Name: Maria Magdalena Dietrich

Birth Date: December 27, 1901

Birth Place: Schöneberg, Germany

Death: May 6, 1992 in Paris

Profession: Actress, singer

Notable Works: Blue Angel, Witness for the Prosecution

Biography

Back to Top

At the peak of her career in the 1930s, Marlene Dietrich was the screen's highest-paid actress; moreover, she was also the very essence of cinematic eroticism, a beguiling creature whose almost supernatural allure established her among film's most enduring icons. While immensely sensual, Dietrich's persona was also strangely androgynous; her fondness for masculine attire -- suits, top hats, and the like -- not only spawned a fashion craze, it also created an added dimension of sexual ambiguity which served to make her even more magnetic. Born Maria Magdalena Dietrich outside of Berlin on December 27, 1901, she was the daughter of a Royal Prussian Police lieutenant. As a child, she studied the violin, and later tenured at the Deutsche Theaterschule. She made her film debut with a brief role in 1923's Der Kleine Napoleon, followed by a more substantial performance in Tragodie der Liebe; she later married the picture's casting director, Rudolf Sieber. After a series of other tiny roles, including an appearance in G.W. Pabst's 1924 effort Die Freudlose Gasse, Dietrich briefly retired; by 1926, however, she was back onscreen in Manion Lescaut, later followed by Alexander Korda's Madame Wuenscht Keine Kinder.

After returning to the stage, Dietrich resumed her film career, typically cast as a coquettish socialite; still, she remained better known as a live performer, enjoying great success singing the songs of Mischa Spoliansky in a popular revue. Then, according to legend, director Josef von Sternberg claimed to have discovered her appearing in the cabaret Zwei Kravatten, and cast her in his 1930 film Der Blaue Engel; even before the picture premiered, von Sternberg offered a rough cut to his American studio Paramount, who signed her for Morocco, where she played a cabaret singer romancing both Adolph Menjou and Gary Cooper. Both films premiered in New York almost simultaneously, and overnight Dietrich was a star. Paramount signed her to a more long-term contract, at a cost of 125,000 dollars per film and with von Sternberg, who had become her lover, in the director's seat of each. The studio, in an unprecedented five-million-dollar publicity blitz, marketed her as a rival to Greta Garbo's supremacy; upon learning that Garbo was starring as Mata Hari, Paramount cast Dietrich as a spy in 1931's Dishonored in response.

The follow-up, 1932's Shanghai Express, was Dietrich and von Sternberg's biggest American success. With Cary Grant, she then starred in Blonde Venus, but when the picture did not meet studio expectations, Paramount decided to separate the star from her director. Not only their working relationship was in a state of flux -- von Sternberg's wife unsuccessfully sued Dietrich (who had left her husband behind in Germany) for "alienation of affection" and libel. For Rouben Mamoulian, she starred in 1933's The Song of Songs amidst a flurry of rumors that she was on the verge of returning to Germany (no less than Adolf Hitler himself had ordered her to come back). However, Dietrich remained in the States, and her films were consequently banned in her homeland. Instead, she played Catherine the Great in von Sternberg's 1934 epic The Scarlet Empress; it was a financial disaster, as was their follow-up, the lavish The Devil Is a Woman. In its wake, von Sternberg announced he had taken Dietrich as far as he could, and begged off of future projects. A much-relieved Paramount set about finding her projects which would be more marketable, if less opulent.

The first was the 1936 romantic comedy Desire, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. It was a hit, with all indications pointing to comedy as the best direction for Dietrich's career to take. Again with Lubitsch, she began work on I Loved a Soldier, but after a few days, production was halted after she refused to continue following a number of changes to the script. Instead, Dietrich next starred in the Technicolor remake of The Garden of Allah, followed by Korda's Knight Without Armour. Reuniting with Lubitsch, she headlined 1937's Angel, but again actress and director frequently feuded. Her offscreen reputation continued to worsen when it was revealed that director Mitchell Leisen had refused to work with her on French Without Tears. Combined with diminishing box-office returns, Paramount agreed to buy Dietrich out of her remaining contract. She remained a critical favorite, but audiences clearly did not like her. A number of projects were rumored to be under consideration, but she did not appear again in films for over two years.

