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LILI MARLENE...

___ As you may have guessed already, I am fascinated by movie stars from the Golden age of Hollywood, which lasted roughly from the late 1920's to the early 60's... Marilyn Monroe was the first to capture my attention and prompted me to go back to that whole era. What I found was a certain class which is somehow lacking in most movie stars of today. There was an aura of mystery about them and, the fact that many of the movies they made were shot in black and white adds a mystic quality to all those wonderful actors and actresses of yesteryear. And none was as alluring, etherally beautiful nor had a career as long lasting and successful as Marlene Dietrich...

She was one of the most controversial figure of the 20th Century. Everything she did and said was a constant source of speculation and intense scrutiny by the public and the press. She had a very distinctive androgynous quality which set her apart in a time when even the word sex was taboo. She would dress up in clothes traditionally reserved to men, thus breaking every conventions and social rules of the time. She starred in countless movies all through her career and is still vividly remembered today as an enduring force in cinema's history.

I remember the first time I became aware of her existence. I was in my teens. Flipping through some magazine one day, I saw the picture of a woman that totally captivated me. You can actually see that photograph as it is the first one below. It was Marlene in all her glory, posing for a still taken from the movie Desire, made in 1936 and starring Gary Cooper as her leading man...

Mind you, I didn't know all that then. And the article accompanying the picture was nothing more than a footnote on a larger article about "old movies". But that picture had such a tremendous impact on me, you just have no idea... I mean, many of those black and white pictures are so glamorous and classically beautiful that one can't help but be amazed at their magnificence. But mainly, it was that face that had me instantly enthralled...

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SMOLDERING...

Marlene was a very sensuous woman and her face projected a kind of magic only a very short few can possess. There was this kind of detachment and even coldness about her, coupled with a striking sexual radiance which could only be qnality about her which could only be qualified as aloof yet smoldering. You could sense this complete confidence and cool streak in her, traits which could make any other woman look vain but only made Marlene more beautiful than ever... She was a goddess of the silver screen and the term here is completely appropriate. Only some divine creature could project so much sex appeal and class with a smirk quality, all brilliantly combined into one whole persona.

And a big part of Marlene's appeal was her tendency to wear men's clothing. You have to remember that in the 30's and 40's, "travesty" was illegal in many countries and Marlene would litterally stop traffic, walking around in pants, trousers and ties, completely oblivious to the commotion she was creating. In Paris, she almost got arrested and people would stop in mid-sentence, gasping at the sight of her on the street parading in some accouterment only worn by the male-half of the population in that era.

I personally have this very deep affection and complete admiration for people who are not afraid to show who they are and do what they want, even if the time and culture they happen to live in doesn't really accept their particular way of being. Marlene did what she wanted to, when she wanted and didn't give a damn if people liked it or not. And she just happened to love men's clothing... They fitted very well on her so why not wear them?

She overtly had countless affairs with many important male and female figures even though she was married practically all her life to Rudolf Sieber. They met in 1922 in Berlin and were married the next year. She stayed in the marriage until his death in 1976 and never remarried. Rudolf was living in Europe with his longtime mistress, Tamara while his "wife" was keeping many other beds warm.

Even today, adultery is comdemned by many. And yet, here was this woman who lived in an era so tight on conventions, unapologetically having numerous lovers. She would go out in public with her current flame accompanied by her husband and his mistress. I mean, how daring can you get? I am in awe when I think about all the scandals she avoided, with the help of the movie studios who, in the old days, fiercely protected their assets (any star they had under contract) and would bury any potentially destructive situation into oblivion, keeping it out of the press...

It took an enormous amount of self-confidence and bravado to live her life the way she wanted to in an era proned to condemn anyone who didn't conform to the very rigid social conventions of the day. But Marlene was a rare bird, a celestial creature who didn't feel she had to adhere to any code of behavior imposed by society. And she was absolutely right. She was a movie star but even more importantly, a shaker of the prudish establishment of that time which needed to be challenged in their ridiculous and increasly dated views on life and love.

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STERNBERG...

Maria Magdalene Dietrich was born on December 27, 1901, in the West Berlin district of Schöneberg, Germany. She had artistic inclinations early on and studied the piano and the violin for many years. Then, she started her acting career on the stage in Berlin in the early 1920's and went on to star in many silent movies (most of which she denied strangely enough) until she was "discovered" by Josef Von Sternberg, a prolific american director who cast her in "Der Blaue Engel" ("The Blue Angel") in 1930.

