Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dietrich Mania (1930-1931)

Good morning!

This has been the lo-o-o-o-ongest week...and it's only Wednesday! I've been clutching at straws trying to keep my mind occupied at the desk in between insane patrons (is it the full moon that compels people to ask for "pig intestines" at the Nonfiction desk, or do I just have the kind of face that begs to be asked if we carry chitlins? Not books on pig intestines, but the delicacy itself. This actually happened yesterday)-- the online Media History Digital Library that I mentioned a week or so ago in my post on Photoplay advertisements was the sole saving grace of yesterday's reference floor bedlam. As I've been thinking a lot about Dietrich, I put her name into the search terms on Photoplay issues from 1930-1931-- about the time La Dietrich would have appeared on American screens as the smoldering chorus girl Lola-Lola in Von Sternberg's The Blue Angel.

And because it's Photoplay (imagine a kind of classic Hollywood Us or People magazine), of COURSE there's an angle. And that angle is international export versus international export!

While I wouldn't have even thought of comparing the two, the context of Hollywood in 1930 does make a pretty good case for pitting reigning screen queen Garbo against newcomer Dietrich in the hearts of Photoplay readers. Garbo came to America in 1926, and almost immediately enjoyed success as a top box office draw for a series of silent pictures with (dreamy, dreamy, dreamy) on-screen and off-screen paramour John Gilbert. When movies went "talkie" in 1929, there was considerable buzz that the beautiful Swede's thick accent would preclude continued success in pictures-- however, Garbo's first sound movie in 1930, Anna Christie, dismissed once and for all any misgivings about her place in the MGM's firmament of stars. Her husky, exotic voice, to the surprise of many movie-goers, actually added another dimension to her otherworldly beauty, and Anna Christie, marketing under the tagline "GARBO TALKS!", was the highest grossing picture of that year.

Dietrich, on the other hand, had just arrived in the states in 1930 to publicize The Blue Angel, a film in which her star-making performance all but pulls the rug out from under established screen presence Emil Jannings. In a similarly husky, exotic voice, Dietrich sings, she heartlessly a pair of frilly, sequined knickers and top hat (costuming inspiration being borrowed from real drag queens in pre-war Berlin), she literally steals the show right along with the hearts of her audience. Though she would sing the song that became her theme, "Falling in Love Again", another half a million times in her career, her aggressive belting of it in the picture's reprise of the number, legs slung around a backwards-turned chair, as Janning's ruined professor creeps along the sidelines of the nightclub, is just captivating. Half the magic is the director-- but solidly half of it belongs to his newest leading lady.

Two publicity snaps of "Lola-Lola"...see how unfinished the Dietrich look is at this point!

Teamed again with the aforementioned genius director of The Blue Angel, Dietrich's sometimes offscreen lover Josef von Sternberg also directed her follow up picture, Morocco. Playing against that tall drink of water Gary Cooper, the movie presents the tale of a (surprise, surprise) nightclub chanteuse who falls in love with Cooper, a Legionnaire. Her genderbending performance, in a tuxedo, complete with same-sex kiss (!!) in one of the movie's musical numbers (you can see it here), and the last scene (you can see it here), in which she takes off her high heels and you see her tiny footprints in the sand as she joins the Bedouin women who follow the soldiers from encampment to encampment, are iconic, and certainly helped cement her stateside as more than just a new "face".

But what a face! While she dismissed her on-screen appearances in earlier, silent films made at UFA as "a potato with hair", her almost leonine cheekbones and sleepy, deep set eyes, not to mention those famous legs, set her apart from many of her contemporaries in a look that was all her own. While both Garbo and Dietrich exude sex appeal, Dietrich's is more immediate, more kittenish, more in-your-face. I always think of Dietrich, in spite of my great respect and love for Garbo's movies, as more accessible, especially in the seven movies she made with von Sternberg. While her best director and collaborator does carve an absolute madonna's face out of that fabulous bone structure and creative shadows, he also draws performances out of her that crackle like nothing else she would do in Hollywoood for the rest of her career. Dietrich is a fine actress, but never so fine as she was in that run in the early thirties', from 1930-1935.

And the onscreen/offscreen style! The boxy lines and sequins and furs she would wear when she wasn't in tailor-made men's suits. She and close (possibly very close?) actress friend Claudette Colbert were also the first women in Hollywood to go-all-the-way with outrageously thin, drawn on, complete parabola eyebrows. I think each of them looked nothing short of stunning with them, though I'm not sure how you would pull it off in today's world without looking imitative of a chola in a bad way.

This illustration from a Photoplay article about a "typical" day of Dietrich's was just adorable. Look at the newshounds waylaying her first thing out of bed! And not even any strong, black coffee in her yet! Lots of talk of her daughter, Maria, and her husband, Rudolph Sieber, who she married just before appearing in the Blue Angel and with whom she had an extremely open relationship.

You can click on either thumbnail below to read the whole thing in human size...thirties' celebrity magazine writing is a HOOT and I LOVE IT. It's so overwritten without being overwrought in a way that makes me want to take a spin on a typewriter with a correction pencil clamped in my teeth and a derby hat with a press pass stuck in the band smashed on my head.

Here's La Gorgeous in tinted color. Like Garbo and Crawford, I truly wish there was more footage of either in color when they were at the peak of their success and beauty:

And last but not least, while I knew she played the saw during her USO tour appearances in WWII, I did NOT know this talent went all the way back to the beginning of her career! Here she is in her third American-made picture, Dishonored, making music for costar Victor Laglen.

Do you have a thirties' era film star you just adore? If you're a Dietrich fan, what is it about her that just particularly melts your cold, cold heart? Seen any great black and white movies lately? Let's talk!

Hope I didn't talk your collective ears off! It's been awhile since I've dipped into my first love, thirties' Hollywood, but I sure had fun thinking about it, so I appreciate your forbearance! :)

More vintage clips and tips tomorrow, see you back here then!

PS: Do yourself a favor and watch this clip of Dietrich's Berlin screentest, 1930, for The Blue Angel. Emebdding has been disabled or I would be happy to post it here. You'll be glad you did-- what a star, even then!


  1. " a potato with hair" - oh my gosh, that's AWFUL. I love her but admit that I haven't seen as many of her films as I should.

    1. Haha, I sometimes use that exact phrase when I'm displeased with how a photo of me turned out-- I read that biography all the way back in high school and the description STILL sticks with me. She's one of a kind, for sure (and very unlike a potato!).

  2. As a potato with hair myself, I have to say its heartening to see how far we've come since such language was commonplace. Also, I kept thinking maybe you'd sneak in a picture of that doll just to freak me out.

    1. I'm going to set a picture of that doll as the background of your phone without your knowledge. Just you wait!

  3. LOVE marlene!
    she was not just beautiful - there is something special about her.
    (and i have the same east prussia cheekbones - so proud of them) ;-)

    1. Lucky you with your cheekbones! Good genes, for sure! :)

  4. Love Marlene Dietrich's glamorous earthiness. Not that I don't like Greta Garbo, but Dietrich's movies are just so fun.

    THANK YOU for pointing me toward all those old Photoplay magazines. You have no idea how inspiring they've been.

    P.S. I always buy my chitlins at the library.



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