TCM has chosen Marlene Dietrich, one of the world’s first international film stars as their final Summer Under The Stars honoree on Wednesday, August 31. Her film career began in Silent Movies in her homeland of Germany, but it was her first Talkie in 1930’s Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel), directed in Germany by Austrian-American filmmaker, Josef Von Sternberg, that propelled her to stardom in the US and abroad.
Born in Schoneberg, Berlin on December 27, 1901, as a young girl, Dietrich attended school in Berlin and nearby Dessau. As for her start in film, there’s some debate. While it is known she appears as Kathrin in George Jacoby‘s 1923 Silent Film, The Little Napoleon, some sources cite 1919’s Im Schaltten des Glucks (In the Shadow of Happiness), directed by Jacob Fleck, as her first screen appearance, although the latter has never been confirmed. Nonetheless, throughout the 1920’s Dietrich began honing her craft appearing in more than a dozen Silent Films.
Her big break came in 1930, when she was cast in the aforementioned The Blue Angel as Lola-Lola, a cabaret singer. The film not only introduced Dietrich to an international audience, thanks to director Von Sternberg simultaneously shooting both German and English-language versions, but also served to provide the star with what would become her signature song, Falling In Love Again (Can’t Help It).
Seeing her as an opportunity to counter MGM’s Swedish-born Greta Garbo, Paramount signed Dietrich, relocated her and director Von Sternberg to Hollywood, thus beginning her American film career. Once again cast as a nightclub singer of questionable morals, Dietrich starred in 1930’s Morocco alongside Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou. For her work as Mademoiselle Amy Jolly, Dietrich received what would be her only Oscar nomination. Unfortunately, she lost out toMin and Bill star, Marie Dressler. The film received three other nominations, including a Best Director nod for Von Sternberg. Norman Taurog won for his film, Skippy.
Dietrich and Von Sternberg would again collaborate on five of her seven film during the next five years, including: Dishonored; Shanghai Express, co-starring Clive Brook and Anna May Wong; Blonde Venus, co-starring Cary Grant; The Scarlet Empress, co-starring Sam Jaffe and The Devil is a Woman, with Lionel Atwill and Cesar Romero. TCM will air Shanghai Express, The Scarlet Empress and The Devil is a Woman as part of their day-long tribute on August 31.
Throughout the 30s and 40s, Dietrich would work with some of the best directors in Hollywood, including: William Dieterle (Kismet); Raoul Walsh (Manpower); Billy Wilder (A Foreign Affair) and even herself. That’s right, Dietrich directed herself and co-stars Orson Welles, George Raft and Vera Zorina in 1944’s Follow the Boys.
Speaking of big-name co-stars, Dietrich worked with Gary Cooper again in 1936’s Desire; Charles Boyer inThe Garden of Allah, also from 1936; James Stewart in 1939’s Destry Rides Again and Fred MacMurray in 1942’s The Lady Is Waiting. Interestingly, Dietrich‘s most frequent co-star was The Duke, himself, John Wayne. The duo were teamed three times: first in 1940’s Seven Sinners, then twice more in 1942 for The Spoilers and Pittsburgh.
She would also further disassociate herself from her homeland by joining her fellow Hollywood contemporaries in the war effort, appearing not only on multiple War Bond promotional tours, but actually traveling to war zones. She was just as likely to be seen singing onstage at a USO show, as she was visiting the front lines. Her German language music recordings were even used by the OSS (precursor to the CIA) as counterpropaganda.
For her contibutions to the war effort, Dietrich was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Other countries, including France and Israel followed suit with similar honors.
The 1950’s saw a slight shift in Dietrich‘s roles. Now in her early fifties, Dietrich was often cast as a woman slightly past her prime. Onc such film was Alfred Hitchcock‘s Stage Fright, in which she plays aging thespian, Charlotte Inwood, who brings her young lover (Richard Todd) and ingenue Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) into a murderous plot against her husband. If you’ve read my recent TCM columns, you know that I like to include information about Hitch‘s cameos. While watching Stage Fright, look for the director to appear on-screen about forty minutes in where he can be seen during a street scene in which Eve (Wyman) is rehearsing a speech.
