Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) was an iconic film star and sex symbol whose androgynous style challenged gender norms and captured hearts around the globe. She also took a brave political stand against Nazism that closed doors to her in her native Germany and forced her abroad.
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Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.
Today we’re talking about an iconic film star and sex symbol whose androgynous style challenged gender norms and captured hearts around the globe. She also took a brave political stand against Nazism that closed doors to her in her native Germany and forced her abroad. Let’s talk about Marlene Dietrich.
Mary Magdalene Dietrich was born on December 27, 1901, in Schoneberg, Germany. She grew up comfortably, attending a private school where she learned to speak English and French. From a young age, she went by a combined version of her first and middle names, Marlene.
Marlene clearly had a gift for music and the performing arts, and in her teen years studied to be a professional violinist. But a life spent in conservative concert halls didn’t appeal when compared to nightclubs and more glamorous haunts.
Marlene faked a hurt wrist so she could quit the violin, and instead decided to dip her toes into acting and modeling to showcase her glamorous looks, big personality and enchanting, soon to be famous, voice.
In 1921, Marlene took a step further in the direction of the stage when she started attending Max Reinhardt’s famed theatre school. She soon joined his company and by 1923 she had caught the eye of a casting director from UFA film studios named Rudolf Sieber.
Rudolf’s interest in Marlene expanded beyond the professional. It appears the attraction was mutual as the two married in 1924 and had a daughter together.
But the relationship didn’t last and Rudolf and Marlene separated in 1929, though they didn’t officially divorce till much later.
From a career perspective, 1929 was a major breakthrough year for Marlene. She starred as the lead in Germany’s first feature-length talking film called The Blue Angel, which made her an instant international star. Up until then she had been working on stage and in silent films, and hadn’t fully broken through. It was quite a risk for her to sign on to a talking picture as many of even the most famous silent actresses of the era were unsuccessful in making the switch. Marlene was different.
The director of The Blue Angel, Josef von Sternberg, went on to direct Marlene in many other movies and took her to Hollywood where she signed with Paramount Pictures.
In the 1930s, she starred in many movies, including Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, and The Devil is a Woman. She often leaned in to the femme fatale trope.
Her acting success and her distinctive sense of style made Marlene an international trendsetter. She donned trousers and other clothes typically worn almost exclusively by men at the time, normalizing more androgynous clothing choices and making them cool.
Critic Kenneth Tynan said, “She has sex, but no particular gender. She has the bearing of a man; the characters she plays love power and wear trousers. Her masculinity appeals to women and her sexuality to men.”
Marlene became a U.S. citizen in 1937 as the politics in her native country moved in a direction she couldn’t stomach. This did not go unnoticed by the Nazis.
As Adolf Hitler rose to power, it seems he hoped Marlene, a proud German, would fall into line and support his cause. She refused to do so, going so far as to say in an interview, “Hitler is an idiot.”
Because Marlene actively opposed the Nazi party, she was shunned in Germany where her movies were temporarily banned. She decided to throw her energy and support behind the Allied Forces and her adopted country instead. From 1943-1946, she made more than 500 personal appearances in front of Allied Troops to support the cause.
After the conclusion of WWII, Marlene’s successful acting career continued on stage and screen. She had an almost preternatural star quality that attracted admirers near and far and helped her retain her selling power at the box office. It didn’t hurt that Marlene was constantly in the gossip columns with reports of some exciting dalliance or another either. She was known for having many, many affairs with famous men and women of the era.
Ernest Hemingway once said of Marlene, ““If she had nothing more than her voice, she could break your heart with it.”
Still, her relationship with her fellow Germans and her home country continued to be strained. As late as a 1960 trip to Berlin, Marlene was faced with Nazi-supporters who spat on her and raised banners telling her to go home. Even 20 years later, she had yet to be forgiven for refusing them her support.
In 1987, a documentary about Marlene’s life, called “Marlene,” was released and the following year, Marlene published her autobiography.
Marlene died in 1992 in Paris, France. She was 90 years old. To this day she epitomizes glamour in popular culture, despite -- and perhaps because of -- the fact that her carefully crafted image went against the norm.
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