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From the Archives: Marlene Dietrich, Classic Femme Fatale, Dies at 90

From the Archives: Marlene Dietrich, Classic Femme Fatale, Dies at 90
Marlene Dietrich as jewel thief Madeleine de Beaupre in "Desire." (UCLA Arts LIbrary Special Collections)

Marlene Dietrich, the seductive actress and entertainer whose sultry, distinctive face graced motion picture screens during Hollywood's two most glamorous decades, died Wednesday in the Right Bank apartment in Paris where she had lived as a fashionable recluse the past several years.

The temptress in "The Blue Angel," the saloon singer with a heart of gold in "Destry Rides Again" and the tortured widow in "Judgment at Nuremberg" was 90, her grandson Pierre Riva told French journalists. He attributed her death simply to old age.

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Although she brought a depth of character to her final film roles, through the 1930s and '40s she was always the classic femme fatale, an image she successfully carried over to concert appearances while even in her 70s. She became one by being a student and devotee of stardom from the first days of her discovery in Berlin in 1929 by Josef von Sternberg, who cast her as a cruel-hearted temptress in "The Blue Angel."

While early Hollywood stars such as Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford played virtuous and often victimized child-women, such stars as Dietrich brought a worldly sexuality, with a hint of decadence, to the screen. Instead of victims, her characters tended to be predators, indifferent and aloof.

"I played whores," Dietrich once remarked with her legendary candor. "I never played any recommendable character."

Her close friend Ernest Hemingway—who had christened her "the Kraut"—once wrote, "If she had nothing more than her voice, she could break your heart with it."

Stanley Kramer, who directed her in "Judgment at Nuremberg," remembered her Wednesday as an actress "who was very definite in her viewpoint, but if she respected you she would bend."

She was "a woman of great principle," he added.

The combination of Hollywood publicity machinery and Dietrich's mastery of the art of illusion caused her to be referred to as a mystery woman, then a myth and finally, a legend.

The life behind the legend began in Berlin, where she was born in 1901 into the family of Louis Erich Otto Dietrich, a cavalry lieutenant turned police officer.

Her father died when she was young, and her mother remarried an army officer. According to her 1987 autobiography "Marlene," she was "well-to-do" and had the "best education imaginable," with "governesses and private tutors." Other biographies, however, say she experienced a rather ordinary middle-class, conservative childhood.

Biographical accounts also differ about the years before Von Sternberg cast her in "The Blue Angel," the 1930 movie that made her famous in America. According to some, she had enrolled in a drama school in 1922 and was a popular leading lady in German films before 1929. But Dietrich maintained, "I was a 'nobody.' "

When Von Sternberg went to Berlin to film "The Blue Angel" and was searching for an actress to play the heartless siren Lola, what he reportedly saw in Dietrich was a face that a camera would love. Often described as her Svengali, Von Sternberg set about transforming his find.

He "breathed life into this nothingness," Dietrich wrote. "I was nothing but pliable material on the infinitely rich palette of his ideas."

Her eyebrows were plucked and drawn into penciled arcs, her hair was lightened and her cheeks were hollowed by makeup. A silver line, later to become her trademark, was painted down the middle of her nose to seemingly reduce its width. Thirty pounds came off, and a sleek, elegant Marlene Dietrich emerged. Lighting techniques did the rest; the result on camera was "the Dietrich face."

Once the image was in place, the woman whom friends described as an unpretentious, straightforward, earthy person with a matching sense of humor was presented to the world as if she were Lola herself.

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But, at first, she was tentative.

Lee Garmes, the cameraman for "Morocco,"(1930), the first film she made in the United States, said later: "She wasn't sure of herself. She had to be guided in everything."

In a 1975 interview, she said of this image: "I was pushed into it by Mr. Von Sternberg. I can't say I enjoyed it when I was in my 20s. I was too young and dumb to know what was going on."

On screen, she continued to play the woman without virtue, as a prostitute, a spy, or unfaithful wife. Off screen, she kept up the image of a worldly siren as well.

