If there was one group of people hit particularly hard by the Box Office Poison ad of 1938, it was Hollywood’s glamour icons and Marlene Dietrich was unquestionably one of the most glamorous of them all. While now regarded as being one of the most unforgettable stars of the 1930s, the film legacy of Marlene Dietrich has greatly benefited from critical re-evaluation over time.
Marlene Dietrich arrived in Hollywood in 1930 following the release of The Blue Angel to continue making movies with her director/mentor Josef von Sternberg at Paramount Studios. After arriving in America, Dietrich and von Sternberg made six more films together, most of which are celebrated by cinephiles today. However, initial critical reception to their films was something of a mixed bag.
Right out of the gate, Dietrich and von Sternberg had a smash hit with Morocco, earning Academy Award nominations for both Dietrich and von Sternberg, and breaking box office records at the Rivoli Theater in New York and Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Paramount had been making big bets that Morocco would turn their new star into a huge success and it was a gamble that paid off. Morocco‘s success at the Rivoli Theater in New York even convinced Sid Grauman to reconsider his anti-Paramount sentiment and allow Morocco to have its Hollywood premiere at the Chinese Theater, making it the first time a Paramount film would have its Hollywood opening in the Chinese Theater.
Morocco was followed by 1931’s Dishonored and 1932’s Shanghai Express. Today, Shanghai Express is regarded as one of von Sternberg’s greatest masterpieces, and while some critics at the time appreciated it, others called it a trashy, mindless adventure story and some complained that Dietrich’s posing was tiresome. A critic for Vanity Fair was downright vicious in their critique of Shanghai Express, writing, “In the early days of his career, Sternberg presented…the honest American idiom of the open attack. But soon, he was cultivated by the cult…He traded his open style for fancy play, chiefly upon the legs in silk, and buttocks in lace, of Dietrich, whom he has made a paramount slut. Sternberg is, by his own tokens, a man of meditation as well as action; but instead of contemplating the navel of Buddha his umbilical perseverance is fixed on the navel of Venus.” Despite the critics, Shanghai Express went on to become the top grossing picture of 1932.
Shanghai Express may have been able to weather the critics, but Dietrich’s subsequent collaborations with von Sternberg did not. Blond Venus, The Devil is a Woman, and The Scarlet Empress were all expensive productions that were not overwhelmingly received by audiences. 1933’s The Song of Songs, Dietrich’s first Hollywood film made without von Sternberg’s direction, also failed to take the box office by storm.
Dietrich had some success at the box office again in 1936’s Desire, but even after making her last film with von Sternberg, Dietrich continued to end up in movies that were so expensive to produce, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for them to be profitable. The Garden of Allah, released in 1936, originally had a budget of $1.6 million, but it went over budget by $370,000, which is about how much money the movie lost.
1937’s Angel would end up being the breaking point in Dietrich’s relationship with Paramount Studios. Angel paired Dietrich with director Ernst Lubitsch and Paramount had high hopes that Angel would be a prestige picture for the studio. It was not.
By the time Angel went into production, Lubitsch was stuck in the midst of battles with the studio that made it difficult for him to give movies the highly polished touch he was famous for. When he assigned writer-producer Benjamin Glazer to work on Angel, Glazer quickly walked off the project when he realized how much control Dietrich would have. Shortly after Lubitsch took the reins, Dietrich was left coping with the death of John Gilbert, who she she had been seeing at the time.
From then on, production continued to be on the stormy side and Glazer’s concerns over Dietrich’s control proved to have merit. Lawrence Langner of the New York Theater Guild visited the set of Angel and would later tell a story about how a dispute between Dietrich and Lubitsch over a hat Lubitsch wanted Dietrich to wear led to reshoots costing $95,000. (According to some sources, the hat Greta Garbo wears in Ninotchka, the movie that redeemed her reputation after the Box Office Poison ad, is a near replica of the disputed hat from Angel. However, I’ve also seen sources that say Garbo designed the Ninotchka hat herself, so it’s difficult to tell how accurate this bit of trivia is.) Making matters worse were complaints from the Hays Office over the film’s content, leading to even more costly changes.
Upon its release, Angel actually got some praise from critics, earning positive reviews from The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. However, those reviews did not help turn it into the box office darling Paramount had been hoping for. Instead, it marked the end of Dietrich’s time at Paramount with them buying out her contact for $250,000.
