They had faces back then, during the golden age of Hollywood when actors and actresses were almost surreally beautiful. And one of the most perfect faces to grace the silver screen belonged to German-born Marlene Dietrich. A rival to Swedish beauty Greta Garbo, Dietrich starred in such lush melodramas as “Morocco” and “Shanghai Express,” which she made with her mentor and amour Josef von Sternberg, along with such musical comedies as “Destry Rides Again.” As followers of the blond, blue-eyed star well know, Dietrich had countless lovers of both sexes--Jean Gabin, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Erich Maria Remarque, to name a few--while remaining married to the same man (Rudolf Sieber) for 50 years. But few know that Dietrich was also a pack rat. In fact, she needed a warehouse to store her pictures, mementos from lovers, letters, clothes and other memorabilia.
After Dietrich’s death in Paris in 1992, her estate treasures were purchased for $5 million by the Film Museum Berlin. Items from the estate are on permanent display at the museum, but for her 100th birthday last December, the museum created a special exhibition, “Marlene Dietrich: Forever Young,” which features 120 pieces and spans four decades. The exhibition opens Thursday at the Hollywood Entertainment Museum--the only North American engagement of the artifacts. The exhibition is co-sponsored by the Goethe Institute Los Angeles.
In conjunction with the exhibition, which continues through Dec. 1, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s film department is celebrating Dietrich’s career with a two-month festival, “The Devil Is an Angel.”
“The concept behind the exhibit is that this is Marlene’s 100th birthday party, and the guests have all been invited and each object is attached in some way to a guest,” says Jan-Christopher Horak, curator of the Hollywood Entertainment Museum. “A guest is someone who is important to Marlene’s life. Each guest is represented by one, two or three objects.”
Those objects include correspondence, love letters, even a bright circus director’s outfit she wore when performing in Las Vegas. “There is a lace bra from Dior ... I guess he dressed her a lot,” Horak says. “There is a letter from Edith Piaf ... Orson Welles is represented through a letter.
Among the other interesting curios are items from fans, friends and co-workers: a pillow from Robert Redford, a record from Frank Sinatra--'This Is Sinatra'-- and a bracelet he apparently gave her, a fan letter from George Bush Sr., a fan letter from Richard Nixon, and photo from Nancy and Ronald Reagan.”
The exhibit also includes a multimedia area of her film and concert work, Horak says, “as well as the people--men and women--who have paid homage to her, especially her role in ‘The Blue Angel’ ” as the sultry and tawdry garter-belt-clad cabaret singer Lola Lola.
“Everyone from Liza Minnelli in ‘Cabaret’ to Helmut Berger in ‘The Damned’ and all the other ones who did the ‘Blue Angel’ shtick. She has this very androgynous character and screen persona. Men and women both fell in love with her.”
The exhibit is meant to be fun, says Werner Sudendorf, curator of the Marlene Dietrich estate collection at the Berlin museum. “You rarely see Marlene laughing,” he says. “She is always very straight and disciplined, so we made a photographic section where you see her partying with other people, drinking and things like that. On the other side of the coin, you have all the glamour photography, the poses and the perfection.”
Born Dec. 27, 1901, in Berlin, Dietrich--the daughter of an Army officer who died when she was 11--was musically inclined from a young age, playing the piano and violin. At 20, she was accepted into Max Reinhardt’s acting school and made her film debut in “Napoleon’s Younger Brother” in 1922.
By the end of the decade, she had starred in several silent films. She became an overnight international sensation in the 1930 German drama “The Blue Angel,” directed by Von Sternberg. A zaftig Dietrich gave an indelible performance as Lola Lola, a cabaret singer who marries a timid schoolteacher. The film, in which she introduced the song “Falling in Love Again,” brought Von Sternberg and Dietrich to Hollywood and Paramount Pictures.
She received her only Oscar nomination for her role as a cabaret singer who falls for legionnaire Gary Cooper in “Morocco” in 1930. The Dietrich-Von Sternberg collaboration also produced such hits as the 1932 films “Shanghai Express” and “Blonde Venus.” In the latter, she performs the number “Hot Voodoo” wearing a gorilla outfit. By the end of the decade, though, she along with Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn were considered box office poison.
Dietrich staged her comeback in 1939, playing a dance hall girl, Frenchy, in the boisterous Western comedy “Destry Rides Again,” in which she sang “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have.”
Appalled by Hitler’s rise in her beloved Germany, she became a U.S. citizen in the late ‘30s and worked tirelessly for her new country. Dietrich spent nearly three years during World War II entertaining Allied troops in Europe. Because of her stance then, many of her countrymen considered her a traitor and she was treated poorly in Germany when she arrived there to perform in the late ‘50s.
Dietrich’s film roles were few and far between when she returned to the States after the war, though she did land great parts in such films as Billy Wilder’s “A Foreign Affair” (1948), Fritz Lang’s “Rancho Notorious” (1952); Wilder’s “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957); and Stanley Kramer’s “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961).
When the film roles dried up, she reinvented herself once again, this time as a successful international cabaret performer. After she broke her leg on tour in 1975, she retired and lived in self-exile in Paris until her death.
“The Devil Is an Angel” film festival opens Sept. 26 with “The Blue Angel,” and her last film with Von Sternberg, “The Devil Is a Woman” (1935). Other films to be screened include “Morocco” with “The Garden of Allah” (1936), “Shanghai Express,” “Blonde Venus,” “The Scarlet Empress” (1934), “Angel” (1937) and “Destry Rides Again.”
“What we remember most are the films she did with Von Sternberg,” Sudendorf says, “and what she did in those films that was remarkable was that she used power, the power of an experienced woman.
“Adolphe Menjou in ‘Morocco’ asks her, ‘Do you need any help?’ and she doesn’t answer at once. She looks at him. It is the power of silence, and you start thinking, ‘What’s going on in her mind?’ Then she says, ‘I don’t need any help.’ She’s alone in Morocco and she doesn’t need any help. So she must be something special.”
Dietrich “is not the one who falls in love instantly” in the Von Sternberg films, he says. “She is always a self-protecting woman. I think that is the figure that is burnt in our mind and how she survived so many bad films.”
Although Dietrich always maintained that she did very few decent films, Horak says he believes at least half a dozen of her films were great. Her legacy has endured for 70 years, he says, “partially because she was in good movies by great directors. They are films that continue to be shown on television. When you see them you go, ‘Ah ... there is something about her.’ ”
“Marlene Dietrich: Forever Young,” Hollywood Entertainment Museum, 7021 Hollywood Blvd. Thursday-Dec. 1., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; closed Wednesdays. $8.75; adults; $5.50, seniors; $4.50, students with ID; $4, children 5-12; free, museum members and children younger than 5. For information, call (323) 465-7900 or go to www.hollywoodmuseum.com.
“The Devil Is an Angel: The Films of Marlene Dietrich,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Leo. S Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. Begins Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m. $8; $6, museum and AFI members, seniors 62 and older, and students with ID. For information, call (323) 857-6010.
Susan King is a Times staff writer.