German-born Marlene Dietrich is Turner Classic Movies last “Summer Under the Stars” star of 2011. Today, TCM is showing 12 Marlene Dietrich movies, in addition to J. David Riva’s 2001 documentary Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song. Riva, I should add, is the son of Maria Riva and Dietrich’s grandson. (See Marlene Dietrich Movie Schedule further below.)
Unfortunately, TCM isn’t presenting any Marlene Dietrich movie premieres today. In other words, no Dietrich opposite David Bowie in Just a Gigolo, or Dietrich next to Jean Gabin in Martin Roumagnac / The Room Upstairs, or any of Dietrich’s little-known German-made silents, e.g., Ich küsse Ihre Hand, Madame / I Kiss Your Hand, Madame; Das Schiff der verlorenen Menschen / The Ship of Lost Men; and Gefahren der Brautzeit / Dangers of the Engagement. None of the silents are exactly what I’d call good movies – nor is Just a Gigolo – but they all are worth a look if only because Dietrich is in them.
Another option for a future Dietrich Day on TCM is Maximilian Schell’s Oscar-nominated 1984 documentary Marlene. In that highly praised effort, only Dietrich’s voice is heard (she refused to appear on camera) answering questions about her life and career.
Right now, TCM is showing Josef von Sternberg’s moody melodrama Shanghai Express (1932), in which Dietrich plays a classy, shapely legged sex worker known as Shanghai Lily (photo) – no relation to Mae West’s Diamond Lil, Julie Andrews’ Darling Lili, or the Lili Marlene of song.
Shanghai Lily is the kind of role Greta Garbo would have played (in a less detached manner) at MGM: an Old World dame, wise about sex and the ways of men – but still carrying an old flame burning deep inside her. In Shanghai Lily’s case, the flame inexplicably burns for chilly Clive Brook; in other words, don’t expect sparks to fly between the two. Perhaps that’s why Anna May Wong steals the show as Dietrich’s fellow woman-of-the-world and train passenger – one who conveniently knows how to put a knife to good use.
The masterful Lee Garmes was Shanghai Express’ cinematographer. Garmes had previously worked wonders for Dietrich in two other von Sternberg films: Morocco (1930) and Dishonored (1931), in which we get to see Dietrich without her trademark make-up – and thus looking like another woman altogether.
Next on TCM is von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934), which some consider the best von Sternberg-Dietrich effort. In this period drama, Dietrich plays the future Catherine the Great, a German princess who marries the weakling Russian Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe) and eventually becomes the Empress of All Russias after having sex with men of every single Russia and satellite states.
Despite the focus on Dietrich, some have felt that The Scarlet Empress was stolen by veteran Louise Dresser’s Empress Elizabeth Petrovna. Dresser, along with Gloria Swanson and Janet Gaynor, was a Best Actress nominee (for A Ship Comes In) in the first year of the Academy Awards.
The highly stylized The Devil Is a Woman (1935) flopped miserably at the North American box office and thus became the final von Sternberg-Dietrich collaboration. John Dos Passos wrote the adaptation from Pierre Louÿs’ novel The Woman and the Puppet. Also worth noting, The Devil Is a Woman turned out to be Dos Passos’ sole writing credit for a narrative feature film. Dietrich’s fellow players are Lionel Atwill (what an odd pairing), Cesar Romero, and Don Alvarado.
Raoul Walsh’s unpretentious Manpower (1941) is a surprisingly entertaining drama about a love triangle featuring good-time gal Marlene Dietrich and unlikely partners Edward G. Robinson and George Raft.
As an ex-Nazi chanteuse/black marketer (photo), Dietrich nearly steals the show in Billy Wilder’s post-war Berlin-set A Foreign Affair (1948); I say nearly because Jean Arthur is Dietrich’s equal as the goody-goody American congresswoman who learns that goody-goodiness may take you far at work (at least in the movies) but not in life.
In the hands of someone like Ernst Lubitsch, A Foreign Affair would have been a humorously romantic masterpiece, cleverly and subtly interweaving the personal, the social, and the political. As it is, the comedy works great whenever Arthur and Dietrich are on-screen; else, A Foreign Affair suffers from Wilder’s heavy hand; lapses in judgment in Wilder, Charles Brackett, and Richard L. Breen’s (Oscar-nominated) screenplay; and the miscasting of leading man John Lund (was Ray Milland unavailable?) and chief supporting player Millard Mitchell in a role made to order for Melvyn Douglas.