That movie would catapult her into instant stardom in Germany but then, Sternberg decided that his "protégée" was star material on an international scale and sent her to America where she would be introduced to the world as Amy Jolly, her character on Morocco. It was her first movie released in American soil before The Blue Angel which would enjoy some success in its original German version in the USA, after "Morocco" had made her an "instant" star...

Her impact in that movie was both instantaneous and tremendous. The scene where Amy Jolly, dressed up in a tuxedo, steps on a stage to a boohooing audience, then managing to win them over with her cool demeanor had a monster impact on movie audiences of that time. Even more shocking was what followed: she goes over to a pretty woman in the audience, takes the flower off her hair and then kisses her on the lips...

You have to remember, we are talking about 1930 here and audiences of that period were nowhere near as sophisticated as they are now. And even when we compare it to what is being shown today, it is still pretty risqué and was electrifying to the public of that era... It made a huge profit at the box-office for Paramount Pictures, the studio employing Marlene and everyone embraced her as their new goddess of the silver screen.

And Sternberg wisely decided to first introduce Marlene to the american public in tuxedo, therefore hiding the most obvious of Marlene's attributes: her legs. Legs have always been a strong criteria for the feminine beauty. When they are long and nicely shaped, they become an intense object of eroticism not only for heterosexual men but, as a general symbol for glamour and beauty. There is nothing quite as breathtakingly gorgeous as a tall beautiful woman with very long legs. This is a physical trait which is very desirable in women for some reason but unfortunately, not all of them possess that attribute as it truly is a gift from God...

Marlene was known to have extremely beautiful long legs but ironically, didn't display them often enough... Only in a few movies can we see those gorgeous gams of hers and Morocco was one of them, even if they are covered most of the time. Luckily though, she posed for endless still pictures and some of them let us see just how perfect they were. The very fact that she hid them whenever she could probably increased their legendary status.

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At the beginning of her career in America, she was being compared a lot to another imported star, the hugely popular Greta Garbo of Swedish origin. There was a slight physical similitude between the two women but it soon became clear that Marlene was an original and would become a star in her own right, not adhering to any previous mold. She made seven movies with Josef Von Sternberg and, even though some were not popular at the box-office then, each of them is a tribute to that face, the ultimate woman Sternberg perfected from his own creative visions.

Their last movie together, The devil is a woman was also the favorite of both of them. It was banned at the time and practically destroyed Sternberg's career. But viewed now, it is nothing short of a masterpiece. The acting, lighting, set designs, cinematography, directing, everything is amazing... And Marlene herself is probably at her most beautiful, in her own opinion at least... I bought the tape and must admit that she is breathtakingly gorgeous in it, wearing one outlandish costum after another. Marlene would star in many more movies after her collaboration with Sternberg ended and her career would span six decades...

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THE END...

In the mid-50's, when most of her contemporaries gave up the movies or rather saw the picture industry drop them like yesterday's bad news, Marlene recycled many songs from her old movies and began what would become a whole new career, this time on the stage as a singer, giving concerts to packed houses all over the world. It was at that time she introduced her famous nude dresses onstage, which had previously been seen in some of her past movie triumphs like A foreign affair from 1948.

The sight of Marlene by now in her mid-50's in a dress that made her body seem almost nude, except for quite a few strategically placed sequins and/or veils, made her public gasp at this unbelievable apparition. She would use several different copies of those beautiful nude dresses, in different colors, each costing thousands of dollars... And even in middle-age, dressed like the most glamorous goddess of the silver screen, her body and face still looked uncannily young and the public couldn't believe that this was the same woman who had first dazzled the world at 29 years old, a quarter of a century earlier in 1930.

She reinvented herself from movie actress to stage singer and performed concerts in many country, continuing to shoot the occasional movie, even though her past stature as a movie goddess was quickly fading by now. She would eventually become an important stage presence in history, performing concerts all over the world for more than twenty years and recording countless albums in the process. And all this time, her appearance continued to defy every natural law, the actress looking almost like she did in her thirties. At the time, it seemed like Marlene had found the secret of eternal youth and her adoring public never questioned it...

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But there was a secret to that mysterious youthful quality she possessed. Marlene had been a star for a very long time. But time is one thing nobody can avoid forever and when she began to experience the one natural phenomenon we all to go through: aging... She began to resent this intrusion on her person which made her body and face slowly lose their beauty. As I am an avid reader of biographies and have devoured many concerning her, I know for a fact how she hated growing old.

