That Old Feeling: Marlene’s Siren Songs

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Marlene Dietrich

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Well, not me. Or, at least, not exactly. First of all, my writing style is high-blurb; I can spume on almost any subject. Second, I'm fascinated by the Dietrich myth but I'm not ready to surrender to it. It's spooky to me, her agelessness, that older-than-Eve lassitude she exudes. David Thomson began his wise consideration of Dietrich in The New York Times last month by writing, "She would have been 100 on Thursday — or is it 1,000?" He means she's immortal; I wonder if she isn't the undead, less a seductress than a succubus, not so much vamp as vampire. Is her world-weariness post-coital or post-mortem? Is she singing from a bedroom busier than Berlin Alexanderplatz, or from beyond the grave? Her career is a monument, all right — an imposing but chilly slab of granite. Perhaps I should say Dietrich is a blackboard on which impressionable boys, feeling the first stirrings of attraction for a remote goddess, draw a heart in chalk.

If I can't be one of those Dietrich boys, it may be because I'm a Garbo man. To me, Greta Garbo, the Swedish star whose Hollywood career spanned the years 1925 to 1941, was the cinema's great dramatic actress; and it would be hard to love equally Garbo and her German rival. They are like dogs and cats, Palestine and Israel, or the Yankees and the Mets: one could hate both with the same fervor, but when it comes to love one has to make a choice, and I choose Garbo. Her films were the chronicle of a woman's search for love; Dietrich's were the photographic record of her effect on men whose lives were complicated, compromised or destroyed by their love for her. Garbo was ecstasy to Dietrich's irony, romantic intensity to her witty inertia. Tynan wrote: "What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober." Garbo was an intoxicant; Dietrich sobers me up. She was a dash of cold water in the fantast's adoring face.

In an impish or impious moment, I might almost prefer Madeline to Marlene — the Madeline Kahn of Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles," in which she plays Lili Von Shtupp, "the Teutonic Titwillow" (and, to her enemies, the "Teutonic twat"). In a delicious dance-hall number, Lili sings that she's "tired of being admired" and of men who are "always coming and going and going and coming/ All always too soon." What's beautiful about Kahn's performance — besides her legs, which are slimmer and shapelier than Dietrich's ever were — is the acuity of the impersonation. Her singing moans are perfectly off-pitch, her smile wan and used-up, her speech a generous parody of Dietrich's slightly impaired diction. But Kahn is simply the best and most prominent of the many entertainers and ordinary people who, knowingly or not, took their cues from the fictional character known as Marlene Dietrich.


To moviegoers and fashion mavens of several generations, Dietrich could be summed up in two words: legs, and pants. Somebody called her Glamour Gams. She used to sing a song, written for her, titled "Nach meine Beene is ja janz Berlin verrückt" ("Berlin's Just Crazy About My Legs"). Later she would say, "Darling, the legs aren't so beautiful. I just know what to do with them." And if she didn't, Sternberg — her mentor and torturer in the most renowned director-diva relationship in movie history — would instruct her. In "Dishonored," the third of seven films they made together from 1930 to 1935, she sprawls in a chair and provocatively hikes one leg over the side, Later, standing by her bed with a suitor at the door, she puts her foot up on the bed, as if it's a stirrup and she's about to mount the furniture for a hard ride.

Odd that Dietrich could be famous both for displaying her legs and for covering them up. But in the history of fashion she is considered a prime influence, helping convert the American woman from skirts to trousers. (Katharine Hepburn had a hand in those pants too... wait a sec, that can't be right!) Dietrich's haberdashery also set her up as a bisexual icon. Tynan's comment about Dietrich's gender is often misquoted as: "She was sexy — but which sex?" That's her richness, her mystery, the ambiguity that has keep her legend fresh. And it's all atomized in few seconds of the night club scene in "Morocco," her first Hollywood film.

As Amy Jolly, one of the "Foreign Legion of women," Dietrich materializes in top hat, white tie and tails, brandishing a cigarette After singing "Quand l'amour meurt," she asks a woman customer if she can take a flower in the woman's hair. In an act of gratitude or attitude, she leans into the woman and kisses her on the mouth. The woman withdraws and gasps out a nervous laugh. Dietrich takes the flower, inhales its fragrance and tosses it to Gary Cooper, preening at a ringside table. The erotic geography is impressive; it establishes Dietrich as a man's man and a woman's too. Indeed, she is more manly than Cooper, who early in his career was a long, luscious thing, and who here plays the coquette to Dietrich's pursuing male. The tailoring of her clothes and character in "Morocco" gives a spin to one of the actress' more Delphic comments: "I am at heart a gentleman."

So: movie icon, music icon, fashion icon, gay icon. I wonder if Dietrich would have dismissed this overused epithet. I'd bet that, if you were to say "icon" to her, she would snap back, "No, you cahn't." But if icon means a pinup for intellectuals — an 8x10 glossy to paste on the right side of a busy brain — then Dietrich was that. And though Sternberg took credit for molding her from a pudgy nobody to a synonym for hauteur, she was finally the chief merchandiser of her own glamour. Like Lola Lola, she convinced a world full of impressionable professors that she was what she wasn't. She realized — more than most, and earlier than most — the sweet charade in the word icon. It is really the popular artist's declaration of duplicity: "I con."

You could argue (I will) that Dietrich was one of the first performers who deserve to be called modernist: she forced those watching her to ask, "Does she mean to do it these way?" Thus she refined or redefined traditional notions of acting and singing. These had been elitist crafts with their own vocabularies and standards. One acted with a certain vigor; one sang on key. Dietrich didn't do the first, and couldn't do the second. "Didn't," "couldn't," in the sense that Brando didn't enunciate like Vincent Price, Picasso couldn't paint like Whistler and Bob Dylan couldn't sing like Bing Crosby. It took a while for the public to realize that radically different didn't have to mean abysmally bad; that vision and personality could replace aural and visual artisanship.

Dietrich, surely, was a super saleswoman of her superwoman personality. She built the dichotomy of seduction and solitude. Whereas Garbo's screen image was of the neurotic angel who needed a man's love, Dietrich's was the devil — her last film with Sternberg was called "The Devil Is a Woman" — who permitted men to have sex with her. She demanded no worshippers; anyone else was, frankly, irrelevant to the lover who knew her best: herself. Though her early films were full of self-sacrifice for husband, son, Foreign Legionnaire, Dietrich's true soul mate was the mirror. It was there she found her most honest and appreciative appraiser. No man's moods could surprise her, because she had anticipated them all as she considered herself — her image — in that gilded glass.


What self did Dietrich see in that mirror? What Dietrich do we see through the window of the still or movie camera? The Hollywood moguls didn't think much of it at first; as Mordden writes, "Nor was she thought to have a photogenic face — a nose problem or something; ridiculous, the face is ingenious." It is that, as well as an imposing object of architecture and a supreme subject of photography. As Thomson wrote in The Times, "If ever any bad pictures existed some devilry burned them, or had them wither in her gaze."

In "Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood," Mick LaSalle observes that Dietrich "introduced a distinctly modern strain of amused irony into the twentieth century." This smile absolved the actress and her characters of all responsibility for the damage around them; that's why Dietrich, unlike many other performers, couldn't be ambushed or embarrassed by kitsch material. It was also a smile that can from far away — above, perhaps; certainly beyond. It held a queen's indulgence and a whore's contempt for the men who gazed on her. Dietrich, like Medusa, would say: Gape at your own risk. As she notes in "The Devil Is a Woman," "No flies enter a closed mouth."

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