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Blue Angel: The Life of Marlene Dietrich - Donald Spoto

”It is a woman’s job to sense the hungers in men and to satisfy them without, at the same time, giving so much of herself that men become bored with her. It is the same with acting. Each man or woman should be able to find in the actress the thing he or she most desires and still be left with the promise that they will find something new and exciting every time they see her again.” Marlene Dietrich

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Marlene Dietrich was obsessed with lighting her whole career. She always demanded a full length mirror to be just off stage so she could check to see if the lighting was perfect.

I first saw Marlene Dietrich in the movie Morocco (1930) many, many moons ago which was exactly what Hollywood wanted me to do. The Blue Angel (1930) was held up on purpose to allow the American audience to adjust to Dietrich before they exposed them to her character Lola Lola. I watched Morrocco because of Gary Cooper. I’d just seen High Noon (1952) which is certainly one of my favorite western movies, so I watched the movie for the wrong reasons, but how wonderful it is when that happens. Recently I watched Morocco again and was captivated by the way the director Josef von Sternberg created so much mystery around the character of Amy Jolly. Dietrich would be asked to play variations of Amy Jolly/Lola Lola for the rest of her career. So what magic happened in Morocco?

”So von Sternberg and cinematographer Lee Garmes presented Dietrich as a Garbo double for her first scene in Morocco. She moves toward the camera, veled, swathed in black, enveloped in nighttime fog aboard ship. The final scene of the film perfectly reverses all that, as Dietrich moves away from us, without veil or hat, dressed all in white, bathed only by the bright sunlight in the arid desert. Between these two images occurs an almost mythic transformation”. 

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Dietrich with Gary Cooper in Morocco.

She became Dietrich. 

Hollywood felt that The Blue Angel was just TOO risque for an American audience, so it was temporarily shelved until Moroccowas released. It is interesting to see Dietrich as Lola Lola with apple cheeks and certainly more weight on her frame. She isn’t fat, but the studio thought she was, and promptly put her on a weight loss program. What emerged, as the baby fat melted away, is the sculptured features of a great star. 

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Dietrich in Blue Angel.

She was heralded as the next Greta Garbo an illusion to the deadpan expressions on both their faces. She didn’t mind the comparison because she respected Garbo’s work and at this point in her career she needed any help she could get to build credibility with studios and fans. Later though after she had become MARLENE DIETRICH a waiter mistook her for Garbo and she promptly left with her entourage and never returned to that restaurant. 

As an offsetting story to what seems like a moment of pettiness, she was in Johannesburg in a restaurant in July of 1964 and was informed that the black company chauffeur was not going to be allowed to come in and eat because of apartheid. She threw a wonderful fit that only a movie star could properly pull off, ordered two meals, skipped the luncheon, went out to the driver, and ate her meal with him. 

Dietrich came of age in 1920s Berlin where sexuality knew no limits. When she came to America, despite the moralistic leanings of that country, she brought Berlin attitudes towards sex and sexual orientation with her. 

”A nonchalant approach to sex was in fact considered absolutely chic and virtually a social requirement for a grownup trying to get through the unpleasantness of every day.”

She was married to Rudy Sieber and had a child named Maria. They were the perfect Dietrich beard. To say that she was sexually free is somehow an understatement. She was bisexual. Anyone, and I mean anyone she found to be attractive she saw no reason why they shouldn’t fall into bed with one another. Marriage was not a deterrent. Lovely wives of people she met would often receive a box full of violets as an expression of Dietrich’s interest. 

”These flowers were a widely understood token, since the popular German poet Stefan Georg had taken the color lavender as an emblem of homosexual love and violets as markers of its erotic expression.”

I’m sure there was bafflement and lack of understanding in many cases. Some of these “heterosexual” women did make an exception to their normal orientation for a night of passion with the famous star. 

Dietrich slept with a whole host of actors. To name a few, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Yul Brynner, and Burt Bacharach. Some of these men were 25 years younger than Dietrich when they took a spin between the sheets of the temptress. There is a funny scene that was set up by the director so that Dietrich could scope out Wayne before the studio would hire him to do a picture with her.

