Marlene Dietrich

Box Office Poison: Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich

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.

Marlene Dietrich in Morocco

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.

Marlene Dietrich Shanghai Express

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.

Marlene Dietrich and Melvyn Douglas in Angel (1937)

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.

Marlene Dietrich and Jimmy Stewart in Destry Rides Again

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.

Marlene Dietrich with Allied Troops in WWII

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.

A Foreign Affair (1948)

A Foreign Affair 1948

In the aftermath of World War II, American Congresswoman Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur) is sent to Germany to evaluate the morale of American troops still in the area. When she arrives, she comes bearing a homemade chocolate cake for Captain John Pringle (John Lund), a gift from his fiancee. Before long, she’s being whisked off on a tour of the city, during which she’s appalled to see American servicemen cavorting with German women. In fact, when she’s mistaken for a German woman by a couple of  American servicemen, they take her out for drinks at a club where singer Erika von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich) is performing.

While at the club, Phoebe learns that Erika was reportedly the girlfriend of a prominent Nazi leader who is now being protected by her American soldier boyfriend. She also sees a very familiar-looking cake being passed around the club. Unbeknownst to her, John is Erika’s secret boyfriend and he had traded his cake on the black market for a new mattress for her. Once Phoebe is able to prove Erika had ties to Nazi officials, she orders Erika’s apartment to be monitored constantly to find out who her boyfriend is and, still oblivious to who the person responsible is, assigns John to the task.

Following an awkward encounter outside of Erika’s apartment, in which she confronts John for keeping her waiting while Phoebe watches on, Phoebe drags John along to look up files on Erika. To prevent her from finding Erika’s files, John tries to convince Phoebe he’s in love with her. When he kisses her, she really does fall in love with him and John, still willing to protect Erika, even agrees to marry Phoebe to prevent her from investigating. Meanwhile, Colonel Rufus J. Plummer (Millard Mitchell) is aware of John’s relationship with Erika and wants him to keep seeing her in the hopes she will lead them to other Nazi officials.

From a historical standpoint, A Foreign Affair an absolutely fascinating movie to watch. It’s a movie dealing with Nazis and post-WWII Germany that was written and directed by a man who left Germany when the Nazi Party rose to power, stars an actress who despised the Nazis so much she renounced her German citizenship. It’s a role Dietrich absolutely despised, given how her character’s willingness to associate with known Nazis was in direct conflict with her own views. In fact, there’s a scene where Dietrich wears a gown she wore while performing for American troops during the war. It’s also a movie that was released shortly after the end of the war and was actually filmed in Berlin.

Even without the historical significance, it’s simply a good movie. A Foreign Affair is pure, unadulterated Billy Wilder — full of biting wit, razor-sharp dialogue, and a good amount of cynicism. In addition to Billy Wilder’s brilliant writing and direction, Jean Arthur is perfect as the uptight and repressed Phoebe. Although Dietrich hated this role, she worked very well with Billy Wilder and over 10 years later, he’d direct her again in one of her best performances in Witness for the Prosecution. It’s just a wonderful film. I’ve yet to be completely disappointed by a Billy Wilder movie.

The Devil is a Woman 1935

The Devil is a Woman (1935)

When Antonio Galvan (Cesar Romero) arrives in Spain during Carnival week, he sees Concha Perez (Marlene Dietrich) passing by in a parade and is instantly captivated by her beauty. They make plans to meet later that night, but before their date, Antonio meets with his friend, Don Pasqual (Lionel Atwill). Antonio eagerly tells Pasqual all about the new woman in his life, but Pasqual warns Antonio to stay far, far away from the notorious Concha.

Pasqual was once in love with Concha himself and it ruined his life. When he first met her, she was working in a cigarette factory and he gave her the money she needed to quit her job. But after he proposed to her, she sent him a letter telling him she never wanted to see him again. But it isn’t long before she’s back, swearing that she loves him and looking for more money, but she still won’t marry him. Some time later, Pasqual finds her again while she’s working as a singer in a nightclub. He still loves her, but she’s been seeing a bullfighter, a fact that angers Pasqual to the point that he beats her up for it. Despite that, he buys her out of her contract at the night club so she can be with him, but once again, she leaves him.

