The career of Marlene Dietrich
Those arching eyebrows, that Teutonic Tweety-Bird voice — when Marlene Dietrich died on May 6 in Paris at age 90, some remembered her as nearly a self-parody of stardom. Yet there is nothing self-parodying about the best of her work on screen: the seven astonishing films she made for eccentric genius Josef von Sternberg, who, after seeing her in a Berlin theater, starred her as The Blue Angel, whisked her off to ’30s Hollywood, and molded her into an omnisexual, mocking creature of light — a baroque celluloid Venus.
It’s still a question how much of the achievement was her own. Critics called her Trilby to his Svengali; she preferred to be thought of as Eliza to his Henry Higgins. Their relationship was by all accounts strictly professional, which only makes it seem odder. No matter. The collaboration was more than a running inquisition into the folly of romance. Their movies, with a lunatic insistence on production design over character and plot, are themselves conscious follies. But they are follies transmuted into cruelly tender works of art, as unhinged as anything by Bunuel or David Lynch. Shimmeringly unique, the seven movies from Blue Angel to The Devil Is a Woman are Cubist fever dreams hidden in Hollywood wrapping.
None of Dietrich’s other movies came close, and perhaps sensing her limits, she retreated to cabaret stylings: A vocal anti-Nazi, she spurned Hitler’s offer to become movie queen of the Third Reich and toured to GIs so tirelessly she was awarded the Medal of Freedom. In the ’50s, she mounted a droll concert revue that featured her most famous songs. Then, knowing that there is no aging gracefully in Hollywood, she simply closed up shop. As with Garbo, the enigma held to the end.
Inexplicably, only three of the movies Dietrich made with Von Sternberg are available on video: The Blue Angel, Morocco, and Blonde Venus. The others show up on TV occasionally and may be released by MCA/Universal in the wake of Dietrich’s death: Dishonored, Shanghai Express, The Scarlet Empress, and The Devil is a Woman. All seven are A+. Destry Rides Again saved Dietrich’s career by pairing her with Jimmy Stewart in a comic Western: B+. Witness for the Prosecution, an Agatha Christie mystery directed by Billy Wilder, has one of her best later performances: A-. She refused to be filmed for Maximilian Schell’s 1984 documentary Marlene, but her voice coasts crankily and illuminatingly over clips of that impossibly Art Deco face: A-