Marlene Dietrich, like most of the stars from her generation, cultivated mystery. Tidbits about her personal life were handed out by publicists like gourmet candies. Fans were suppose to fill in the rest themselves, at the movies, where they could wonder how exotic and sensual Dietrich really was. Our imaginations helped make Dietrich and others great.
That was then, though. Now we want to know everything, even about the long gone. Recent peek-under-the-sheets biographies (especially one by her daughter, Maria Riva) try to make it clear how sexy (or at least ready to have sex) Dietrich could be. Her impressive list of alleged lovers included Ronald Colman, Jean Gabin, Yul Brynner and Edward R. Murrow.
Murrow, Riva writes in "Marlene Dietrich," wasn't very good at messing around, but he did like to smoke, even during the act. Dietrich could put up with ashes on her pillow to hear his stories.
Amusing, gossipy stuff, but it's really the pictures that matter now. Anyone intrigued by the mystery of the screen Dietrich may want to visit the Newport Harbor Art Museum, which offers a four-movie retrospective on the actress beginning Friday.
Film historian and Orange Coast College Prof. Arthur Taussig, who organized a similar program at Newport Harbor on vampire flicks in March, will introduce each picture and discuss them and Dietrich's career afterward.
The series, more than a little predictably, opens with "The Blue Angel," Dietrich's 1930 breakthrough film, the one that got Hollywood interested. Dietrich, already something of a star in her native Germany, took on international dimensions in this sordidly spectacular film about a dance-hall girl and the uptight professor (Emil Jannings) who falls for her.
Paramount, drawn to Dietrich's fine legs, smoky looks and heavy accent (and hoping to mold its own Garbo, who was big box office for rival MGM), flew her over and met most of her demands. They included retaining her "Blue Angel" director, Josef von Sternberg, for her next movies.
"Blonde Venus," which Von Sternberg directed in 1932, will screen July 30. Dietrich was teamed with a very young Cary Grant in this tale of a woman leading a less-than-pristine life to support her child. You don't often see beauty dressed in an ape suit, but you do in this one, when Dietrich sings "Hot Voodoo."
On Aug. 6, the series takes a jump in years to the 1939 release, "Destry Rides Again." Dietrich is out of the monkey fur and into cowgirl drag in this odd Western co-starring James Stewart. Dietrich plays a boisterous, curly-topped saloon girl and gets to warble "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have."
The program takes another leap, this time of almost two decades, for its closing picture, "Witness for the Prosecution," which screens Aug. 13. Dietrich stars as the wife of an alleged murderer in this 1957 Billy Wilder-directed adaptation of Agatha Christie's courtroom drama.