Nowadays, the utterance of a ‘sex-symbol’ term invokes the images of a number of socially prominent and yet beautiful women. This, however, was not always the case – throughout thirties, forties and fifties, the title ‘sex-symbol’ has been solely reserved for only one woman. The name of this woman was Marlene Dietrich.
In this paper, we will aim to provide readers with biographical insight into Dietrich’s professional career, while exposing what we believe accounted for her greatness as particularly progressive individual and supremely talented actress.
In order for a woman to eventually qualify for the title of queen, she would have to be at least born as princess. And yet, this kind of requirement did not apply to Dietrich – throughout most of her life, this remarkable woman never ceased to be referred to as the ‘queen of the world’, even though she was born to the family of Prussian policeman in 1901.
Apparently, there were a number of objective reasons for Dietrich to attain fame, which is why it would be wrong to think of her cinematographic and social prominence as being solely incidental.
For example, by the age of thirteen, Dietrich did not only master English and French languages, but she had also proven herself as a skilful horse-rider and musician.
Nevertheless, it was namely Dietrich’s unwavering persistence in reaching her cinematic aspirations, which we believe had helped this woman to overcome a number of existential challenges that she has been facing, throughout most of her life. The particulars of how Dietrich had gone about becoming actress, substantiate the validity of an earlier claim, as they point out to the fact that she can be the least referred to as someone who was born with the silver spoon in her mouth.
For example, even though in 1922 Dietrich had failed at trying to qualify to take courses in Max Reinhardt’s School of Dramaturgy in Berlin, she nevertheless was provided with an opportunity to be assisting actors in Deutsches Theater, which had eventually led her to be allowed to periodically perform small roles on the stage.
In 1923, Dietrich was selected to play small roles in silent films The Little Napoleon, Man by the Wayside and Love Tragedy, which marked the beginning of Dietrich’s cinematographic career.
In the same year, Dietrich met a movie director Rudolf Sieber, who will later become her husband. What is especially interesting about the specifics of Dietrich’s acting career, throughout twenties, is that during the course of this period, she had not only proven the sheer strength of her goal-orientedness but also ingenuity.
For example, while applying for the role in Love Tragedy, Dietrich was perfectly aware of the fact that there would be hundreds of other young women applying for the same role. Therefore, in order to be singled out by the director among the rest of applicants, Dietrich came to the interview with a small Chihuahua dog on the leash. Such Dietrich’s trick really did work.
Dietrich’s appearance in Ucicky’s 1928 film Cafe Elektric accounted for the initial phase of this German actress becoming ‘franchised’, because it was namely after Cafe Elektric was released to the theaters that Dietrich’s on-stage uniqueness started to be increasingly associated with her possession of great legs.
Given the fact that, after having performed in Cafe Elektric, Dietrich has been featured in advertisements of women’s lingerie, it strengthened the power of her sex appeal even further. As, after 1928, Dietrich used to jokingly refer to the power of her legs: “First, I uncovered my legs, and people were excited over that. Now I cover my legs, and that excites them, too” (Shaffer 1933, 54).
Nevertheless, even though that throughout 1923-1930, Dietrich had made an appearance in at least eighteen silent films, it was namely after she played the character of Lola-Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 sound feature movie The Blue Angel, that Dietrich was able to attain the fame of a celebrity, in traditional sense of this word.
Moreover, given the fact that in The Blue Angel Dietrich played the role of sexually and intellectually liberated woman, and also the fact that film’s director was a Jew, it would not be much of an exaggeration, on our part, to suggest that The Blue Angel represents a crucial point in making Dietrich’s existential identity. Apparently, in this movie Dietrich had proven herself as someone who would never be willing to affiliate itself with the ideals of Nazism.
What it means is that, after having performed in Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, Dietrich had unwillingly set herself on the course of eventual immigration to America. As Bronfen (2003) had put it: “The Blue Angel marks Marlene’s seemingly irreversible crossing of a concrete geopolitical boundary, i.e., her resolute departure from Germany, for which there would be a poignantly ambivalent homecoming after her death” (10).
Immediately, after release of The Blue Angel, this movie became an international blockbuster. In its turn, this prompted the representatives of Paramount Studio to offer Dietrich to sign contract with the company, according to the terms of which, Dietrich would make an appearance in Paramount’s two more films. In return, Paramount agreed to pay Dietrich $1750 per week, while in America.