The movie that turned Marlene Dietrich into a star and earned her a ticket to Hollywood, von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) – filmed in both English and German – stars Emil Jannings as a stern German professor who becomes madly obsessed with cabaret singer Lola Lola. As the double Lola, Dietrich gets sing “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It),” but despite assumptions to the contrary never does she sing “Lili Marleen” (or “Lili Marlene [Dietrich]”) in this gloomy drama. She couldn’t have, as the song was published only in the late ’30s. (Dietrich does sing “Lili Marlene” in Stanley Kramer’s 1961 drama Judgment at Nuremberg.)
As an aside: Jannings was the very first Best Actor Academy Award winner, taking home – quite literally back to Germany – the Academy’s golden statuette for two movies: the now-lost The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command. Jannings kept himself busy making movies throughout the Nazi era, the best known of which remains Hans Steinhoff’s Ohm Krüger / Uncle Kruger, winner of the Mussolini Cup for Best Foreign Film at the 1941 Venice Film Festival. Following the end of World War II, he was accused of being a Nazi collaborator, a charge he vehemently denied. Jannings was barred from working and succumbed to cancer in 1950.
Marlene Dietrich movies: From The Scarlet Empress to The Monte Carlo Story
Marlene Dietrich movie schedule (ET) and synopses from the TCM website:
6:00 AM THE MONTE CARLO STORY (1957) Two compulsive gamblers fall in love on the French Riviera. Dir.: Samuel A. Taylor. Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Vittorio De Sica, Arthur O’Connell. Color. 101 min. Letterbox Format.
7:45 AM KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR (1937) A British spy tries to get a countess out of the new Soviet Union. Dir.: Jacques Feyder. Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Robert Donat, Irene Van Brugh. Black and white. 107 min.
9:45 AM THE LADY IS WILLING (1942) A Broadway star has to find a husband so she can adopt an abandoned child. Dir.: Mitchell Leisen. Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Fred MacMurray, Aline MacMahon. Black and white. 91 min.
11:30 AM KISMET (1944) In the classic Arabian Nights tale king of the beggars enters high society to help his daughter marry a handsome prince. Dir.: William Dieterle. Cast: Ronald Colman, Marlene Dietrich, James Craig. Color. 100 min.
1:15 PM STAGE FRIGHT (1950) An acting student goes undercover to prove a singing star killed her husband. Dir.: Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding, Alastair Sim, Richard Todd, Sybil Thorndike, Kay Walsh. Black and white. 110 min.
4:45 PM MARLENE DIETRICH: HER OWN SONG (2001) Documentary, directed by Dietrich’s grandson, that reveals the passionate artist and political activist beneath the star’s glamorous facade. Interviews with Rosemary Clooney and Burt Bacharach. Dir.: J David Riva. Cast: Burt Bacharach, Rosemary Clooney. Color. 101 min. Letterbox Format.
6:30 PM SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932). Dir.: Josef von Sternberg. Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Anna May Wong, Warner Oland. Black and white. 82 min.
8:00 PM THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934) A young innocent masters the decadent ways of Imperial Russia in order to reign as Catherine the Great. Dir.: Josef von Sternberg. Cast: Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe, Louise Dresser, C. Aubrey Smith, Gavin Gordon. Black and white. 105 min.
10:00 PM THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN (1935). Dir.: Josef von Sternberg. Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Lionel Atwill, Edward Everett Horton, Cesar Romero, Don Alvarado. Black and white. 79 min.
11:30 PM MANPOWER (1941). Dir.: Raoul Walsh. Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Marlene Dietrich, George Raft. Black and white. 103 min.
1:30 AM A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948). Dir.: Billy Wilder. Cast: Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, John Lund, Millard Mitchell. Black and white. 112 min.
3:30 AM THE BLUE ANGEL (1930) A stodgy professor falls from grace when he’s seduced by a nightclub singer. Dir.: Josef von Sternberg. Cast: Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich, Kurt Gerron. Black and white. 107 min.
Turner Classic Movies website.