In the introduction to her groundbreaking study of pioneer female filmmaker Dorothy Arzner, Judith Mayne includes a snapshot that is very definitely not of the director, but that was in her archive at UCLA. The candid snap shows Marlene Dietrich holding a large, extremely grumpy cat that she is regarding adoringly, in the courtyard of Arzner and Marion Morgan’s home in Hollywood.

Despite there having been several tell-all biographies of Dietrich that had outed the queer social and sexual Hollywood subculture around the star, known as The Sewing Circle, Mayne notes that she could not “find a single acknowledgement of a friendship, an acquaintanceship, or an attachment between” the only out lesbian director of the studio era and its most prominent bisexual woman star.

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But the informal photo between friends can’t but seem in on the joke of Dietrich cuddling a pussy cat. It’s a reference to her star persona: she ostentatiously picks up an even fluffier and moodier cat from her bed in an early scene in Dishonored (1931), and holds it knowingly in front of her lower torso. And that makes it a doubly-encoded reference to the ways that her pre-Code star persona played with her association with the overt sexuality and decadence of Weimar Berlin, then the global capital of queer culture. Beyond the nod-wink association of Europeanness with queerness (still persistent in American culture), Dietrich’s star persona was built on the aura she brought from Weimar’s cabaret culture to add an oft-salacious edge to her first studio films with Josef von Sternberg, who first cast her at UFA in The Blue Angel (1930).

The Blue Angel (1930)

“How could a girl of good family be familiar with so indecent an idiom as Berlinese?” Dietrich asks in her straight-laced memoir, My Life. She is at pains to suggest the gulf between herself and Lola, while also indicating that von Sternberg – an Austrian – sought her informed guidance on Berlin slang. Von Sternberg’s dazzling trick would be selling the Hollywood studios and cinema-going public the idea that Dietrich was Lola, and that Lola – underneath everything – would always return to her origins in the convent-educated good girl that Dietrich is at pains to portray in her memoir. In Morocco (1930) and Blonde Venus (1932), von Sternberg cast her as a cabaret performer who flirts with men, women and disaster. It was the former film that gifted what Laura Horak identifies as probably our era’s “most-reproduced likeness” of Dietrich, as drolly-named performer Amy Jolly – jolly as synonym for gay? – in her perfectly-fitted top hat and tails, cigarette dangling.

The Flame of New Orleans (1941)

As Horak explores in Girls Will Be Boys: Crossed-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema, 1908-1934, at the time Dietrich’s on-screen trouser-wearing passed without a blink. Horak identified more than 400 silent American films featuring cross-dressed women, a trope “associated with wholesome entertainment”. When Dietrich plants a kiss on a woman spectator’s lips in Morocco, it’s also a rare flash of on-screen intimacy with another woman for the star. Not until The Flame of New Orleans (René Clair, 1941) will Dietrich play a character with a sustained relationship with another woman: her Countess Ledeux spends more time with her maid Clementine, played by Theresa Harris, than with either of the men she is supposedly torn between. 

Clementine dresses and undresses Ledeux, and plots tricks to defer her male suitors, even defending her with a gun at one point. Yet their closeness is necessarily disrupted and framed by racial hierarchies, not dissimilar from how Horak argues that Amy Jolly’s/Dietrich’s outré pansexuality and active desire are diffused by the ‘anything goes’ Orientalism of Morocco’s setting.

The Sign of the Cross (1932)

In 1933, it would be Dietrich’s off-screen trousers that generated a disapproving pushback. It was a warning shot of the oncoming Hays (Motion Picture Production) Code, which – closer to Nazi ideology than many like to admit – associated visual excess, queerness, feminism, and physical and mental illness, and censored them harshly. Horak’s exhaustive research reveals a media whirl around Dietrich’s decision to wear a tuxedo suit specifically to the premiere of “the wickedest film in the world”, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932). The film’s so-called ‘lesbian dance’, which DeMille refused to cut, led indirectly to the introduction of the Hays Code in 1934, when the scene was, indeed, removed. 

But at the time of its Hollywood premiere in January 1933, any anxiety (or arousal) caused by the dance seems to have been displaced on to Dietrich’s trousers, although she had also worn them without notice earlier that month to a premiere, but that of a small German arthouse film. That film, however, was Mädchen in Uniform (Leontine Sagan and Carl Fröelich, 1931), often referred to as the first lesbian fiction feature. Given that the film depicts an uprising against authority in a Prussian girls’ school after a new pupil is locked up for declaring her love for a teacher while dressed in doublet and hose for the school play, we can see how anxieties about what girls get up to together become entangled with their wearing trousers, and placed on to the long legs of Hollywood’s favourite Berliner. 

Mädchen in Uniform (1931)

It’s possible that Dietrich and the film’s director Sagan had crossed paths. According to Invisible Women’s research, like Dietrich, Sagan – who was born in Austria – attended Max Reinhardt’s famous Berlin drama school, where, as Dietrich puts it, “there were so many girls I felt I was back in grade school”. While she goes on to say that she means being “one among hundreds of amateur actresses”, her phrase is also suggestive of the intense passions and attachments that are seen in Mädchen in Uniform. It was via Reinhardt that Dietrich found her way into revue work at his theatre the Komödie, where she performed the song now considered the first (or best-surviving) lesbian cabaret song, ‘My Best Girlfriend’ (‘Wenn die beste Freundin’ by Marcellus Schiffer and Mischa Spoliansky, who wrote the revue). Dietrich reports that she was gifted the duet by the show’s star (and Schiffer’s wife) Margo Lion, an established French chanteuse who “fascinated and frightened” her co-star. 

Dietrich, who stresses her naivety and piety throughout her biography, claims that she suggested fastening violets to the shoulders of their dresses entirely unaware of their queer coding, and that she was shocked when a review of the show described the number as “androgynous”. She shifts quickly from any engagement with the show’s sexual politics to mention that she became close to Spoliansky when they were in exile, and “would play a role in the secret operation that rescued Oscar Karlweis”, the show’s third performer, from Nazi Germany.

Rather than avoidance, there’s perhaps a deeper resonance that’s been lost around what queer Weimar meant and how that resonates in Dietrich’s off-screen persona: not just as decadence but as resistance. Rather than the salacious connotations that von Sternberg played on, Dietrich implies that Weimar shaped her war work, from being the prominent ‘German anti-Nazi’ hosting émigré artists such as Jean Gabin fleeing the Nazis (including cooking weekly lunches for them) to her public USO tour of Europe, often under fire, through 1944 and 45. 

Blonde Venus (1932)

Recognising Mädchen in Uniform’s anti-fascist critique, as B. Ruby Rich argued in 1981, means reading how that critique is located in lesbian desire; so too Dietrich’s Weimar queerness is more than gossip and puns, however delicious. As I explore in my book A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing, sexuality, particularly queerness, is often held separately from politics, and that in itself is a form of homophobic erasure. Wearing trousers to Mädchen in Uniform was Dietrich’s act of solidarity that recognised, perceptively, that queer cabaret culture was under threat. Where the media read her stance as a titillation like the double entendres between the gal pals in ‘My Best Girlfriend’, as a mädchen in hose at DeMille’s more public event, Dietrich was making a visionary stand for freedom: what queerer read could there be?