Immediately, after Medias had found out about the terms of Dietrich’s contract with Paramount, the rumors began to spread that the German star was in fact having an affair with Sternberg. It is needless to mention, of course, that these rumors did damage Dietrich’s reputation of a married woman with six years old daughter Maria.
Nevertheless, Dietrich had proven herself smart enough to realize that for the movie-star, rumors are the same as coal for the steamer – they provide an additional momentum to the process of celebrity’s rising to fame. This was the reason why Dietrich has never been overly enthusiastic in denying the allegations of having had an affair with Sternberg, even though there are good reasons to believe that she had not slept with him.
After having arrived to America in the spring of 1930, Dietrich had spent a few weeks staying at Algonquin Hotel in New York. During the course of this time, she gained notoriety because of her taste for wearing men’s black tuxedos, hats and monocles, while in nightclubs. She had also made a deliberate point in kissing women and in acting in essentially masculine manner.
According to Lugowski (1999): “She [Dietrich] sometimes sported a monocle and cigarette holder (or cigar!) and invariably possessed a deep alto voice and a haughty, aggressive attitude toward men, work, or any business at hand” (4). In its turn, this resulted in stirring up another public controversy as to Dietrich being in fact lesbian.
The rumors of Dietrich being attracted to women became even more plausible after she made an appearance in Sternberg’s 1930 film Morocco, where German celebrity does appear to derive certain pleasure out of representing the character of Mademoiselle Amy Jolly as a dominance-seeking lesbian.
Just as it was the case with The Blue Angel, after being released to the theaters, Morocco had instantly become a hit. And, there are good reasons to believe that this was due to the fact that in it, Dietrich had proven herself courageous enough not to have any reservations against exploring the full extent of her existential unconventionality.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that, because Morocco emanates an unmistakable aura of lesbianism, this film should be thought of as such that confirms the abnormality of Dietrich’s sexual urges.
In all probability, while possessing strong psychological skills, Dietrich had come to conclusion that by acting in rather controversial manner, she would be able to attract even more viewers – hence, ensuring the commercial successfulness of movies where she played leading roles.
As Desjardins (1995) had pointed out: “Some critics have suggested Dietrich’s intent is heterosexually motivated, and that the movie’s [Morrocco] hint of lesbianism is to make her exotic or to titillate a ‘masculinized’ spectator assumed to be heterosexual” (28).
Given the fact that Morocco had proven to be one of the most commercially successful movies in the history of Hollywood (it generated $2 million of pure profit), Paramount Studio has paid Dietrich an astronomical sum of $125.000 to take part in filming of Sternberg’s another movie Dishonored, where Dietrich was again offered to play the role of a prostitute.
And, even though this particular Sternberg’s film was not quite as commercially successful as the previous one, Dietrich continued to be offered to sign contracts with Hollywood’s other studios, in exchange for being paid as much as $200.000.
Therefore, it comes as not a particular surprise that Dietrich decided to make Hollywood as the place of her permanent residence. At the end of 1931, she traveled back to Germany, only to bring her daughter Maria to live with her in Beverly Hills. By 1932, Dietrich had firmly established herself as Hollywood’s typical celebrity, who used to drive around in exclusive Rolls-Royce automobile, to leave waiters as much as $100 in tips, and to order the walls of her house to be draped with the fur of a white mink.
Around the same time, the rumors of Dietrich indulging in sexual escapades with Hollywood’s prominent directors and actors started to become largely confirmed, especially given the fact that she did not apply much of an effort into trying to keep her affairs confidential.
In its turn, this prompted Sternberg’s wife Riza Royce to file a lawsuit against Dietrich, on the account of German actress having destroyed the marital relationship between Royce and Sternberg. Had Dietrich’s case been dealt with by a particularly conservative judge, she would have ended up paying Royce as much as $500.000 in compensations.
At the same time, while experiencing amorous adventures on a side, Dietrich continued to advance her professional career. In 1932, she played the character of Helen Faraday in Sternberg’s movie Blonde Venus. And, despite the fact that this movie had proven a commercial fiasco, ‘Blonde Venus’ became Dietrich’s second name.
Partially, this can be explained by the fact that in Blonde Venus, Dietrich played the role of a domesticated wife, which corresponded to the erotic anxieties of male viewers, who while never ceasing to be intrigued by unconventional subtleties of Dietrich’s femininity, nevertheless wanted to see her being ‘tamed’.
