Few names hold as much weight as that of Marlene Dietrich. She is one of the actresses who absolutely defines classic glamour and talent, on stage and on film.
Born on December 27, 1901 in Schoneberg, Germany (now a district of Berlin), Marie Magdalene Dietrich first found success as a chorus girl. Her German film debut followed in 1922.
The big break that turned her from successful German actress to international star came when she appeared as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel (1930).
The worldwide success of this film led Dietrich to a contract with Paramount Pictures. Though her career had a few pitfalls, Dietrich’s talent for reinvention led to a comeback in 1939’s Destry Rides Again.
She continued to sporadically make films until a final role in 1978, also performing on stage (often as a concert performer rather than an actress) throughout the same period.
In addition to her entertainment career, Dietrich is remembered for outspokenly participating in the war effort in the 1940s.
Dietrich passed away in 1992 at the age of 90 and remains one of the most beloved actresses of Hollywood’s golden age, though she seems to have despised her fame and became somewhat reclusive near the end of her life.
First film of hers that I saw:
I discovered Marlene Dietrich when I watched Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), in which she portrays Frau Bertholt. This film has the definition of an all-star cast. Dietrich, Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland, and Monty Clift are among the most impressive talents at work.
Judgment at Nuremberg is a pretty great historical courtroom drama, focusing on the American trials of four Nazi judges who allegedly partook in “cleansing” efforts during the war.
Dietrich portrays the widow of a German general who was executed by the Allied forces. She is befriended by American judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy), who is attempting to gain more perspectives on the war.
This film was one of Dietrich’s final roles and marked her return to the screen after three years of not making a single film. She gives a fantastic supporting performance.
Morocco (1930) – Stars alongside Gary Cooper as Mademoiselle Amy Jolly, who falls in love with Cooper’s Legionnaire Tom Brown, but their relationship isn’t perfect. It turns out that Tom is quite the womanizer, and there’s another man who would like to catch Amy’s attention as well. If memory serves, this was Dietrich’s debut film in Hollywood and she didn’t speak much English at the time of production. The fact that she was able to overcome that language barrier and give an Oscar-nominated performance is quite a feat!
The Blue Angel (1930) – Dietrich found international fame after her role as Lola Lola in this film, alongside Emil Jannings. She portrays a nightclub singer who seduces a professor, kicking off a downward spiral for the man.
The Devil is a Woman (1935) – Stars alongside Lionel Atwill and Edward Everett Horton in a story told through flashbacks. Dietrich is Concha Perez, a woman who serves as the object of affection for two men but is also the cause of their frustration. Dietrich loved this film and kept a personal copy in a vault, fearing that it would be lost otherwise. It is because of her personal copy that the film exists on DVD today. She was very right to be proud of it: she completely dominates the film and plays very well against both of her leading men.
Witness for the Prosecution (1957) – Stars alongside Tyrone Power in this mystery/drama based on an Agatha Christie play. Her character this time around is Christine Vole, a wife stuck in a tangled marriage. The icing on the cake is that her husband is going on trial for murder. All of the performances in this film are fantastic, but Dietrich’s is at the top of the crop.
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Judgment at Nuremberg
The Devil is a Woman
Witness for the Prosecution
The Blue Angel
*Images used in this post are credited to Doctor Macro’s High Quality Movie Scans