That Old Feeling: Marlene’s Siren Songs

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Marlene Dietrich

Falling in love again,
Never wanted to.
What am I to do?
I cahn't help it.

Love's always been my game,
Play it how I may.
I was made that way.
I cahn't help it.

— "Falling in Love Again" by Frederick Hollander, Sammy Lerner

Marlene Dietrich sang this song for the first time in Josef von Sternberg's "The Blue Angel," the 1930 German film that made her an international star and brought her to Hollywood as Sternberg's glittering protégée. In the film she plays a chanteuse named Lola Lola, the star of a traveling variety show — though she might have been the lion tamer in a tent circus, with humans instead of jungle beasts obeying the snaking whip of her gaze. Her wrought-irony smile suggested there was no depravity that she could perform, no atrocity that could be performed upon her, that would shock or even divert her. Her body was open to all comers, but her heart, if she had one, was encased in an invisible protective shield.

Lola Lola wears this smile, along with a brimmed hat and a sleeveless sequined top, when she takes the stage toward the end of "The Blue Angel." Wrapping her famous legs around the back of a wooden chair, she sings "Falling in Love Again" (actually "Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss/ Auf Liebe eingestellt": "From head to toe/ I'm made for love"). What siren power this song and this singer have! They prod a stern schoolteacher, Prof. Immanuel Rath, to unbutton his inhibitions, renounce propriety, propose marriage and become her crowing cuckold. All because he believed that Lola Lola was singing to him alone as her eyes raked the room for contact with the customers. The Professor fell for the oldest, most seductive lie in show business: the lie of intimacy.

Dietrich performed her signature tune thousands of times in her long career — many more times, surely, than Judy Garland did "Over the Rainbow." But what do the lyrics mean? Who's falling in love again? Not the singer. No, the tumbler is some man, any man, when he sees a woman like Dietrich. Though her presence warms him, heats him, she does nothing overt to encourage him. ("You'd better go now," she tells Gary Cooper in "Morocco." "I'm beginning to like you.") So she sings like a defiant defendant in the witness box. Not my fault, your honor. Didn't start it. Cahn't help it. Why stop it? In matters of the heart and loins she was passive, a magnet aware of and amused by its power of attraction. On this thrill ride she was simply the passenger, yet her presence drove men mad. As mobster-on-the-make Cary Grant in "Blonde Venus" croons to her: "A little of you is worth a lifetime of any other woman."


Dietrich would have been 100 a month ago today (if she hadn't died in 1992), and the occasion has sparked the usual tributes and retrospectives. The definitive work — since Dietrich was essentially not an actress but a fashion model — is a book of pictures: Jean-Jacques Naud's "Marlene Dietrich: Photographs and Memories" (Knopf), which has photos of her childhood, her movies, her clothes, her lovers and friends. The centenary also lends readers an excuse to pick up Andrew Sarris' 1966 study "The Films of Josef von Sternberg," still a paragon of careful viewing and breathless prose; and Sternberg's autobiography "Fun in a Chinese Laundry," whose prose matches in arch elegance the images with which he caressed Dietrich and in which he encased her.

For more moving evidence, Turner Classic Movies has a weekly series of her films, including a pair of documentaries: "Marlene Dietrich — Her Own Song," directed by her grandson J. David Riva, which emphasizes the star's political support for the Allied effort in World War II and her love-hate relationship with her homeland; and Maximilian Schell's "Marlene," an interview filmed when Dietrich was living, in Paris, in seclusion, in her 80s. The series ends this Thursday with two of her best late efforts, "Witness for the Prosecution" and "Judgment at Nuremberg." A shame "Touch of Evil" is not included. In this Orson Welles melodrama, Dietrich, looking great at 56 in a dark wig, speaks the most admiring and ambiguous epitaph for Welles' character: "He was some kind of a man." Her last line is a dismissal of all biography, all gossip, and all articles like this one: "What does it matter what you say about people?"

To many, Dietrich was some kind of a woman. She had the same effect on writers, critics and colleagues that her characters had on the hapless fellows in her films Ernest Hemingway, a reputed lover, said of her: "If she had nothing more than her voice she could break your heart with it. But she has that beautiful body and the timeless loveliness of her face. It makes no difference how she breaks your heart if she is there to mend it." Jean Cocteau (not a Dietrich sex partner) wrote: "Whoever knows her and has been able to experience her has experienced perfection itself." John Wayne (maybe) called her "the most intriguing woman I've ever known." In the 1983 book ""Movie Star: A Look at the Women Who Made Hollywood," Ethan Mordden, who writes acutely and amusingly about films and Broadway musicals, devotes a chapter to "this amazing female who was made of sex. All kinds."

Mordden's remark is a gloss on an earlier one by Kenneth Tynan, the most quotable critic of the 20th century: "She has sex, but no particular gender; her masculinity appeals to women, and her sexuality to men." When Dietrich was in her late 60s, Tynan wrote: "Her eyes were a pair of mournful rebukes, twin appeals to us not to lose our heads by becoming 'emotionally involved' but the milk-soft skin (which still shows no signs of curdling) gave the lie to them. And how cynically witty were the lips!..." He continues in this enthusi-woozy-astic vein, then says that Dietrich has "no dangerous habits except an infallible gift for eliciting prose as monumentally lush as this from otherwise rational men. Marlene makes blurb-writers of us all."

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