [The Mercury Wonder Show, benefits exclusively done for servicemen] — I was just crazy about him — we were great friends, you know, but nothing … Because Orson doesn’t like blond women. He only likes dark women. And suddenly when he saw me in this dark wig, he looked at me with new eyes. Was this Marlene …?”

“Well, he certainly photographed you lovingly.”

“Yes. I never looked so good.”

I just love that. Her pride in her work.

More from Bogdonavich – watch her total honesty with herself in this excerpt – she is one of the greats:

I asked her if she’d been upset about Sternberg’s acerbic autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry, first published in 1965, in which he’d said that he had created her, and implied that she would have been nothing without him. (He once said to me, “I am Marlene Dietrich — Miss Dietrich is me.”)

She pursed her lips, lifted her eyebrows slightly. “No — because it was true. I didn’t know what I was doing — I just tried to do what he told me. I remember in Morocco, I had a scene with [Gary] Cooper — and I was supposed to go to the door, turn and say a line like, ‘Wait for me’ and then leave. And Sternberg said, ‘Walk to the door, turn, count to ten, say your line and leave.’ So I did and he got very angry. ‘If you’re so stupid that you can’t count slowly, then count to twenty-five.’ And we did it again. I think we did it forty times, until finally I was counting probably to fifty. And I didn’t know why. I was annoyed. But at the premiere of Morocco — at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre” — she said the original name of the LA movie palace with just the lightest of mockery — “when this moment came and I paused and then said, ‘Wait for me’ … the audience burst into applause. Sternberg knew they were waiting for this — and he made them wait and they loved it.”

Bogdonavich again, watching her concert in Denver (she invited the entire cast of Paper Moon to come see her):

Of course she saw World War II at close range, entertaining the troops for three years with “benefits” — more than any other star performer did, for which she was awarded America’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, as well as France’s most valued order of distinction, the Legion d’honneur. And the experience was all brought back through her touching introduction to “Lili Marlene” – an old German song, forbidden by Hitler in her own country — which was comprised mainly of a recitation of all the countries in which she had sung “Lili Marlene” during the war. It called to mind what Hemingway had written in his World War I novel, A Farewell to Arms:

… There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates …

And that was what Marlene conveyed; as she said, “Africa, Sicily, Italy, Greenland, Iceland, France, Belgium and Holland” — here she paused — “Germany, and Czechoslovakia”, her voice carried with each a different untold story of what she had seen, what the 500,000 soldiers she sang for had seen.

The picture below is from her iconic (and wonderful) performance in The Blue Angel – a bleak bleak movie that I remember I saw for the first time on a feckin’ date. Not a good date movie. Word to the wise.

Here’s a snippet from Pauline Kael’s review of Blue Angel:

Dietrich’s Lola Lola is a rather coarse, plump young beauty; as she sings “Falling in Love Again,” her smoldering voice and sadistic indifference suggest sex without romance, love, or sentiment. The pedant becomes her husband, her slave, her stooge; he travels with the cafe troupe, hawking dirty pictures of his wife. Dietrich is extraordinary.

That’s a picture of Dietrich asLola-Lola in Blue Angel. Bogdonavich writes about that film:

The Blue Angel instantly set Dietrich among the immortals. Her chair-straddling portrayal of cabaret singer Lola-Lola defined her essential image in certain irrevocable ways. She would forever sing the song she is doing (in German) the first time we see her: “Falling in love again … never wanted to — What am I to do? Can’t help it …” She too, then, was a fool for love, like all the men who fell for her. Talking with Sternberg one time, I said that among the pictures he made with Dietrich, Blue Angel was actually the only time she really destroyed a man, to which he replied: “She did not destroy him — he destroyed himself. It was his mistake — he should never have taken up with her. That’s what the story is.” Was he speaking of himself a bit or only of the prudish boys’-school teacher [Emil] Jannings played, who fell madly in love with a loose, bawdy, compulsively unfaithful performer? The strain breaks him down to ultimate degradation. Like that line in Jacques Brel’s masochistic love chant, “Ne me quitte pas,” Jannings becomes content to be to Dietrich “the shadow of your dog …” The moment when Marlene humiliates Jannings by making him crow for her like a rooster is one of the most chilling in picture history.

I’ve certainly got to agree with that one. It was so awful that I found myself compelled to turn away from it. I couldn’t even watch it.

Ernest Hemingway wrote a piece about Marlene Dietrich for Life magazine. I think a quote from that piece would be a nice way to close this birthday tribute:

If she has nothing more than her voice she could break your heart with it. But she has that beautiful body and that timeless loveliness of her face. It makes no difference how she breaks your heart if she is there to mend it.

Happy birthday, Lili Marlene.

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5 Responses to Happy birthday, Marlene Dietrich

  1. JFH says:

    So, do you think that Madeline Kahn’s character in Blazing Saddles was based on Marlene Dietrich, or her character in Blue Angel or neither?

  2. red says:

    Oh, it was definitely a Marlene Dietrich send-up! Isn’t her name Lili? What was the character’s last name? Von Schtupp? hahahaha

  3. JFH says:

    “I’m not a wabbit,
    I need some west”

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  5. Mr. Bingley says:

    As I was reading this the voice I heard in my head at every quote from Dietrich was Kahn’s…

    I am wuined!

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