For less than 50,000 dollars, Dietrich agreed to co-star with James Stewart in the 1939 Western satire Destry Rides Again. The picture was a surprise smash, and with her career seemingly resuscitated, Universal signed her to a contract. The follow-up, 1940's Seven Sinners, was also a hit, but Rene Clair's 1941 effort The Flame of New Orleans lacked distinction. A series of disappointments -- The Lady Is Willing, The Spoilers, and Pittsburgh -- followed in 1942, with Dietrich reportedly so disheartened with her work that she considered retirement. Instead, she mounted a series of lengthy tours entertaining wartime troops before returning to films in 1944's Follow the Boys, followed by Kismet. She and Jean Gabin were next scheduled to star in Marcel Carne's Les Portes de la Nuit, but both stars balked at their roles and exited the project; the media was incensed -- at the time, Carne was the most highly respected director in French cinema -- and when Dietrich and Gabin both agreed to appear in 1946's Martin Roumagnac, reviews were unkind. Returning to the U.S., she starred in Golden Earrings, followed in 1948 by Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair. When her daughter gave birth to a child soon after, Dietrich was declared "the world's most glamorous grandmother."

Although her box-office stature had long remained diminished, Dietrich was still, irrefutably, a star; for all of her notorious behavior and apparent disinterest in filmmaking, she needed Hollywood as badly as it needed her -- the studios wanted her fame, and she wanted their hefty paychecks. For Alfred Hitchcock, Dietrich starred in 1950's Stage Fright and a year later reunited with Stewart in No Highway in the Sky. Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious followed in 1952, but it was to be Dietrich's final film for over four years; a number of announced projects fell through, and she instead toured the U.S. performing songs and monologues. A cameo in Around the World in 80 Days announced her return to movies, with starring turns in The Monte Carlo Story and Witness for the Prosecution arriving a year later. After briefly appearing in Orson Welles' masterful Touch of Evil in 1958, Dietrich again disappeared from screens for a three-year stretch, resurfacing in 1961's Judgment at Nuremberg.

The 1964 feature Paris When It Sizzles was Dietrich's final movie appearance for over a decade. Instead she toured the world, even scoring a major European hit single with "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" As the years went on, however, a long-standing bout with drinking continued to accelerate, and she often appeared inebriated during performances; after falling off of the stage and suffering a compound fracture of the leg, she retired from the cabaret circuit, making one last film, 1978's Schoener Gigolo, Armer Gigolo. A brief return to music was announced, but outside of a few performances, Dietrich was largely inactive from the early '80s on. In 1984, she agreed to produce a documentary portrait, Marlene, and while submitting to recorded interviews, she demanded not to be photographed. In a final nod to Garbo, she spent the last decade of her life in almost total seclusion in her Paris apartment and was bed-ridden throughout the majority of her final years; Dietrich died on May 6, 1992. She was 90.

