By Penny Deutsch
Magdalene Dietrich, born in Germany on December 27, 1901, was quite an
accomplished violinist prior to an injury to one of her hands. Undaunted,
she decided to pursue an acting career and auditioned at the Berlin school of
drama at the age of twenty-one, supporting herself by working in a glove
factory. During this time, she met and married casting director and well-known
playboy, Rudolf Sieber, and her only child Maria was born. Although their
marriage failed, they never divorced and remained amicable until her death.
Acting on stage, she became “The Toast of Berlin” in such plays as “Duel
on the Lido” and “From Mouth to Mouth”. She acted in 17 silent movies
between 1922 and 1929, and in 1927, with two important engagements in Vienna,
she made her first notable silent film, “Café Elektric”. When she returned to
Germany, she played leading roles in “I Kiss Your Hand”, “Madame”, “The Woman
One Longs for/Three Loves”, “The Ship of Lost Souls”, and “Dangers
of the Engagement Period”. While starring in Mischa Spilansky’s “It’s in the
Air”, in 1928, she recorded her first two songs.
In 1929, the Jewish-Austrian film director, Josef von Sternberg, arrived from
Hollywood to make “Professor Unrat”, with Emil Jannings, which was based on a
novel by Heinrich Mann, and Sternberg was still seeking an actress to play the
lead female role. While sitting in the audience of Zwei Krawatten, he saw
Marlene for the first time and decided she would be perfect for the role.
And thus began their six-year relationship and Marlene went on to become a
sultry screen siren.
Also in 1929, Marlene starred as the seductive nightclub singer in one of the
first German movies with sound. Her songs were written by composer, Friedrich Hollaender, whose compositions for the film, “The Blue Angel”, helped make it
one of the most timeless films of the era and launched Marlene Dietrich’s world
In April of 1930, after her arrival in New York, Sternberg introduced her to
America with the “Marlene Dietrich Trailer”, and the two worked on six
exceptional and unrivaled Hollywood films together.
She portrayed her characters with such artistry that she adopted their persona,
sometimes to shock as well as entertain. In her American
debut with “Morocco” in
1931, she created a sensation with her portrayal of a nightclub singer in black
tails and top hat, who kisses a woman in the audience on the lips, takes a
flower from her hair and tosses it to Gary Cooper. The movie made headlines
worldwide. Hollywood was enamored with the sultry star and her ability to
perform the scene with such artistry – to shock, but not offend. Ernest
Hemingway wrote of her, “If she had nothing more than her voice, she could
break your heart with it.”
In 1932, Marlene starred as a femme fatale in “Shanghai Express”, her most
successful movie with Sternberg, as a woman traveling from Peking to Shanghai
during the Chinese civil war. This began her allure as Hollywood´s leading
empress of glamour, allure, and mystique.
In her fourth American film, “Blonde Venus”, in 1932, Marlene again wore tails
and top hat in a movie success, but this time they were white.
Her first talking film not directed by Sternberg was “Song of Songs”, in 1933.
It was banned in Germany because of its anti-German rhetoric, and although
Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels offered to make her “The Queen”
of German films if she made movies promoting Hitler, she consistently refused.
and Sternberg’s “The Scarlet Empress” in 1931, is one of the most
controversial historical dramas ever produced, with Marlene playing the German
princess Sophie Frederike, who became “Catherine the Great.” The
last Dietrich/Sternberg-film was “The Devil is a Woman”, in 1935, where she
played the Spanish dancer Concha Perez. And although her role was much
out of character, it became one of Marlene´s favorite films.
Also in 1931, Marlene demonstrated her great sense of humor in the comedy movie
“Desire”, directed by Frank Borzage, playing a glamorous jewel thief who wins
Gary Cooper’s heart. It also demonstrated her aptitude for success without
Sternberg and their
began to falter.
Her film career continued with movies such as, “Destry Rides Again”, with
Stewart, where she uttered her famous invitation to “See what the boys in the
back room will have.” In 1957 and 1958, Marlene was a sensation
playing a cigar-smoking brothel madam in director, Orson Welles’ “Touch of
Evil”, in which he also produced, designed and starred as the corrupt police captain,
Hank Quinlan. Around the same time period, Billy Wilder, an old friend with whom
she had made “A Foreign Affair” ten years before, directed Marlene in “Witness
for the Prosecution”. Marlene`s performance as Christine Vole in this immortal
courtroom thriller was one of her greatest dramatic roles.
She continued in films, starring with and being romantically linked to many of
the most handsome leading men, until her career faltered in the early forties,
possibly because the characters she agreed to play were not versatile enough. She
then focused her interests on entertaining Allied troops with such endearing renditions as “Lili Marlene”, and received the Medal of Freedom. France
honored her with the title Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur.
After working with the most well known directors of the time, she experienced
another suspension in her movie career, and once again, turned this respite into
an opportunity, becoming a highly paid nightclub entertainer and reviving the
sultry voice that made her famous.
After the death of her husband and an inability to continue her grueling
routine, she surprised everyone when in 1978 she appeared with David Bowie in
“Just a Gigolo”, which was her final screen appearance. She died in her
apartment in Paris on May 6, 1992, but the “Toast of Berlin” is still
alive in the hearts of her fans.
Penny Deutsch is a freelance writer
who watched Marlene's films as they originally played amongst packed theaters
while growing up in England.
Other Marlene Dietrich Pages:
A Tribute to
Marlene Dietrich Once the highest paid actress of her time, German-born
Marlene Dietrich is today viewed by many movie fans as an icon. She finished 9th
on the AFI's list of greatest actresses.
Jackson's Marlene Dietrich Page -- From a Berlin Chorus Line to Cinematic