After having directed Orson Welles earlier in her career, Dietrich returned the favor by appearing in his 1958 thriller, Touch of Evil. In addition to Welles and Dietrich, the film also stars Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
In 1961, Dietrich starred alongside Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark and Judy Garland in director Stanley Kramer‘s Judgement at Nuremberg. Her next film was 1962’s Black Fox: The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler, a documentary for which Dietrich provided narration. Dietrich appeared briefly, as herself, in 1964’s Audrey Hepburn/William Holden romantic comedy, Paris When It Sizzles.
During the next decade, as the actress entered her sixth decade in show business, she all but disappeared from film, making a return in 1979’s Schoner Gigolo, amer Gigolo (Just a Gigolo), starring David Bowie, Kim Novak and Sydne Rome. Not only did the film move her on-screen personal full circle, now cast as a Madame overseeing male prostitutes, it was also a German production, returning her to her celluloid roots. In spite of the film’s primary Berlin locale, Dietrich‘s two-day, reported $250,000 role, was filmed in Paris, then edited together with Bowie’s footage, shot on location in Germany.
Her final film role came in 1984’s Oscar nominated documentary, Marlene, directed by Maximillian Schell. While the actress reportedly refused to appear in new footage, she did allow the filmmaker to interview her voice, which he incorporated over archival footage throughout the film.
Dietrich was married only once, although rumor has it she and her husband Rudolph Sieber enjoyed a very open marriage. Married in 1923, their daughter, Maria Riva was born December 13, 1924. Dietrich and Sieber remained together until his death in 1976. Among her alleged liasons: co-stars James Stewart and John Wayne and recent TCM honoree, Jean Gabin. Dietrich didn’t limit herself to men, a bisexual, she also reported had affairs withErich Maria Remarque and Mercedes de Acosta. Her most famous lover, John F. Kennedy, according to daughter Maria Riva‘s 1992 biography of her famous mother. In later years, Dietrich’s health declined, partly due to a growing dependance on alcohol and painkillers. She spent the majority of her last decade as a recluse in her Paris apartment. She released her autobiography, Nehmt nur mein Leben (Just Take My Life) in 1979. Dietrich died of renal failure on May 6, 1992 at the age of 90.
As mentioned earlier, Dietrich achieved her sole Oscar nomination in 1930 for Morocco, her very first American-produced film. Throughout her career, she was recognized with various awards and honors, including a 1962 David di Donatello Award for her role in Judgement at Nuremberg, aLifetime Achievement Honor at the 1980 German Film Awards and a Golden Globe nomination for 1958’sWitness for the Prosecution. She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 and in 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Dietrich #9 in their list of 50 Greatest Screen Legends.
The schedule for TCM‘s Summer Under The Stars salute to Marlene Dietrich on August 31 is as follows:
1957’s The Monte Carlo Story airs at 6am/5c
1937’s Knight Without Armor airs at 7:45am/6:45c
1942’s The Lady is Willing airs at 9:45/8:45c
1944’s Kismet airs at 11:30am/10:30c
1950’s Stage Fright airs at 1:15pm/12:15c
1952’s Rancho Notorious airs at 3:15pm/2:15c
TCM Presents the 2001 documentary Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song at 4:45pm/3:45c
1932’s Shanghai Express airs at 6:30pm/5:30c
1934’s The Scarlet Empress airs at 8pm7c
1935’s The Devil is a Woman airs at 10pm/9c
1941’s Manpower airs at 11:30pm/10:30c
1948’s A Foreign Affair airs at 1:30am/12:30c
1930’s The Blue Angel airs at 3:30am/2:30c
If you’ve missed any of my 31 articles highlighting each of the stars featured during TCM‘s Summer Under The Stars , simply click the link to check them out.
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