One of the most frustrating things about Marlene Dietrich is the fact that she often gladly bent the truth when reality didn’t fit the image she wanted to project. For a prime example of this, look no further than Maximillian Schell’s 1984 documentary Marlene. Over the course of Schell’s interviews with Dietrich, she makes a wide range of claims that include things that could easily be disproved through simple fact checking, such as her insistence that she didn’t have a sister, and statements that would later be contradicted when things she herself had written in private were made public. During the documentary, she insists that she didn’t really care about her career and never took it seriously. But when her daughter, Maria Riva, published her book about her mother in 1993, she included an excerpt of a letter Dietrich had written to her husband, Rudi Seber, after the Box Office Poison ad was published, which paints another picture:
“I have already used up too much time and money hoping that the studio would come up with something that could erase the ‘Box Office Poison’ but they have nothing to offer. I have been advised, discreetly, that they are willing to pay and forget it, but that for appearances, I must have a lawyer write to them, etc.
The $250,000 will keep us going for a while. Something will come up eventually, and then things will be all right again. I have to believe that Hemingway was right when he said that it did not happen only by Jo’s hand, that much came from inside me.
Here it is very expensive but you know the mentality of the studios. I don’t dare have the smell of ‘has been’ or even ‘out of work star.’ So, I’m spending what I have in order to appear very glamorous, when really I am lonely and bored and — to you I can admit it — frightened.”
Riva also recalled Dietrich making a phone call to Seber, during which she made statements along the lines of:
“Papi, we are leaving America. They say they can’t sell Dietrich films anymore. Those idiots, all idiots, of course, they can’t sell them…because they are bad — nothing to do with Dietrich. Even Garbo is on that list. The pop-eyed one, that is possible, who wants to pay money to look at her — but Hepburn? Yes, she is named, too. Not to be believed!”
“The pop-eyed one” mentioned in Riva’s recollection of this phone call seems to refer to Bette Davis, who Riva cites as being included in the Box Office Poison list. While this is inaccurate, I am willing to believe that Dietrich did privately express those general sentiments about the list.
After the failure of Angel, Dietrich packed up her dressing room at Paramount, left Hollywood behind, and set sail for a European vacation. In her book, Riva stated that, “Once in New York, my mother enjoyed herself enormously. Being ‘Box Office Poison’ might damage her fame in the ‘nickel-and-dime’ people category, but could not influence the rarefied circles she preferred to move in.”
As tumultuous as this time was for Dietrich’s career, it was effectively the beginning of one of the most significant chapters of it. She certainly had options available to her, but one potential career pathway was one that was completely out of the question.
Back in her home in her home country of Germany, Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels, the head of Nazi propaganda, desperately wanted her to come back and start appearing in German films again. Goebbels promised her that if she returned to Germany, she could be the queen of German cinema. Since Dietrich despised the Nazis, and had even been actively helping people fleeing the Nazis to get out of Europe, she refused. Instead, she started Americanizing her image, much like Greta Garbo had done after the publication of the Box Office Poison ad.
During her trip to Europe, she received an offer from Joe Pasternak to come work for Universal for a significantly lower salary than she had been receiving from Paramount. While initially reluctant to accept the offer, Josef Von Sternberg encouraged her to do it, telling her, “I made you into a goddess. Now show them you have feet of clay.” It proved to be a good career move, as her first movie at Universal was 1939’s Destry Rides Again co-starring Jimmy Stewart. Not only was it a box office success, it helped her reshape her public image.
While Destry helped revive her film career, it wouldn’t be long before Dietrich chose to use her stardom to serve a greater purpose. When the U.S. became involved in World War II, she quickly threw her time and energy into supporting the war effort. She had become an American citizen in 1939 and was actively involved in selling war bonds, volunteering at the Hollywood Canteen, and performing for Allied troops fighting overseas. She put her life in serious jeopardy by doing shows in places that brought her close to active combat areas. Billy Wilder later remarked that Dietrich spent more time at the front line than Eisenhower. In addition to her live shows, she also recorded songs as part of the Musak Project, which were intended to have a demoralizing effect on enemy troops. In recognition of her service, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1947. Dietrich considered her wartime work to be the proudest achievement of her career.
Once the war was over, she made a few significant films, such as Stage Fright, A Foreign Affair, and Witness for the Prosecution. However, films became a less important part of her career than they had been before the war. Instead, she focused more energy on being a touring performer. She began doing live shows in 1953 and continued taking her show on the road until 1975 when she was injured after falling off of a stage. After making her final film appearance in 1979’s Just a Gigolo, she retired from public life to live in her Paris apartment.