As Jacobs (1988) had observed: “[In Blonde Venus] Dietrich wears an apron, her hair obscured by a kerchief… Dietrich tends to be shown in long shot performing a variety of mundane tasks: bathing the baby, cooking dinner” (28). Nevertheless, due to this particular film’s unsuccessfulness, Paramount appointed Rouben Mamoulian as the director of a next movie, where Dietrich was given the role of a peasant-girl Lily Czepanek – The Song of Songs.
While participating in the production of The Song of Songs, Dietrich was introduced to Hollywood’s prominent actor Brian Aherne, who became her lover. It is well worthy noticing that, while pursuing an affair with Aherne, Dietrich did not only remain officially married to Sieber, but that she had gone as far as paying for Siber’s lover Tamara Matul to stay in Paris’s luxury hotels out of her own pocket.
In 1933, Dietrich had found herself another romantic passion – Spanish-American playwright Mercedes de Acosta, whom she used to bombard with love-letters and with flowers on daily basis. It goes without saying, of course, that Dietrich’s affair with Mercedes de Acosta did not go unnoticed.
In its turn, this once again subjected Dietrich to criticism, on the account of her ill-concealed lesbianism. While addressing this criticism, Dietrich used to reply that native-born Americans are simply not in position to ostracize her, due to the sheer extent of their intellectual inflexibleness.
Through years 1933-1936, Dietrich continued to play roles in such Hollywood’s movies as The Scarlet Empress, The Devil is a Woman, I Loved a Soldier, Desire, The Garden of Allah, Knight Without Armor and Angel. In them, Dietrich proceeded with exploring different aspects of her earlier assumed onstage image of ‘femme fatale’.
Also, during the course of this period, Dietrich indulged in extensive travelling throughout the Europe. And, with the exception of what it proved to be the case in Germany, the cheering crowds of fans would hardly allow her to enjoy any privacy, whatsoever.
In 1936, the German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels had offered Dietrich to return to Germany, in order to become ‘the queen of German cinematography’. Dietrich’s response to this request was rather conspicuous – in 1937, she surrendered her German citizenship in exchange for becoming the citizen of U.S.
In 1939, Universal Studio had offered Dietrich to play the character of cabaret-girl Frenchy in the western Destry Rides Again. Despite the fact that, according to the terms of contract, Dietrich was only going to be paid $50.000, she nevertheless agreed – by that time, actress’s financial situation had deteriorated rather dramatically.
What also prompted Dietrich to decide in favor of performing in Destry Rides Again is that she had never played roles in westerns before. As it was revealed later, during the course of film’s production, James Stewart (playing the role of ‘Tom’ Destry) impregnated Dietrich. Nevertheless, because pregnancy would undermine Dietrich’s value as highly sought-for actress, she decided to go for abortion.
And yet, even though while playing the role of Frenchy, Dietrich was subjected to the fair amount of emotional pressure, she nevertheless had once again proven herself a professional, in full sense of this word. This partially explains why Destry Rides Again became the hit of 1939 cinematographic season.
Nineteen forty one is the year when Dietrich had experienced probably the greatest love of her life. Even though that, prior to meeting an exiled French actor Jean Gabin in that year, Dietrich already had a very good idea of who he was, it was in America that the two have realized that they were indeed in love. In that year, Dietrich rented a cozy house in Brentwood, California, where she and Gabin decided to settle together.
Nevertheless, Gabin turned out to be rather challenging life-partner. It is not only that he envied Dietrich’s richness and her possession of thousands of friends and acquaintances, but also her fame. While being considered a celebrity in France, Gabin had failed at attaining cinematographic fame in America, which is why, while pursuing a relationship with Dietrich; he could never get rid of deep-seated inferiority complex.
According to Pells (1997): “In the past, Americans had noticed European actors and actresses only if, like Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, they emigrated to Hollywood. Otherwise, as in the case of Jean Gabin, an actor might achieve fame in his own country while being virtually unknown in the United States” (224). It is now being rumored that, while living with Dietrich in Brentwood, Gabin used to subject the latter to severe beatings. And yet, Dietrich never ceased loving Gabin with passion.
After having realized that he will not be able to establish himself in Hollywood as an actor, in 1943 Gabin decided to join Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces, in order to contribute to the liberation of France from Nazis. It is being said that, just as if she was a faithful wife, Dietrich came all the way from California to New York to simply say good-bye to her lover, which was just about to board the ship heading to Britain.