”With that wonderful floating walk Dietrich passed Wayne as if he were invisible, then paused, made a half-turn and cased him from cowlick to cowboots, then turned to me and whispered, ‘Oh Daddy, buy me that!’”

She soon became bored with Wayne and eventually dropped him all together because…he didn’t read books. Someone who was quite capable of feeding that part of her need for bookish discourse was Erich Maria Remarque who became her lover of many years. Dietrich supported the arts and sought out artists and writers whenever she could. 

”When completed, her living room had bookshelves lined with titles by William James, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner and Hemingway, and the walls were adorned with original art by Cezanne, Delacroix, Utrillo and Corot.” 

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Erich Maria Remarque and Dietrich.

I think of myself as a man of the world, but Dietrich still managed to shock me. She was so audacious and so liberated sexually that I can’t help, but admire her freedom from social constraints. During a time when a scandal would have torpedoed her career forever she managed to juggle her preference of two male lovers and one female lover, all at once, for most of her active life. She was careful to always be photographed in a group of people if she was out with one of her lovers. In fact poor Rudy, well maybe not so poor because she kept him in style for the rest of his life, was often dragged around from nightclub to nightclub with her entourage merely to dispel rumors.

She managed her image constantly. I was also struck by the work she put into any entrance she made. She would have restaurants scouted to know how best she must arrive. When she presented an academy award at the Oscars, before she would agree, she had to know from which side of the stage she would enter from because the slit in her dress, exposing those famous legs, had to be on the audience side. 

”She sauntered out with her sheath skirt slit to one knee and held 2,800 people in her instep.”

She was well into her fifties at this point. 

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The Dietrich legs that were once more famous than her face.

During WW2 her career took one of many downturns. She had come out against her native country and the German high command was not happy with her refusal to come home. She decided to go overseas and entertain the Allied troops as did many stars at that time who were not actively serving in the military. There is this one moment where it is dark and lights can not be found to provide a stage so a ring of tanks was formed around Dietrich and the soldiers shone their flashlights on her as she performed. I just can’t even image how etherial that must have been. 

She also, between performances, balanced affairs with General George “Blood and Guts” Patton and General James “Jumping Jim” Gavin. Like in all her relationships, the potential for absolute disaster is lurking constantly, but she somehow manages to massage hurt feelings and temper bouts of jealousy without ever letting things get out of control. 

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Dietrich with “Blood and Guts”

As with many stars I’ve read about, Clara Bow, Greta Garbo,and Hedy Lamarr to name three others, Marlene Dietrich ended up trapped in her apartment in later years. As Hedy Lamarr stated and I’ll paraphrase here: it was so devastating to see the disappointment in people’s eyes to finally meet her and not see the beautiful movie star siren she once was. The public they once adored now has become their enemy. 

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Marlene Dietrich in her last performance.

Dietrich was tempted out of retirement in 1979 to sing a song in the David Bowie film Just a Gigolo. She was 78 years old. As everyone gathered to watch this legend perform, the nervousness of the audience was palatable. No one knew for sure that she could still perform. Donald Spoto chose to open his bio with this scene, and I know as I get older I’m becoming an old softy, but I had tears in my eyes. She absolutely nailed it. 

She wasn’t the best singer or the best actress, but once seen she was impossible to forget. The American Film Institute in 1999 named her the 9th greatest female star of all time. 

”Marlene Dietrich had to rely only on a cultivated sex appeal that was provocative but never coarse, slightly naughty but never sordid. She pleased men and women in her audience by incarnating in her roles and expressing in her songs a cynicism without acrimony--by representing the ordinary adult experience of failed romance, lost love, diminished expectations. She represented what she was--the eternal love, tenacious, proud, destined for the cycles of fierce romance and eventual disappointment, hovering too closely, nurturing too much, rejected but unbitter, ever eager for restoration to favor. But most of all, she simply endured, and all the world loves a survivor.”

I couldn’t put this book down. It was simply irresistible. Dietrich was a headline almost every minute. 

I also read a book about Hedy Lamarr titled Beautiful: the Life of Hedy Lamarr by Stephen Michael Shearer. Hedy Lamarr Review with Pictures of course