Although Antonio promises to stay away from Concha, he goes to see her for the sake of getting revenge, but can’t resist her charms. Pasqual arrives and finds them together, and challenges him to a duel.

The Devil is a Woman is the last movie Marlene Dietrich made with director Josef von Sternberg and it was Dietrich’s personal favorite of her own films.   It’s not my favorite of the Dietrich/von Sternberg movies, but I can easily see why Dietrich was so fond of it; von Sternberg pulled out all the stops for it. The Devil is a Woman is a decadent feast for the eyes, full of lively and rich sets, stunning cinematography, fabulous costumes, and Dietrich being absurdly glamorous. Dietrich spent virtually her entire career being the epitome of Hollywood glamour and The Devil is a Woman is easily one of her most glamorous films. The general plot is nothing remarkable, but purely worth watching for von Sternberg’s direction and Dietrich’s commanding presence. Even though Dietrich’s performance had moments of being pure, unadulterated camp, there’s no denying she could command attention.

Pre-Code Essentials: Blonde Venus (1932)

 Blonde Venus Marlene Dietrich Cary Grant

Plot

Helen Faraday (Marlene Dietrich) gives up being a showgirl to marry American scientist Ned (Herbert Marshall) and become a housewife and mother to their son Johnny (Dickie Moore). But when Ned comes down with radiation poisoning and needs to get treatment in Germany, she goes back to the stage to get the money they need. She performs under the name “The Blonde Venus” and during her first night as a performer, she gets the attention of millionaire Nick Townsend (Cary Grant), who comes backstage to see her. He gives Helen the money for Ned’s treatment and she keeps Ned in the dark about how she got the money.  While Ned is away, Nick continues to woo Helen.

When Ned returns earlier than expected from Germany, Helen is off gallivanting with Nick, but it doesn’t take long for Ned to figure out what’s been going on. He wants Helen out of his life and threatens to take her to court to get custody of Johnny. She loves Johnny too much to let that happen, so she grabs him and goes on the run. She makes her way from town to town, resorting to prostitution to get by, with the police hot on her trail all along the way. Eventually, Helen turns herself in and lets Johnny go back to Ned. A

fter sinking to an even lower depth, Helen pulls herself up and becomes a hugely successful nightclub performer. Her new career reunites her with Nick and it isn’t long before they’re engaged. But Nick knows how much Helen misses Johnny and he wants Helen to be able to see her son again, even if it means reuniting her with Ned.


My Thoughts

Blonde Venus is one of my favorite Marlene Dietrich movies and my favorite of the Dietrich/Josef von Sternberg collaborations. I love how Dietrich gets to be the impeccably glamorous character we all know as, but as much as I love glamorous Dietrich, I also love seeing her in her drab housewife clothes. Dickie Moore was an adorable addition to the movie and I’m always up for seeing Cary Grant. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly entertaining.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

The movie opens with women swimming in the nude.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Yesterday, I talked a bit about why Midnight Mary was a great example of a “fallen woman” type of movie and Blonde Venus is another excellent fallen woman tale. But unlike Mary from Midnight Mary, who is consistently a sympathetic and likable character, Helen isn’t nearly as innocent. She’s a married woman who starts spending all her time cavorting with a wealthy playboy while her husband is away getting medical treatment. But like Mary, Helen also ends up with an optimistic ending and Helen is the type of character a lot of censors didn’t want to have a happy ending.

Morocco (1930)

Morocco 1930When nightclub singer Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich) arrives in Morocco, she’s already lived and loved a lot and it’s left her exhausted.  The last thing she wants is to fall in love and be hurt yet again.  But when she spots Legionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) in the audience during one of her performances, she can’t resist him.  She gives him a key to her place and he comes to visit her.  As they get to know each other, Amy really takes a liking to Tom, but is still hesitant to get too involved.

