Marlene Dietrich was one of the legendary actresses of Hollywood's Golden Age and the first German movie actress to become a major Hollywood star. She changed career direction several times, starting as a cabaret artist and chorus girl, then film actress in 1920's Berlin. She made the transition to Hollywood to become an international movie star for two decades interrupted by the Second World War, during which she became a forces entertainer on the frontline. Her final self-invention was as a topline international stage performer which lasted from the 1950's to her retirement in the 1970's.
Her fame grew steadily and remorselessly and she became one of the greatest entertainment icons of the century. She is ranked at number 9 in the AFI's list of All Time Greatest Female Stars.
She was born on December 1927, 1901 in Schöneberg in South Berlin. Her birth name was Marie Magdalene Dietrich and in her teens she used the contracted form of her first two names to form the then uncommon name 'Marlene'. She was the second of two daughters - her elder sister, Elisabeth, was one year older. (Marlene would later claim that she had no siblings when it became known that Elisabeth had worked in a troop canteen used by Nazis close to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.)
Marlene's father, a police lieutenant, died when she was six and her mother's second husband, a soldier, died from wounds received during WWI, when Marlene was seventeen. She and her sister were brought up in a predominantly female environment. She was educated at the Auguste-Viktoria Academy for girls in Berlin between 1907 and 1917, and began also to have private violin lessons at home as she showed a natural aptitude for music.
As a young teenager she began to seriously consider a career as a concert violinist, moving to Weimar when she was 17 in order to study under the noted teacher, Robert Reitz. At the same time she was developing a fascination for the stage and theater. When she returned to Berlin in 1920 she played violin in a small cabaret ensemble to earn extra money but had to give up her ideas of playing at the highest level due to a wrist injury.
Early Film Career 1922In 1921 she began working in theaters as a chorus girl and with walk on acting parts. She auditioned for the Max Reinhardt stage school in Berlin and appeared in films for the first time in 1922 in 'So Sind die Manner'. She had her first lead role in 1923 opposite William Dieterle in 'Der Mensche am Wege" ('Man by the Roadside'). In her next movie, 'Tragödie der Liebe' later in 1923, she met her future husband, actor and director, Rudolf Sieber. They married in May, 1924 and their only child, Maria, was born 7 months later. The marriage lasted only 5 years but the couple never felt the need to divorce and remained on friendly terms until Rudolf's death in 1976.
Marlene, even before her marriage had started a series of love affairs with both men and women, which would characterise her life from then on. She started one such affair with the Austrian Hollywood film director, Josef von Sternberg and it would change both their lives.
'The Blue Angel' 1929Marlene continued both movie and stage acting in roles of varying degrees of importance and gradually became well known to the movie and theater-going public in Germany, even being compared to Greta Garbo who was becoming a sensation in Hollywood with MGM. In 1929 Marlene had a minor role in musical revue called "Zwei Krawatten" at the Berliner Theater. She was seen by von Sternberg, who was searching Berlin's theaters for a singing actress to play the role of sleazy cabaret singer Lola-Lola in his forthcoming movie 'The Blue Angel'. It was the start of a multi-film collaboration which proved highly beneficial to both actress and director.
In 'The Blue Angel' Marlene sang "Falling in Love Again" which was to become her signature song and she was a sensation. The film, too, was an international success and on the strength of it she was offered initially a one movie contract with Paramount Pictures who saw her as their possible answer to the successful emergence of MGM's Greta Garbo.
Hollywood 1930She followed von Sternberg to Hollywood and their first Hollywood movie was 'Morocco' in 1930. The movie, which co-starred Gary Cooper was a massive success. It immediately made Marlene a top Hollywood star and earned her her first and only Academy Award nomination. She signed a long term contract with Paramount and the studio began an unprecedentedly large five million dollar marketing campaign.