She left Berlin for Hollywood in 1930, leaving behind husband Rudolf Sieber, an assistant director, and a child, Maria, who had been born in 1925. She had met Sieber when she was working as an extra on the same set with him in a long-forgotten German film. They married in 1924. Her husband and daughter, who had an acting career as Maria Riva, joined her in the United States in 1931.

Sieber's immediate function in this country was to quiet gossip about Dietrich and Von Sternberg; Von Sternberg's wife had by then sued the actress for alienation of affection. Paramount reportedly persuaded Mrs. Von Sternberg to drop the matter for $100,000.

According to biographer Charles Higham, Sieber had by that time been involved with another woman—a friend of Dietrich's, Tamara Matul, for four years.

Dietrich, however, described the marriage as "for us, an ideal relationship. He was the only man who ever understood me." She never divorced Sieber, who became a chicken rancher and died in Sylmar in 1976.

As she embraced her stardom, her name was linked with several of Hollywood's leading men—John Gilbert, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne. She had a major relationship with novelist Erich Maria Remarque, author of "All Quiet on the Western Front." He patterned the character Joan Madou in his novel, "Arch of Triumph," after Dietrich, portraying her as a struggling actress who combined tenderness and strength with an inherent melancholy.

In contrast to her public image, wrote Higham, her relationships with men tended to be liaisons of "companionship rather than passion." She often assumed a maternal or caretaker role. She unsuccessfully tried to cure Gilbert's alcohol addiction, for example, and to cheer up Remarque, a morose man who also drank.

Jimmy Stewart, center, and Marlene Dietrich in "Destry Rides Again."
Jimmy Stewart, center, and Marlene Dietrich in "Destry Rides Again." (Universal Pictures)

Stewart, who starred with Dietrich in "Destry Rides Again" and "No Highway in the Sky," said Wednesday those films "were two of the most meaningful pictures of my career. Marlene Dietrich was a real movie star who knew the motion picture business from A to Z."

With Wayne, she was an all-weather companion, who went hunting, fishing or to prize fights. In her autobiography she said she used her contacts to help him get started in Hollywood. (She also said he was "not a bright or exciting type.")

"The roles I have played in films have absolutely nothing to do with what I really am," she wrote. She knew how intimidating her seductive image could be.

Director Fritz Lang recalled that Dietrich had once telephoned and asked him to take her to dinner. When he expressed shock that she was alone, she replied, "Are you kidding? Men never ask me out. I always have to ask them."

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She was also a trendsetter. Before Dietrich came to Hollywood, dramatic actresses kept their legs covered. After she appeared in "Morocco" wearing a black leotard and feather boa, that quickly changed. Although she was considered by many to have the finest legs in Hollywood, she conversely also was credited with popularizing slacks for women.

Never a recluse like Greta Garbo, Dietrich said she considered public life for stars "as much a duty as making a film." In her heyday she made frequent public appearances, lived in gorgeous homes and spent money lavishly.

In all she made seven films for Von Sternberg. Besides "The Blue Angel" and "Morocco," there were "Dishonored" (1931), "Shanghai Express" (1932), "Blonde Venus" (1932), "The Scarlet Empress" (1934) and "The Devil Is a Woman" (1935). After this last film, he broke off their working relationship, according to her autobiography, and she felt "like a rudderless ship" without her "father confessor, critic, instructor."

Her work during the Von Sternberg years was largely what John Springer described in his book, "They Had Faces Then," as "mannequin roles," since she was invariably typecast as amoral and decadent. She had the same type of parts in two features, "Desire" and "Angel"—done for Ernst Lubitsch in 1936 and 1937—and in several other less than commanding films.

Nevertheless, by 1936 she had become the highest-salaried woman in the world, and David O. Selznick paid her $200,000 for "The Garden of Allah." But her movies, in their sameness, had grown less and less successful, and soon afterward independent motion picture exhibitors put her on their "box-office poison" list along with Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis.

Hepburn and Davis were able to revitalize their careers with movie roles better geared to their talents. To a lesser degree, Dietrich managed the same.

For her, the part that broke the mold was that of Frenchy, the earthy, boisterous saloon singer in 1939's "Destry Rides Again."