So, she would be adamant about the lighting being flattering in any public place she went. Marlene had always been aware of the fact that lighting is extremely important. Her key light was a crucial element to her as it should be. If you have never heard the term, key light means the specific light with which an actor is being lit. When that light is well adjusted, it can transform most people, no matter how ordinary or plain they could be, into a much better looking creature. And since Marlene had a gorgeous bone and facial structure anyway, it made her ravishingly beautiful even as she grew older like all human beings.

But even by controlling the lighting around her everywhere she went, it became imperative after a while to use a more drastic measure to regain her looks which were slowly fading. So, at some point in her later days (I am not exactly sure when...), whenever she had to perform for a concert or in front of a camera, Marlene started to utilize an old trick which had been used by many stage and movie personalities before... The temporary face-lift tapes.

They were like tiny squares of fabric with a small chord attached to them. The make-up artist would put glue on the squares, stick many of them all around the face of the actress and put each chord at the back of the head. Then, all the chords would be tied in the back of the head very tightly, lifting up the face and making every wrinkles disappear to preserve the illusion of youth.

The offending chords would be covered by Marlene's own hair and much later, by a wig. On movie sets from the early days well into the 60's, this procedure was a very well-known and accepted fact. And they were not just used by leading ladies. Men as well used that technique for quite a long time. William Powell and John Barrymore just to name those two, also used to go through that procedure when they got to a certain age as the biographies of countless stars (one of whom is "Esther Williams") have described...

When she started her concerts in the mid-50's, only the face-lift tapes and carefully crafted lighting were necessary since Marlene still had an amazing body at that time. But as she got into her sixties, another subterfuge would become imperative since her figure was also starting to suffer from the effects of old age. The nude dresses had such a deep impact that Marlene was adamant about repeating it for every concert but when she got too old to be able to look as good as she wanted, she had to find something else...

Very soon, she came up with the the perfect solution. She would squeeze her body into a semi-rigid "armor" much like a spider web to recreate her famous figure. That concoction was sewn into every dresses and was made of a special material which would constrict Marlene's body into her former youthful shape, recreating her youthful figure, which was not what it used to be at this point in her life. After all, she was well into her sixties, at an age where many movie stars have retired.

But eventually, she became unable to stop the ravages of time and, retired from the stage in 1976, the same year her husband died. Then in 1978, for monetary reasons, she was persuaded to appear in a movie called Just a gigolo starring "David Bowie" which would be her last screen appearance. In it, she is like a shadow of her former self. She was an alcoholic by now and had to drink enormous amounts to get through her only scene as the madam of a brothel, singing the title song accompanied by a bunch of younger men with a shaky, yet very poignant voice...

After this last appearance, she retired completely from public view and put herself to bed in her Paris apartment from which she would never leave. Her beautiful legs slowly lost their muscle tone and after a few years, she was unable to get up and became a total recluse with only the phone and some close relative for company... She died on May 6 1992 at the age of 91.

I have been a witness to some of her antics through documentaries, interviews and the many biographies written about her which I have all read many times, especially the one from Maria Riva her daughter and only child. In 1984, director Maximilian Schell succeeded in making Marlene sign a contract to shoot a documentary about her life which would eventually be released two years later in the USA. Simply called Marlene, it was supposed to contain many interviews with the star herself...

But Marlene refused to be photographed and wanted only her voice to be recorded. Maximilian had no choice but to comply. He soon found out just how vitriolic Marlene could sometimes be... She fought with him every step of the way, sounding somewhat annoyed all through the interviews and resorting to star antics while throwing temper tantrums. As a last resort, the director decided to change the concept of the documentary completely by constructing a story about a star's resistance to talk about her life, playing off Marlene's outbursts and succeeding in making one of the most compelling portrait of a movie star ever put on film.

I saw that documentary and was fascinated at how angry and bitter she sometimes sounded. And you know, I totally understand where she is coming from... Here was a woman who had tried for decades to preserve her image of eternally young and gorgeous goddess. And now, she had become an "old" woman, wrinkled up and looking no more like Dietrich, the movie star.

She HATED growing old and did anything she could to hold on to her youthful looks. But now, she was at the point in her life where her own mortality was staring her in the face. And this was an extremely frightening and humiliating position for her to be in. My heart really goes out to her. God knows I myself am horrified at the prospect of getting old and can understand her pain completely...

