Arriving in Hollywood at the dawn of the talkies, Marlene Dietrich had a seismic impact on American film. Having already made an international name for herself in Josef von Sternberg’s landmark The Blue Angel (1930), Dietrich then followed her director from the Weimar Republic to the Paramount Pictures backlot that same year. Over the course of 5 years and 6 films, Sternberg and Dietrich would come to embody an idealised archetype of a great filmmaker and his muse, an artistic infatuation lauded the world over.
So much has already been said of their singular collaboration but suffice to say Sternberg’s camera worshipped Dietrich in films such as Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932). He did everything in his considerable powers to push her past movie stardom and into the upper echelons of cinematic goddesshood.
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Dietrich had exported a distinctly continental androgyny to Hollywood, seldom looking as cool, calm and collected as she did in a top hat and tails. Her on-screen persona often contained a tantalisingly queer blurring of femininity and masculinity, a rarefied quality that seemed to capture men’s and women’s imaginations in equal measure. But in 1938, after her time with Sternberg had run its course, Dietrich found herself branded “box-office poison” in an infamous piece penned by Harry Brandt, president of the Independent Theatre Owners of America, alleging that certain stars’ bankability had suddenly become “negligible”.
Like other performers listed in the piece, Dietrich had thrived in the ‘pre-code’ era, a period where censorial restrictions were far laxer than they would become. A moment like the instantly iconic girl-on-girl kiss in Morocco had become completely impossible after the strict enforcement of the Production Code in 1934. It was in this particularly frosty climate that Dietrich migrated yet again, this time from Paramount to Universal.
Her first Universal production, Seven Sinners (1940), is also the film where Dietrich appears to have been let out on the longest leash, playing the fabulously named nightclub singer Bijou Blanche. “May I have an American… cigarette?” asks Bijou with a pregnant pause, addressing a group of rowdy Yanks on shore leave (one of many red-hot zingers). The film opens with a knockabout bar-brawl apparently caused by Bijou’s sheer sex appeal, affirming upfront that, although this may be a broad comedy, Dietrich and sex are still a dangerous mix.
It follows Bijou’s exploits as she continues to cause a ruckus on a South China Sea island, eventually winning the heart of John Wayne’s no-nonsense naval officer. Universal seemed to be banking on Dietrich’s potential chemistry with Wayne, pairing him opposite her for 3 out of 4 of the starring roles they gave her. Seven Sinners features this admittedly rather odd couple’s sparkiest on-screen romance, best exemplified when Dietrich dons a navy uniform for the film’s standout musical set-piece. Here Wayne’s amorous gaze is recast in a faintly queer light, charging the scene with a hint of subversive erotic tension.
Her following outing, The Flame of New Orleans (1941), is a handsomely mounted period farce directed by a fellow European émigré, René Clair. Rather than playing Dietrich’s sultry image straight as Sternberg did, Clair caricatures it. When she’s being parodied on her own terms this is rather delightful: there are instances of premeditated eyelid batting and feigned histrionics that evoke Marilyn Monroe over a decade before she would rise to stardom. But other moments feel rather more uncharitable. One could not ask for a starker contrast in cinematic treatments of femininity than, for example, the close-up in Shanghai Express and some of the buffoonery that befalls Marlene here. Her dress gets muddied, she’s hoisted over co-star Bruce Cabot’s shoulder like a misbehaving child, and she can be seen wiggling her legs out of the window of a speeding carriage. Ultimately, there isn’t really any sense that Marlene’s womanhood poses any kind of threat to the men in her life; she might be exceedingly beautiful and glamorous, but she can always be taken down a peg or two.
In her final 2 leading roles for Universal, The Spoilers (1942) and Pittsburgh (1942), Marlene takes something of a backseat to her returning co-star, John Wayne. Both these films are stories of industry and ambitious men where Marlene must either pine, chastise or support. Her role in Pittsburgh (one third of a poor guy/rich girl/poor girl love triangle) is the least rewarding of the 4 films, unfortunately leaving her feeling like a footnote in Wayne’s years-long ascendancy to mining magnate.
The Spoilers, on the other hand, is a rollicking western with a comedic edge that recalls Destry Rides Again, the 1939 classic in which Marlene had first played a gutsy saloon singer. However, rather than playing a hard-hearted frontier woman who must warm up to her do-gooding love interest (James Stewart in the case of Destry), here Dietrich can be seen busily primping and preening herself like a lovesick schoolgirl upon Wayne’s return to town – a transition that’s fascinating to witness.
These 4 films provide a valuable insight into the changing face of Hollywood cinema, and of what women were permitted to embody on screen. What’s important to remember though is that a shift in image such as this does not necessarily reflect a changing public appetite, at least not entirely. Marlene Dietrich had firmly established herself as a transgressive figure in the 1930s – it was key to her appeal. But with an ever-narrowing purview for transgression closing in around her she can sometimes seem at odds with the 1940s.
Yet Dietrich never lost her magnetism, her intrigue, her alchemy. She touches all of these Universal star vehicles with wit, poise and grace. In that way, she was truly irrepressible.
Marlene Dietrich at Universal 1940-1942 (4-disc Blu-ray box set) is available now.