In contrast to the previous vamp characters who used and exploited men, Frenchy was not destructive and thus more endearing. Of course she was still stunning, dressed in revealing saloon costumes, with her famous legs showing.

Of her standing on the bar in black net stockings, belting out "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have," British publishing tycoon Lord Beaverbrook said she was "a greater work of art than the Venus de Milo."

She and Una Merkel provided one of the most exciting and unusual of all the screen brawls in history—Merkel representing the righteous women of the town of Bottleneck and Dietrich the tawdry, imported element.

Few except those on the set knew that the stars did not use stand-ins for the brutal brawl in which the women gouged, kicked, bit and pulled each other's hair while breaking up much of the furniture in Frenchy's saloon.

Dietrich spent much of World War II entertaining American troops overseas, paying her own expenses much of the time, and performing as close to the front lines as she could. Adolf Hitler had made overtures to persuade her to return to Germany and reportedly even asked her to be his mistress. But she refused to return to Germany at all while he was in power. She had become an American citizen in 1939, and a symbol, as one writer put it, of "a free Germany in exile, an inspiration for German expatriates."

She would perform for servicemen on makeshift wood platforms, sometimes dressed in a regulation GI uniform, trousers, boots and all, lighted only by the headlights of transport vehicles. In 1947, the U.S. War Department awarded her the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian could receive.

Yet to come were the dramatic roles for which she received her greatest critical acclaim: "A Foreign Affair" (1948), in which she was a former Nazi living in postwar Berlin; a heroine who lies on the witness stand to protect her husband in "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957), and "Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961), as the widow of a Nazi general.

In the 1950s she again renewed her star image by launching a series of one-woman shows, concert and cabaret appearances. More than 20 years later she still drew enthusiastic crowds as she stood in an ermine coat, a tight-fitting spangled gown or her masculine tuxedo, singing the songs that now had become her signature—"Falling in Love Again," "Lola" and "Lili Marlene." She last appeared on stage in 1975.

Marlene Dietrich's 41st and last film appearance was in 1978, in "Just a Gigolo," in a cameo role as a baroness running a string of men for hire. For the last several years, the grandmother of four lived quietly in Paris and was rarely seen in public. In 1984, Maximilian Schell did a documentary film on Dietrich's life. Schell, who had co-starred with her in "Judgment at Nuremberg," said he sparred and fought with her during 10 days of interviews in her Paris apartment in which she would not be photographed but did agree to comment on her life and films.

Those were her last public comments until October, 1990, when she again broke her self-imposed silence to welcome the reunification of a Germany she had not seen in 30 years.

Saying in a statement that "blood is thicker than water," she said she was happy for her native land, adding that "happiness is so rare in this troubled world."

Marlene Dietrich's films include:

"Tragedy of Love," 1923.

"The Art of Love," 1928.

"The Blue Angel," 1930.

"Morocco," 1930.

"Dishonored," 1931.

"Shanghai Express," 1932.

"Blonde Venus," 1932.

"The Song of Songs," 1933.

"The Scarlet Empress," 1934.

"The Devil Is a Woman," 1935.

"Desire," 1936.

"The Garden of Allah," 1936.

"Knight Without Armor," 1937.

"Angel," 1937.

"Destry Rides Again," 1939.

"Seven Sinners," 1940.

"The Flame of New Orleans," 1941.

"Manpower," 1941.

"The Lady Is Willing," 1942.

"The Spoilers," 1942.

"Pittsburgh," 1942.

"Follow the Boys," 1944.

"Kismet," 1944.

"Golden Earrings," 1947.

"The Room Upstairs," 1948.

"A Foreign Affair," 1948.

"Stage Fright," 1950.

"Rancho Notorious," 1952.

"Around the World in 80 Days," 1956.

"The Monte Carlo Story," 1957.

"Witness for the Prosecution," 1957.

"Touch of Evil," 1958.

"Judgment at Nuremberg," 1961.

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"Paris When It Sizzles," 1964.

"Just a Gigolo," 1978.

Source: Associated Press

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