In an effort to share my vast knowledge on fashion and cinema, this is the third in the series of my guides to vintage movie stars (i.e. before 1965). This guide is devoted to another style icon whose career spanned the 1920s to the 1960s: Marlene Dietrich. Such career longevity is almost unheard of in Hollywood. She was a style-setter in her time, in the way she wore her clothes and the way she lived her life. The subject of the previous entry, Joan Crawford existed for one reason: to be a movie star. She signed autographs and answered fan mail to the end of her life. Marlene Dietrich, however, had many other interests than movies. But she spent her last years in seclusion, refusing to let anyone see her in her old age.
Marlene Dietrich (born 1901 – died 1992)
MARLENE DIETRICH (real name: Maria Magdalene Dietrich von Losch)
There are those who think that Marlene Dietrich is at best a campy creation, an exaggerated 30s vamp with perfect legs who swooned about in arty lighting and ridiculous costumes. But how did that creature survive more than thirty years as a top draw in the entertainment business? She succeeded in films, won over audiences in live stage shows, and entertained troops in World War Two. (She is shown below, slogging in the mud with American soldiers in Germany.)
According to many biographers and friends, she was also a born hausfrau who loved to cook and often brought food to sick friends. But when it came to her career, she was a compulsive perfectionist. Designer Edith Head remembers that fittings took hours, as Dietrich scrutinized every fold and bead on her costumes. There were mirrors set up behind the cameras so Dietrich could check her lighting. Nothing was allowed to be less than perfect when Dietrich was on camera.
She was a married, working actress with experience in both stage and screen when Josef von Sternberg cast her as the cabaret singer who causes a professor’s downfall in The Blue Angel (1930). von Sternberg saw her as a dangerous temptress, uncaring, erotic, viewing her victims with a jaundiced eye. Always pragmatic, Dietrich lost 20 pounds before she made her first American film, Morocco (1930), in which she famously made her entrance in a man’s tuxedo, kissed a woman on the lips, and gave a flower to co-star Gary Cooper.
The star and director made five more films together at Paramount, and Dietrich wore some of the most amazing costumes of the 1930s. The designer was Travis Banton, who costumed all of Paramount’s top female stars. In Shanghai Express (1932), she wore one of her most iconic outfits: a full length black traveling suit covered in black feathers, with a feathered black turban and nose veil.
During this period her costumes were often outlandish, increasingly so as she worked with von Sternberg. In contrast, she was known offscreen for wearing trousers, the first star to wear them in public. Slacks were only worn on the studio lot before then.
This was one of the most important fashion innovations of the 1930s, although pants were used mainly for casual wear. It was not lost on Dietrich that her blonde beauty was even more striking in mannish attire.
Their final collaboration, The Devil Is A Woman, (1935) was a box-office disaster. During shooting, von Sternberg announced they would no longer be working together, which came as an unpleasant surprise to Marlene.
But, pragmatic as ever, she moved on. She had remained married to her husband, Rudolph Seiber, in name only and had a daughter, Maria. In 1939 Marlene, along with Joan Crawford and Katherine Hepburn, was named “box office poison” by the Motion Picture Exhibitors of America. So Marlene moved to England, where she moved among the cream of British show business society, including Noel Coward and Cecil Beaton.
The film that turned her career around was Destry Rides Again (1939). Marlene was cast as saloon singer Frenchy opposite sheriff James Stewart in this Western comedy. It put her back on top, and she remained there until 1943. Marlene had been quietly using her money to get friends out of Nazi Germany, but she wanted to do more. She decided to entertain U.S. troops at home and overseas. Under the auspices of the Office of War Information, Dietrich made broadcasts in German and French that were transmitted to citizens under Axis rule in Europe.
After that her films were few and far between, but included the classics Touch of Evil (1958) and Witness for the Prosecution (1958). Dietrich was uninterested in television. Except:
On an Academy Awards show, Marlene strode onstage in a high-necked black dress by Christian Dior. The sleeves were to her wrists, and the gown was skin-tight. But it had one large slit, exposing her spectacular legs as she crossed the stage. Dietrich wore no jewelry. She was a sensation.
In the early 1950s, Marlene Dietrich began her international nightclub career. As stated in the earlier guide on Marilyn Monroe, designer Jean Louis created a seemingly “naked” dress, by building the dress over a flesh-colored corset, using flesh-colored netting and plenty of sequins. The photo above is from 1967.
A few years before her death, Maximillian Schell made the documentary Marlene, interviewing Dietrich in her apartment in France. Dietrich was heard only in voice-over, refusing to be seen on camera. She would not allow friends to see her old; instead she spent hours on the telephone, in bed. To the last, she would not let the legend be sacrificed.
copyright Elisa DeCarlo – use of this material is forbidden without written permission