~ Jason Ankeny, All Movie Guide




Filmography

Back to Top

Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo (1979) .... Baroness von Semering
... aka Just a Gigolo (USA)
Paris - When It Sizzles (1964) (uncredited) .... Cameo appearance
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) .... Madame Bertholt
Touch of Evil (1958) .... Tanya 'Tana'
Witness for the Prosecution (1957) .... Christine Helm Vole
Montecarlo (1956) .... Maria de Crevecouer
Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) .... Saloon Hostess
Rancho Notorious (1952) .... Altar Keane
No Highway (1951) .... Monica Teasdale
Stage Fright (1950) .... Charlotte Inwood
Jigsaw (1949) (uncredited) .... Cameo appearance (nightclub patron)
A Foreign Affair (1948) .... Erika von Schlütow
Golden Earrings (1947) .... Lydia
Martin Roumagnac (1946) .... Blanche Ferrand
... aka The Room Upstairs (USA)
Kismet (1944) .... Jamilla
Pittsburgh (1942) .... Josie 'Hunky' Winters
The Spoilers (1942) .... Cherry Malotte
The Lady Is Willing (1942) .... Elizabeth Madden
Manpower (1941) .... Fay Duval
The Flame of New Orleans (1941) .... Countess Claire Ledoux, aka Lili
Seven Sinners (1940) .... Bijou Blanche
Destry Rides Again (1939) .... Frenchy
Angel (1937) .... Maria 'Angel' Barker, aka Mrs. Brown
Knight Without Armour (1937) .... Countess Alexandra Vladinoff
I Loved a Soldier (1936) .... Anna Sedlak
The Garden of Allah (1936) .... Domini Enfilden
Desire (1936) .... 'Countess' Madeleine de Beaupre, aka Madame Maurice Pauquet
The Devil Is a Woman (1935) .... Concha Perez
The Scarlet Empress (1934) .... Princess Sophia Frederica/Catherine II
The Song of Songs (1933) .... Lily Czepanek
Blonde Venus (1932) .... Helen Faraday, aka Helen Jones
Shanghai Express (1932) .... Shanghai Lily, aka Magdalen
Dishonored (1931) .... Marie Kolverer/X27
Morocco (1930) .... Mademoiselle Amy Jolly
Blaue Engel, Der (1930) .... Lola Lola
... aka The Blue Angel (USA)
Frau, nach der man sich sehnt, Die (1929) .... Stascha
... aka The Woman Men Yearn For
Gefahren der Brautzeit (1929) .... Evelyne
... aka Dangers of the Engagement (USA)
Schiff der verlorenen Menschen, Das (1929) .... Ethel Marley
... aka The Ship of Lost Men
Ich küsse Ihre Hand, Madame (1929) .... Laurence Gerard
... aka I Kiss Your Hand Madame (USA)
Prinzessin Olala (1928) .... Chichotte de Gastoné
... aka Art of Love (USA)
Sein größter Bluff (1927) .... Yvette
... aka His Biggest Bluff (UK)
Café Elektric (1927) .... Erni Göttlinger
... aka Cafe Electric (International: English title)
Dubarry von heute, Eine (1927) .... Kokotte
... aka A Modern Dubarry
Juxbaron, Der (1926) .... Sophie, ihre Tochter
... aka The Imaginary Baron (International: English title)
Kopf hoch, Charly! (1926) .... Edmée Marchand
... aka Heads Up, Charley (International: English title)
Madame wünscht keine Kinder (1926) (uncredited) .... Dancer
... aka Madame Doesn't Want Children (USA)
Manon Lescaut (1926) .... Micheline
Tänzer meiner Frau, Der (1925) .... Dance extra
... aka Dance Fever (USA)
Mönch von Santaren, Der (1924)
... aka The Monk from Santarem (UK)
Sprung ins Leben, Der (1923) .... Mädchen am Strand
... aka Leap Into Life (UK)
Tragödie der Liebe (1923) .... Lucy
... aka Love Tragedy (USA)
Mensch am Wege, Der (1923) .... Krämerstochter
... aka Man by the Roadside (USA)
So sind die Männer (1922) .... Kathrin
... aka The Little Napoleon (International: English title)


Trivia

Back to Top

-Married to Rudolf Sieber (17 May 1924 - 24 June 1976) (his death) 1 daughter

-Received the U.S. War Department's 'Medal of Freedom', in 1947, for entertaining American troops in WWII and her strong stand against Naziism.

-Was made a Chevaliere of the Legion by France.

-Mother of Maria Riva.

-She sucked lemon wedges between takes to keep her mouth muscles tight.

-Never worked without a mirror on the set so she could constantly check her makeup and hair.

-Dietrich's make-up man said she kissed so hard, she needed a new coat of lipstick after every kiss.

-She demanded that Max Factor sprinkle half an ounce of real gold dust into her wigs to add glitter to her tresses during filming.

-Marlene prided herself on the fact that she had slept with three men of the Kennedy clan - Joseph P. Kennedy (JFK's father), Joe Kennedy Jr. and JFK as well.

-Marlene suffered from bacilophobia, the fear of germs.

-Became an American citizen on March 6, 1937.