From the very beginning of her career as a chorus girl in theatres and cabarets of 1920s Weimar Berlin Marlene Dietrich boasted a gay following. In one of her early revues she sang a duet with co-star Margot Lion called “My Best Girlfriend” in which both sported a corsage of violets– the signal in those days for lesbianism.
She eventually came to the attention of Josef von Sternberg, an American film director who was casting his first talkie “The Blue Angel”. For him, Marlene was perfect for the lead part of Lola Lola – a woman who could project irresistible sex appeal but also icy indifference as she snared and destroyed respectable men. This was her springboard to international fame.
The Hollywood career that followed saw mixed success. By the end of the 1930s, after a series of critical disasters and a nomination as Box Office Poison, it seemed her star was waning.
But then came “Destry Rides Again” – a comedy western quite unlike anything she had done before. It smashed once and for all the burdensome image of Dietrich as ice maiden and untouchable goddess.
Here was the new Marlene – the rollicking bar-room floozy whose catfight with Una Merkel has entered screen legend. Marlene’s willingness to send herself up revived her career and drove it to new heights.
As Hitler rose to power in Germany, she realised that something terrible was happening to her homeland.
With enormous prescience she gave up her German nationality, became an American citizen, joining the Allied Forces in their war against the Third Reich.
She was aware of her power as a propaganda weapon and she exploited it to the full.
Her wartime activities on the front line of the fighting in Europe, including acts of enormous courage, brought her medals and glory from the French and the Americans.
Her third incarnation came after the war – this time as an hypnotically brilliant cabaret artiste. It was Burt Bacharach who elevated her act to new levels of sophistication with his inspired arrangements and staging. Together they toured the globe, making Marlene once more the highest paid entertainer in the world.
After several accidents, Marlene retreated to seclusion in her apartment in Paris for the final twelve years of her life. All visitors were refused as she tried desperately to protect her carefully fostered image of ageless beauty.
She died at the age of 90, leaving a legacy of images that are still plundered by the likes of Lady Gaga, Kylie and Madonna – all of whom have channelled Marlene in recent acts.
Marlene never considered the lesbian element of her personality to be much of an issue. ‘In Europe we make love to whoever we find attractive’ she told one reporter. She was indiscreet with her female lovers and I have recently seen a copy of an American scandal magazine called Confidential from 1955 that – explicitly for the time – enumerates her lady loves quite explicitly. Marlene never denied any of it.
Marlene Dietrich – an affectionate tribute – atwww.MDTribute.com
The next performance of the show is at the The Kogan Academy of Dramatic Arts
9 Elthorne Road
Sunday 12 October 2014, 7.30pm
Part of the Archway with Words Literary Festival
Tickets £5 from We Got Tickets.
by Terry Sanderson