Marlene Dietrich is one of the very few film stars whose career not only spanned 60+ years but who also enjoyed icon status for most of those years. Her life in film began in the early 1920s with silent pictures. It came to a close with Maximillian Schell ‘s 1984 Oscar-nominated documentary, Marlene, in which she speaks but does not appear on camera.
Dietrich shot to fame as Lola Lola in Josef von Sternberg ‘s The Blue Angel (1930). Shortly after the film premiered, she left Germany for the U.S. where she and von Sternberg collaborated on six more films during the 1930s. The first, Morocco (1930), was nominated for four Oscars, including a Best Actress nod for Dietrich. By the end of the decade her career had cooled but was reignited when she co-starred, at von Sternberg’s urging, with James Stewart in the 1939 hit, Destry Rides Again. Although Dietrich continued making films in the 1940s, most were shot before the U.S. entered World War II ot made after the war ended. Though she appeared in only nine films from 1950 – 1978, several are classics: Alfred Hitchcock‘s Stage Fright (1950), Fritz Lang‘s Rancho Notorious (1952), Billy Wilder‘s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Orson Welles‘ Touch of Evil (1958) and Stanley Kramer‘s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). Her final film role was in Just a Gigolo (1978) starring David Bowie; while the movie is forgettable, her brief appearance is not.
In 1953, the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas offered Dietrich the unheard-of sum of $30,000 a week to perform on stage. Her run was so successful that she was quickly signed for a similar engagement in London. The London show was also a smash and she followed it with a return engagement at the Sahara. This was the beginning of Dietrich’s celebrated career (and reinvention) as a high-ticket chanteuse that lasted through the mid-1970s. In 1972 she performed her concert act as a TV special and earned an impressive-for-the-era $250,000 for it.
Marlene Dietrich is remembered for her several classic films, her concert career, her breathtaking glamour and her many amorous adventures. But there was another side to the actress that is less well known today…
While she was in England in 1937 working on a film, von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s ambassador to Great Britain at the time, approached and pressured her to return to Germany. She refused and became a U.S. citizen in 1939. When America entered World War II, Dietrich was one of the first stars to sell war bonds. She entertained troops on front lines all over Europe and in North Africa, appeared at sevicemen’s canteens and made anti-Nazi broadcasts in Germany. In addition, Dietrich and other successful Eastern European émigrés in Hollywood provided both financial assistance and moral support to refugees from the European film community who fled the Nazi onslaught.
The OSS (the CIA of the time) had a Morale Operations (MO) branch that began producing ‘black’ (propaganda) radio programs in 1943. These programs reached listeners throughout Europe and the Mediterranean and were intended to create discord in the Axis countries. In 1944, the MO began to recruit Hollywood talent to boost the quality of programming on its stations. The MO’s most popular station was Soldatensender (Soldiers’ Radio), and one of the most popular songs it played was Dietrich’s “Lili Marlene” with ‘black’ lyrics created especially for the German version. The Nazi government banned the broadcast of the song, but the ban was lifted in the face of a backlash among Axis soldiers. “Lili Marlene” soon became the song played at the end of every Soldantensender broadcast.
In 1945, the U.S. government awarded Marlene Dietrich the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the first presented. Similarly, France made her a chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
But Dietrich’s largesse did not begin with World War II…
In 1934 Dietrich became romantically involved with one of the great stars of the silent era, John Gilbert. Gilbert’s young daughter Leatrice came to know Dietrich through her father. In her 1985 biography of him, Dark Star, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain wrote of Dietrich’s kindness to her, particularly after John Gilbert’s death in early 1936.
According to Leatrice, during Dietrich’s romance with John Gilbert the actress tried to help revitalize his career as well as his health. She arranged for Gilbert to test for the role of her jewel-thief partner in Desire (1936). Gilbert got the part but unfortunately, shortly after filming began, he suffered a heart attack and was replaced in the role.
Leatrice recalled visiting her father’s house on December 24,1935 and being dazzled by the beautiful Christmas tree, decorated in the German tradition by Dietrich herself. She noted that Dietrich had thoughtfully slipped away that day so she could spend time alone with her father. Just over two weeks later John Gilbert was dead of a heart attack.
Following his funeral, Dietrich contacted Leatrice’s mother with information and advice about Gilbert’s will that could benefit his daughter. Though her mother was unable to successfully pursue the information Dietrich provided, more important to young Leatrice was the relationship she developed with the actress. Days after John Gilbert’s funeral, Leatrice received an enormous bouquet from Dietrich with a card in her handwriting, “I adored your father. Let me adore you.”
Leatrice Gilbert Fountain wrote in Dark Star that for many years thereafter Dietrich made a point of spending time with her. She remembered Dietrich as a “fairy godmother” and told how the star took her to theater openings, on long walks and talks, baked cookies and cakes for her and generally made her feel like “a princess.” All this was at a time when Dietrich was very busy with her film career.
Fountain reflected, “I wonder if Marlene Dietrich realized what a difference her presence made to me.” She also recounted stories of Dietrich’s early days in Hollywood when word began to circulate that she paid the overdue rent of a studio secretary who’d lost her job, that she picked up the hospital bill for the child of a studio electrician and other such acts of generosity. Fountain emphasized that Dietrich did not take credit for these deeds nor would she talk to Fountain about her efforts to help John Gilbert; Leatrice had to go to other sources to learn the details.
Marlene Dietrich died at age 90 in Paris on May 6, 1992. Her celebrity remains legendary, but her goodwill deserves a place in the Dietrich legend as well.
The Lady Eve is a bureaucrat by day, blogger by night…and a lover of classic film night and day. She lives in Northern California and works in TV. Her interview with Edna May Wonacott (who portrayed Ann Newton in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt) appears in the current, Winter 2010/2011, issue of “Films of the Golden Age.” She also won a 2010 CiMBA Award from the Classic Movie Blog Assn. for my interview with Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, daughter of John Gilbert. For more information, visit http://eves-reel-life.blogspot.com.