A period of great success followed with five more superbly crafted films directed by von Sternberg including 'Shanghai Express' in 1932, 'The Scarlet Empress' in 1934 and 'The Devil is a Woman' in 1935. After this last, Dietrich and Paramount broke with von Sternberg and many critics feel she never reached such artistic heights again. In 1937 her film, 'Knight Without Armour' was a box-office and critical failure. Nevertheless she was one of the top Hollywood stars of the 1930's and had a spectacular hit playing the saloon girl Frenchie in 'Destry Rides Again' in 1939, a Western satire co-starring James Stewart.
Second World WarThrough the years of World War II Dietrich, who was a confirmed anti-Nazi, was conspicuous in her support for the Allied war effort, appearing at concerts for the troops on the front line and helping to raise war bonds in record numbers. After the war she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the US government for her war work. She was also made a Chevalier (later commandeur) of the Légion d'honneur by the French government.
All through the 1940s, she continued to appeare in movies which, although well-produced and well-directed, seemed to lack the sparkle necesssary to make them major hits such as 'Manpower', 'The Lady Is Willing' and 'Pittsburgh', all in 1942 and 'Follow the Boys' in 1944, 'Kismet' in 1944 and 'A Foreign Affair' in 1948 . She made fewer and fewer movies in the 1950's, with 'Stage Fright', in 1950, 'Witness for the Prosecution, in 1957 and Orson Welles's 'Touch of Evil' in 1958, and her last film of any real note was 'Judgment at Nuremberg' in 1961.
Singing CareerWhilst her movie career was slowing down Marlene was able to reinvent herself in a new career as a singer and entertainer. She began after the war, appearing in clubs in Las Vegas in a brief show featuring her famous songs. She was a marked success and her daring, body-hugging costumes attracted as much attention as her performance. When she extended her repertoire to a full, one woman show in the mid fifties, and engaged Burt Bacharach as her arranger, she became as famous as an international onstage performer as she had been as a movie actress. She twice had successful shows on Broadway and for two decades sang to full houses in cities internationally.
Her entertainment career ended in 1975 after she broke her leg in a fall during a stage show in Australia apparently after overindulging in alcohol. She made a brief appearance in the film 'Just a Gigolo' with David Bowie in 1979 and thereafter secluded herself in her Paris apartment. She finished her memoirs during this time. They are in in 3 volumes entitled: "Marlene Dietrich's ABC" in 1961, "My Life Story" in 1979 and "Marlene" in 1987.
For the last 12 years of her life she was an invalid and she avoided being seen in public. She kept in personal contact only with family and employees although she constantly wrote to friends and spoke with them on the telephone.
PersonalUnusually for an actress in those days Marlene appeared to care little for her public image and became famous for her androgynous film roles and her bisexuality. She often wore men's clothes, such as tuxedos, and made the wearing of trousers a new fashion item for women.
Marlene had just one marriage, to Rudolf Sieber, but her love life was both busy and varied. From her earliest days as a chorus girl in Berlin she enthusiastically and openly took lovers of both sexes. Her husband, at first reluctant,eventually accepted her Bohemian lifestyle and the two lived separate lives. Included in Marlene's conquests were costars Gary Cooper, John Wayne and James Stewart, actresses such as Frances Day and Ona Munson, directors such as Josef von Sternberg and Otto Preminger and politicians such as Joseph Kennedy and his sons, John and Robert. A busy life indeed.
Marlene Dietrich died in Paris on May 6, 1992, of kidney failure. She was 90. After a service at La Madeleine in Paris before thousands of mourners, her body was flown to Berlin where she was buried in Friedenau Cemetery, close to the house where she was born.
Marlene Dietrich Academy AwardsNo Wins:
One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Actress ... Morocco (1930)
Marlene Dietrich Filmography
Im Schatten des Glücks (unconfirmed)
The Little Napoleon
Man by the Wayside
The Monk from Santarem
Leap Into Life
Madame Doesn't Want Children
A Modern Dubarry
The Imaginary Baron
Heads Up, Charley
His Biggest Bluff
Art of Love
Dangers of the Engagement Period
I Kiss Your Hand Madame
The Woman One Longs for
Grischa the Cook
The Blue Angel
The Song of Songs
The Scarlet Empress
The Devil Is a Woman
I Loved a Soldier
The Garden of Allah
Knight Without Armour