The full extent of Dietrich’s extraordinariness was exposed during the course of WW2, as ‘Blonde Venus’ did not only express her full support to Allies’ war on Germany, but became a particularly ardent spokesmen on behalf of Allies. Moreover, in 1944, Dietrich went to partially liberated France, in order to entertain American soldiers, which often involved Dietrich performing within the shooting range of Germans.
In her book, Fessler (1997) quotes from Mary Ferrell’s (which in 1944 was a nurse with U.S. Army) letter: “Marlene Dietrich visited our hospital several times and sang ‘Lili Marlene’ and ‘The Boys in the Backroom’ for the patients in the wards… She was beautiful and would always show the calf of her leg to the patients as she left.
I remember the boys liked to sing the risque song ‘Roll Me Over” (168). During the time of German 1944 winter offensive in Ardennes, Dietrich barely escaped being captured by advancing German troops, which would have executed her on the spot, as a traitor.
Nevertheless, the fact that Dietrich had proven herself as utterly courageous individual at the frontline of WW2, does not explain her eagerness to help the cause of Allies. After all, while Dietrich was popularizing America’s war bonds and while she was taking excursions to the frontline, as U.S. Army’s entertainer, her mother continued to live in Berlin.
What it means is that Dietrich’s contribution to America’s war effort was increasing the chance for her mother to be killed under Allied bombing. This is exactly the reason why, even after the end of WW2, most Germans never ceased considering Dietrich a particularly despicable traitor.
After the end of war, Dietrich and Gabin reunited once again and decided to make Paris the place of their residence. Nevertheless, their happiness together had proven short-lived, because Gabin could never understand why Dietrich was declining his offer to marry him officially and to provide him with children.
The relationship between the two ended in 1946, after Gabin found out that, while in Paris, Dietrich had made close friends with a number of city’s self-admitted lesbians, such as Edith Piaf.
When Dietrich was leaving back to America, in order to play the role of Blanche Ferrand in Georges Lacombe’s 1946 film Martin Roumagnac, Gabin even refused giving her a good-bye kiss. Ever since then, Gabin and Dietrich never saw each other again under informal circumstances.
Throughout late forties and early fifties, Dietrich had made an appearance in a number of relatively successful Hollywood’s movies, such as Golden Earrings, A Foreign Affair, Jigsaw, Stage Fright, No Highway in the Sky and Rancho Notorious. Nevertheless, as she participated in these films’ production, her royalties were steadily declining.
For example, for playing the character of Altar Keane in 1952 film Rancho Notorious, Dietrich was only paid $40.000. Apparently, the process of aging was gradually affecting Dietrich’s value as an actress. What was also contributing to this process, in psychological sense of this word, is the fact that in 1948 Dietrich became a grandmother – in that year, her daughter Maria has given birth to a son.
This, however, did not undermine Dietrich’s taste for flirting with just about any man that would come across her path. Throughout the course of fifties and sixties, Dietrich has been revealed of having had affairs with such famous Hollywood’s actors as Arthur O’Connell, Yul Brynner and Burt Bacharach.
There is even a legend that in 1961, Dietrich has had sex with the President Kennedy, who used to be her great admirer. According to the memories of O’Connell, Brynner and Bacharach, Dietrich intensely disliked ‘missionary position’ in sex, while always demanding to be on top of a man.
Given the fact that Dietrich has never been wise with the money, it comes as not a particular surprise that, after having spent her last eleven years living in Paris, she had found herself financially broke. In all probability, this speeded up the process of Dietrich health’s deterioration, resulting in actress’s death in 1992 at the age of ninety.
Nevertheless, the legacy ‘Blond Venus’ continues to live on, which is every anniversary of her death attracts thousands and thousands of faithful fans to Berlin’s Friedenau Cemetery, where 20th century’s most remarkable woman is being buried.
We believe that the provided earlier glimpse into Marlene Dietrich’s biography and into particulars of her lifestyle supports the validity of paper’s initial thesis.
Dietrich was indeed not only a remarkably beautiful woman, who used to inspire love and admiration in the hearts of innumerable men and women, but she was also a particularly progressive individual, who never lacked courage to assume an active stance in standing up for what she thought was a right thing to do.
This is the reason why Marlene Dietrich will go down the history as nothing short of cinematographic saint – beautiful, intellectually advanced, adventurous and yet unreachable ‘lady of heart’, who could have been admired but never owned.
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