As Maria Riva relates in the book she has written about her mother, at one point in her life, Marlene supposedlyfell "madly" in love with her own face in the movie The devil is a woman. This might sound very vain on her part but you have to understand that most movie stars have this uncanny ability to see their entity in the third person on the screen. They know that it is only an image of themselves and view it as a creation, a perfected version of their own person.

This is partly why that movie is her favorite as she felt it was the one in which her face, with the help of the skilled Sternberg, was at its most beautiful. Therefore, she had attained perfection in her mind and no subsequent image of herself really satisfied her. And as she grew too old to recreate that face, she just went into hiding, not able to stand the scrutiny of the media and the public that she had both adored in her prime.

But when a star of that magnitude decides to get out of the public view, this isn't to say the press or even the public is ready to let go. She become hounded like some wild animal, never being able to get some peace as she was imprisonned by her own fame. Also, when someone goes into hiding, they still need human companionship. I am sure she was extremely lonely, constantly trying to forget about her deteriorating looks, which had been an important asset in her life for a very long time. I mean, when someone is as gorgeous as Marlene, how can you learn to live without that beauty as time takes it away? There is quote that really explains how Marlene must have felt about old age:

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There is no greater pain...
than the memory of past happiness...
in present misery...

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When someone becomes a huge star like Marlene, is it extremely difficult to come back to "real life" once that stardom starts to fade. We as human beings usually resent change and want our situation to last as long as possible. She remained at the height of success for a very long time, enjoying a career a lot more successful and long lasting than many stars. But it had to end sooner or later and this devastated her... Yes, she would have done anything to go back to her youthful days and regain some of that lost "magic" that was Dietrich at her prime.

But it is utterly impossible and this is partly why she sometimes sounded or acted harshly. But underneath, she was suffering immensely and her pain was palpable to me as I listened to her recorded voice in the documentary. I felt her deep aching for the past and for all the people she had loved who were by then long gone by... Life is cruel as it gives us a taste of youthful beauty, only to take it back slowly as the clock ticks away...

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FILMOGRAPHY

___ Here is a list of movies which are worth checking out, at least from my own point of view, if you want to discover, either for the first time or as a renewed pleasure, the magic that is "Dietrich" on the silver screen. Marlene has starred in countless movies and I couldn't include all of them here so I opted instead to talk only about my very favorites, the ones which had the most durable impact on me personally...

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MOROCCO

This is the movie where she was introduced to the American public in 1930. True, most of the story when viewed today seems painfully out of date. But Marlene's magic is very apparent everytime she is on the screen. And even though her acting remains a bit forced all throughout, she would acquire a self-confidence in later films which is still apparent here, even though you can sense her limitations as an actress.

But despite all of this and as I have described before, the scene where she sings to the audience in a tuxedo and ends up kissing a woman on the mouth is electrifying, even by today's standard. The chemistry she shared with Gary Cooper was erotically charged and full of sensuality. And this is the first time America witnessed the beautiful lighting and cinematography Sternberg would subsequently use in six more movies with the perfect woman he had just created...

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SHANGHAI EXPRESS

This is the Sternberg-Dietrich collaboration which was the most profitable at the box-office, even more than Morocco. The story is once again only an excuse to photograph Marlene in one sensuous mood after another. She is devastatingly ravishing in every shot and the scenes are so beautifully lighted that they recall etchings.

Sternberg was essentially a silent movie director and kept the dialogues to a minimum in all his movies. He preferred to move the story forward with images, which is why some people like this movie and others hate it. But no one can deny the beauty of the sets or the actors, especially Marlene. She is radiant and wears many outlandish costumes with plenty of gloves, feathers and veils... Simply divine.

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SCARLETT EMPRESS

I must say that, for some reason, this is one of her movie which I like the most. From the costumes (all more extravagant and gorgeous than the other) to the story and the set designs, everything was extremely enjoyable to me. You know how sometimes you sit through a certain movie which you find boring, only because you've heard every critic praise it to be a classic?

I must admit that I sometimes feel that way about certain films, even with some of my very favorites like Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Vivien Leigh and even Marlene. But this wasn't the case here. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. And even though it was a complete flop at the box-office at that time, I sincerely believe this movie wasn't given its proper due. It tells the story of the young princess Sophia Frederica who would eventually become Catherine II, Empress of Russia. And her daugher Maria Sieber has a small role, playing Catherine as a child in a few scenes.

