Friday, August 04, 2006

Friday's Ferocious Female - Marlene Dietrich


I love Marlene Dietrich for many reasons. I think what struck me most about her was her fantastic sense of style and her marvellous eyebrows. Being a fan of makeup artistry and striking eyebrows, she completely appealed to me. Once upon a time, I worked at a hair salon. One of my co-workers was a fantastically gay man named Gerard. He used to say to his clients, "I am an artist and this is the way I chose to express myself!" He loved Marlene and gave me a cassette of her music. I never heard her before and I was blown away. Yes, it was a bit kitschy but I loved how luscious and glamourous it felt to listen to it. It brought me back to another time. A time of smoky cabarets and lush sexuality.

Here's a long blurb from Wikipedia about the fabulous life of Marlene Dietrich.

Born Marie Magdalene Dietrich or Maria Magdalena Dietrich in Berlin-Schöneberg, Germany to Louis Erich Otto Dietrich and Wilhelmina Elisabeth Josephine Felsing, she was after her adoption by her father-in-law named Maria Magdalena von Losch. She changed her first name to Marlene when she was 11. Marlene played the violin before joining Max Reinhardt's acting school in 1921, making her official film debut two years later (although historians insist that Dietrich actually appeared as an extra in a 1919 German film).

After acting in only German movies at first (while also dancing as a chorus girl in cabarets and in stage plays), she got her first role in the first European talking picture,
The Blue Angel (1930), directed by Josef von Sternberg.

She then moved to Hollywood to make Morocco, for which she received her only Oscar nomination. Her most lasting contribution to film history was as the star in several films directed by von Sternberg in the pre-Code early 1930s, such as The Scarlet Empress and Shanghai Express, in which she played "femmes fatales". She gradually broadened her repertoire in Destry Rides Again, The Spoilers, A Foreign Affair, Witness for the Prosecution, Touch of Evil and Judgment at Nuremberg.

Dietrich sang in several of her films (most famously in von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, in which she sings "Falling In Love Again"("Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt"), having made records in Germany in the 1920s. Following a slowdown in her film career, she made a number of records first for Decca, Elektrola, EMI, and for Columbia. Her distinctive voice was later satirized, along with that of Lotte Lenya, in the song Lieder by cult British trio Fascinating Aïda. Madeline Kahn did the same in the Mel Brooks classic Blazing Saddles.

In 1937, while her film career stalled in Hollywood, she made a film in London, and became an American citizen. In later interviews, she claimed that while in London to film Knight Without Armour (1937) she was approached by representatives of the Nazi party to return to Germany, but turned them down flat. Her US film career was revived with the Western Destry Rides Again (1939) costarring James Stewart, and featuring a famous fistfight with the character played by actress Una Merkel.

In 1941 the U.S. entered the Second World War and Dietrich became one of the first celebrities to raise war bonds. She entertained troops on the front lines in a USO revue that included future TV pioneer Danny Thomas as her opening act. Dietrich was known to have strong political convictions and the mind to speak them. Like many Weimar era German entertainers, she was a staunch anti-Nazi who despised anti-Semitic policies of National Socialism.
Her singing helped on the homefront of the
U.S.A too, as she recorded a number of anti-Nazi records in German for the OSS, including Lili Marleen, a curious example of a song transcending the hatreds of war. She also played the musical saw to entertain troops. She sang for the Allied troops on the front lines in Algiers, France and into Germany with Generals James M. Gavin and George S. Patton. When asked why she had done this, in spite of the obvious danger of being within a few kilometers of German lines, she famously replied "aus Anstand" – "it was the decent thing to do".

Unlike her professional celebrity, which was carefully crafted and maintained, Dietrich's personal life was kept out of public view. She married once, to director's assistant Rudolf Sieber, a Roman Catholic who later became a director at Paramount Pictures in France.

Her only child, Maria Elizabeth Sieber (married name Maria Riva), was born on December 13, 1924. When Maria Riva gave birth to a son in 1948, Dietrich was dubbed "the world's most glamorous grandmother". The great love of the actress's life, however, was the French actor and military hero Jean Gabin. As for her husband, he had a tragically unstable longterm mistress who looked a bit like and eventually believed herself to be Dietrich.

