That Old Feeling: Marlene’s Siren Songs

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Marlene Dietrich

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Dietrich once said that "The Devil Is a Woman" was her favorite film "because I was my most beautiful in it." That lovely caprice — in which Sternberg puts his wry comic impulse in the foreground, and in which Dietrich is unusually vivacious in a series of ravishing Travis Banton frocks — was the last film they would make together. Their collaborations look like a magnificent seven to film scholars, but back in 1935 nobody was paying to see them. Dietrich left Paramount (where she had been making about $125,000 a picture) for some free-lance work in "The Garden of Allah" ($200,000) and "Knight Without Armour" ($450,000). But if moguls had hoped she'd be popular away from her mentor, they were disappointed. She was labeled "box office poison" (so was Hepburn).

She thus had to consider herself lucky to be signed at Universal in 1939 (for $50,000) to revive her career as the saloon chantoosie opposite Jimmy Stewart's sheriff in "Destry Rides Again." Warbling "See what the boys in the back room will have," she made fun of her old image. That western comedy domesticated Dietrich, made her a suitable foil for lumbering all-American types like Wayne, and assured that she wouldn't be a one-decade phenomenon.

Her movie career continued, in lurches and flourishes, through the 60s. But by then she was an icon for another reason. One of her biggest fans was Adolf Hitler, who saw in Dietrich the German ideal and begged her to make movies at Ufa again. "Up to 1939 Hitler sent messages to me that I should come back," she noted in a letter written (in English!) to her mother after the war, "and when I refused they said that they had means to make me very unhappy. I knew that they meant you and I nearly went crazy with fear they would take it out on you." Of course she did not go back. Throughout the war she went to every military base and war front she could find, to see what the boys in the foxholes would have — a glimpse of German-American star quality.


"Her voice," Tynan wrote of Dietrich, "tells you that whatever hell you inhabit, she has been there before, and survived." But not her singing voice. For a start, she had an exotic speech defect, similar to Elmer Fudd's. In her wry, scornful mouth, Gary Cooper becomes "Gawwy Coopuh," and ringmaster, "wingmaster." In the "wefwain," she sings of "Pawadise." What Thomson describes as the ruefulness of her songs could, in her delivery and pronunciation, become woo-fulness.

Then again, she didn't sing the lyrics — she mooed them, bleated them through a fog horn — and so frequently hit notes on the flat side that one could think she intended it that way. (Catch her rendition of "Near You," with a mild rock backing of a heavy snare drum, a piano drilling triplets and a few da-doo-doo male backup singers. The number is on the MCA CD "Falling in Love Again" — one of six Dietrich albums with that title — and it's hilarrrious, darling.) Strip away the charisma, and she is reminiscent of Leona Anderson, the proto-bad operatic singer of such 50s anti-classics as "Rats in My Room." But Dietrich wasn't trying to be bad. Or good. Just Dietrich.

And that was enough for the millions who, over the years, attended her concerts, making Dietrich for a time the world's highest-paid nightclub entertainer. I doubt they came to hear her vocal interpretations of "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" or "Honeysuckle Rose." They were there to see a monument that had brilliantly preserved itself. Dietrich, applying her Prussian discipline to her figure, her couture and coiffure, still looked fabulous in her 60s. Indeed, when dolled up in a platinum-blond do with a cute flip on one side, she looked like Angie Dickinson en gelée — odd, since Burt Bacharach, her musical director (and, of course, reputed lover), was Dickinson's husband from 1966 to 1980.

For a modernist singer, vocal craft is irrelevant; attitude is all. And Dietrich's attitude reeked sex. Speaking to Schell, she claims, "I wasn't erotic at all. I was snotty" — as if her insolence was come-on, and bad manners could be a fanfare to hot sex. But whatever she had, people wanted it, or wanted to talk about it. Rumors of her liaisons with men and women have persisted for 70 years; anecdotes about her sexual activities enlivened many a dinner party. One website says "She regularly douched with ice water and vinegar to avoid getting pregnant." Here's a better story, supposedly true, told by a prominent writer. It's about the time Dietrich went for an abortion in the late 30s. She told the writer she went out to San Fernando Valley so she wouldn't be recognized. But Marlene, the writer said, you had one of the best-known faces in the world! And Dietrich replied, "I vore a veil."

Lovers? We got lovers. The A List, an amusing website roundup of Hollywood babble-on, proclaims that Dietrich was "Linked with Brian Aherne, Burt Bacharach, Cecil Beaton, George Bernard Shaw (!), Yul Brynner, Claudette Colbert, Colette, Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, Mercedes De Acosta, Kirk Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, Eddie Fisher, John Gilbert, Ernest Hemingway, Howard Hughes, Joseph P Kennedy, JFK, Burt Lancaster, Fritz Lang, Hattie McDaniel, Burgess Meredith, Edward R. Murrow, Edith Piaf, George Raft, Erich Maria Remarque, William Saroyan, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Stanwyck, Adlai Stevenson, Jimmy Stewart, Mike Todd, John Wayne, and Orson Welles."

She denied she had an affair with Hemingway, denied most of the whispers of liaisons. She told Schell, "What's true is: What you read is untrue." But yes, oh yes, she had lovers. What's the fun of being famous and gorgeous if you can't have priapic parties with other beautiful people? And where's the responsibility of stardom if you don't deny, even with a wink, most of what you do?


In "Witness for the Prosecution," Dietrich as Charlotte Vole says: "I never faint because I am not sure that I will fall gracefully." Here, alas, the star could not imitate her fictional poise. She too often fell during concerts, and after a serious one in 1975 stopped performing. She made a brief, ghostly appearance singing the title song in the 1977 film "Just a Gigolo" and retired to a two-room apartment at 12 Avenue Montaigne in Paris. There she became the hidden caretaker of her reliquary, curator for life of the Museum of Marlene Art. There she sat for Schell's documentary portrait, though she refused to be photographed for it. Why? "Because I've been photographed enough, thank you. I've been photographed to death."

She knew that being photographed had given her life (anyway, a career) and made her what we could call a legend. No, that's a cheap word. Icon? Everybody's an icon these days. I will pay her the compliment of calling her the 20th century's foremost female impersonator. She impersonated a certain kind of woman and, in doing so, became a model for many other women. That's not a small achievement. Though she's not my idea of a great actress, perhaps she is one — because she sustained, for a lifetime, the demanding role of Marlene Dietrich, mythical siren, modernist woman.

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