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THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN

To say that this movie caused a scandal would be an understatement. It was banned at the time of its release, offending everyone it seems the few times it played. The Spanish Goverment demanded that Paramount destroy all the negatives, even the ones already in circulation because they felt it denigrated their political views.

It was believed at the time that the movie had been completely eradicated and only recently, thanks to Marlene's own personal copy, was it put on the market through videotapes. I bought it and must agree that Marlene is absolutely divine and her costumes are probably the best of all her movies. Her acting is also very precise and methodical, in a "caprice" mode which suited her look perfectly. And once again, the lighting is extraordinary. I sincerely think that this movie contains some of the wildest costumes ever put on a woman's back.

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DESIRE

This was one of the first movie Marlene did after her "alliance" with Sternberg ended. Directed by "Frank Borzage" and produced by Ernst Lubitsch (who was a celebrity all on his own) and co-starring "Gary Cooper" from her Morocco days, Marlene finally had a hit at the box-office and regained her status as a bankable movie star, even if she would be voted Box-office poison a year later. But in 1936, she was riding high.

She plays a jewel thief who ends up mending her ways with the help of debonair Cooper, falling in love with him. Set in a contemporary context after her last few historical dramas (which had done very little for her career), I found this movie very enjoyable. Once again, she wears lavish costumes and looks bedazzling. This is one of her most accessible movies, sure to please almost everyone. A must!

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DESTRY RIDES AGAIN

In 1937, after her movie "Angel" opened to disastrous reviews and made no money, Marlene was branded "box-office poison" in an article, along with such contemporaries as Bette Davis, "Katherine Hepburn", Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. The magazine implied that those actresses no longer had the capacity to attract moviegoers with the strength of their name alone. And even though it wasn't really true, the effect was devastating to all those actresses who had a very hard time getting work afterwards.

Marlene sailed to Europe and didn't appear on the screen for two years until the producer Joe Pasternak convinced her to play in a western, co-starring James Stewart. Marlene hesitated before accepting this role who would single-handedly revive her career and put her back to the top once again. It made a huge profit at the time and is still considered a classic today. She is wonderful as Frenchy a tart saloon singer and her cat fight with Una Merkel is one of the best ever recorded on film.

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A FOREIGN AFFAIR

Made in 1948 when Marlene was herself 47 and directed by the wonderfully brilliant director Billy Wilder, this one is set in the post-war Germany where Dietrich plays a nazi cabaret singer. Marlene almost refused the part because her character was a nazi. After all, even though she was of German descent, Marlene was by now a US citizen and was repulsed at what Hitler did, just as the rest of world. So for her, playing a nazi was so out of character that she was really hesitant before accepting the part.

But she did and was radiant in the movie, singing a couple of songs which gave the movie its heart and soul. And with luminous shoulder length hair while wearing those fabulous costumes, she was breathtaking. True, her role is not really the lead and her apparitions are limited. But she stole every scene she was in and without her, the movie never would have worked. It was a big success at the box-office and renewed her movie career somewhat, even though her past glory days on the silver screen were already fading at this point. But none of this matters... All that does is the beautiful image of her on the screen which I couldn't keep my eyes away from... An enchanting presence and a voice to match...

IMMORTALITY

___ Marlene Dietrich is and always will be a star... Her ambitious drive kept her active for a very long time, in a field where most people retire much earlier than the usual profession. She is like a burning flame, incandescent and bright, shining through our dark world like a spotlight. She was a goddess of the silver screen, a singer on the stage and a formidable presence in the constellation of stars who had the most tremendous impact on our culture.

And I think that one of her key contribution to the world of movies is without a doubt her sense of irony. Whenever you watch her on the screen, you can sense that Marlene isn't taking herself too seriously and she always plays her characters while winking at the audience. And in an era so irony-drenched as the Golden Age of Hollywood, she was like a breath of fresh air and this is a big reason why she still looks so contemporary to modern eyes. Her sense of humour is probably one of her best quality and really set her apart.

When you think about it, through her pictures and countless movies, she remains alive and vibrant, a woman who at her prime shook the world over, challenging the ridiculous and dated social conventions of the day. And her immortal status will remain forever, as vibrant and sparkling as it was when she was first introduced to the world through the magic of the lens. Her enduring presence on celluloid keeps her memory alive and she wouldn't have wanted it any other way. To be remembered and loved, even after her physical body has left this world. I for one will worship her until the day I die...

I love you Marlene, with all my heart...