Despite all of this, she was reportedly offered a king's ransom to return to Germany, due to her immense popularity as well as Hitler's ardour, which she declined. It is true that she quipped that she would return only when one of her Jewish friends (possibly Max Reinhardt) could accompany her.

Her return to Germany in 1960 was met with protests, (including a pelting with tomatoes and eggs) by some Germans, many feeling betrayed by her actions during WWII, but was on the other hand also warmly welcomed by many Germans. When hearing the chants, "Marlene go home", Dietrich was quoted as saying, "I guess they have a love-hate feeling for me." She also undertook a tour of Israel around the same time, which was well-received; she sang some songs in German during her concerts, thus breaking the unofficial taboo against the use of German in Israel.

In later years it has also been indicated that she was bisexual, and involved in romantic affairs with actresses Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert and Ona Munson, among others. Dietrich was also involved with Joseph P. Kennedy and future President John F. Kennedy.

From the 1950s to the mid-1970s Dietrich toured internationally as a successful cabaret performer. Her repertoire included songs from her films as well as popular songs of the day. Until the mid-1960s her musical director was famed composer Burt Bacharach.

His arrangements helped to disguise Dietrich's limited vocal range and allowed her to perform her songs to maximum dramatic effect. Spectacular costumes (by Jean Louis), body-sculpting rubber undergarments, careful stage lighting, tight dresses into which she was sewn standing up, and, reportedly, gruesome mini-facelifts (achieved by weaving her hair into tight braids, pinning them tightly to her scalp with surgical needles, and then topping it all with sexy wigs) helped to preserve Dietrich's glamorous image well into old age.

In 1968, she received a Tony Award for her stage show. In 1973, her stage show was broadcast on television.

Her show business career largely ended on September 29, 1975, when she broke her leg during a stage performance. She appeared briefly in the film, Just a Gigolo, in 1979, and wrote and contributed to several books during the 1980s.

She spent her last decade mostly bed-ridden, in her apartment on the avenue Montaigne in Paris, during which time she was not seen in public but was a prolific letter-writer and phone-caller. Maximilian Schell persuaded Dietrich to be interviewed for his 1984 documentary Marlene, but she did not appear on screen. She was somewhat estranged from her daughter, but got on well with her grandson, Peter Riva. Her own husband, Rudolf Sieber, had died of cancer on June 24, 1976.

In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel in November 2005, her daughter and grandson claim that Marlene Dietrich was politically "active" during these years. She would keep contact with world leaders by telephone, running up a monthly bill of over 3,000 (USD). Her contacts included Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, though whether she had any influence on them is unknown.

Dietrich died peacefully of natural causes May 6, 1992, at the age of 90 in Paris, France. A service was conducted at La Madeleine in Paris before 3,500 mourners and a crowd of well-wishers outside. Her body, covered with an American flag, was then returned to Berlin where she was interred at the Städtischer Friedhof III, Berlin-Schöneberg, Stubenrauchstraße 43-45, in Friedenau Cemetery, not far from the house where she was born.

In 1994 her memorabilia were sold to the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek (after US institutions showed no interest) where it became the core of the exhibition(see [1]) at the Sony Center on Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, Germany, which is not far away from the square named Marlene-Dietrich-Platz in her honour on November 8, 1997.

Dietrich never integrated into the Hollywood entertainment industry, being always an outsider for mainstream America. Her heavy German accent gave an extra touch to her performance but made her look "foreign" in the eyes of Americans.

Dietrich was a fashion icon to the top designers as well as a screen icon whom later stars would follow. Her public image and some of her movies included strong sexual undertones, including bisexuality.

Intriguingly, as the writer Tony Barrell has pointed out (London Sunday Times, January 1, 2006), Dietrich was born on exactly the same day as another famous actress, Irene Handl. Though they played very different parts, both were educated at all-girls schools and had connections with Noël Coward.

Five Reasons to Like Marlene Dietrich:
1) She was a strong German woman who went against her country - she was very anti-Nazi. This caused the majority of her country to backlash against her.
2) She was one of the first Hollywood celebrities to raise war bonds.
3) Okay, she had absolutely stunning eyebrows and a beautiful sense of style.
4) Her smoky songs sang in a thick German accent make any woman and/or gay man swoon!
5) If she was truly bisexual and I was there back in those days, I would love to be romanced by the one and only Marlene Dietrich - who would pass up that offer!

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