Before meeting Amy, Tom had a reputation for being quite the ladies man.  He had even been carrying on an affair with his superior officer Caesare’s (Ullrich Haupt) wife, but broke things off with her to be with Amy.  However, Caesare knew what had been going on and sends Tom on a mission that could very well cost him his life.

Before Tom leaves on his mission, he overhears Amy rejecting a proposal from Kennington La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou).  Kennington is a rich man and can offer Amy so many things that Tom simply cannot.  Even though he loves Amy, he believes she would be better off with Kennington and decides to take himself out of the picture.  While he is gone, Amy agrees to marry Kennington. But when she finds out Tom is back in town, reportedly injured, she can’t help but rush to be with him.  Recognizing who Amy really loves and wanting her to be happy, Kennington even gives her a ride to see him.

The critical consensus for Morocco seems to be that it’s one of the best movies Josef von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich.  Although I do like Morocco, it’s not one of my personal favorite Dietrich movies.  As far as the von Sternberg collaborations go, I prefer The Blue Angel and Blonde VenusMorocco just leaves me a little bit cold.  Dietrich herself is divine; she has such a commanding screen presence and she can work a tuxedo like nobody else.  The exotic locale is perfect for von Sternberg’s style.  The story just doesn’t pull me all the way in, though.

Fashion in Film: Berets

If you’re like me, you often find yourself watching films and seeing tons of fashion styles you would love to wear in real life.  I watch movies from so many decades and from so many different genres, if I actually did copy all the styles I like, I’d have one diverse wardrobe.  But if there’s one accessory you could easily get a lot of mileage out of, it’s a beret.  Berets have been a popular hat style for decades, so if you want to go for a Norma Shearer inspired look one day and a Faye Dunaway inspired look the next, a beret could easily work for both styles.

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Dishonored (1931)

After the death of her husband, Amy Kolverer (Marlene Dietrich) turns to walking the streets to support herself.  One night, she encounters a man who gives her the chance to become a spy on behalf of Vienna. The government is looking to get some information on Colonel von Hindau (Warner Oland), who they believe has been feeding information to the Russian Colonel Kranau (Victor McLaglen).  They know a woman would be much more likely to get the information they need than a male agent.  Amy accepts the offer and becomes known simply as X27.

Amy manages to find both von Hindau and Kranau at a masquerade ball and that night, she not only gets the information she needs from von Hidnau, she corners him so well that he would rather commit suicide than surrender to her.  She immediately goes to work on Kranau, but Kranau isn’t about to go down as easily as von Hindau.  First, he escapes from her when she approaches him in a nightclub.  Then he sneaks into her apartment and finds her spy orders.

When Amy goes to Poland to carry out her next mission, she gets the information she needs by posing as a maid and coding her findings as a music composition.  But then Kranau finds her, destroys the music she’s written, and threatens to have her executed.  For her last request, Amy asks to spend the night with Kranau, and he agrees to it. But then Amy drugs his wine, escapes, and reveals all of her findings to the Austrian government, which leads to several Russian officials being arrested, including Kranau.  Amy gets permission to interrogate Kranau privately and allows him to escape.  This is the end of the line for Amy and she is executed for treason.

Of all the Dietrich/von Sternberg collaborations, I feel like Dishonored is the most under-appreciated of the bunch.  Perhaps the fact that it was only recently released on DVD for the first time has something to do with that. But now that it’s more available, hopefully more people will rediscover it because it’s really worth a look.  It’s not the best of their teamings, but it’s very interesting. I prefer Dishonored over Garbo’s Mata Hari.

I was not a fan of Victor McLaglen at all in this, but the teaming of Dietrich and von Sternberg absolutely can’t be beat.  First of all, you have got to see Dishonored if only to see Dietrich meowing like a cat.  No, seriously. There is a scene in this movie of Marlene Dietrich meowing and it is hilarious.  Marlene seemed to enjoy playing Amy and it’s a lot of fun to just watch her work.

Marlene Dietrich’s image, especially when she was working with Josef von Sternberg, was always extremely polished.  She was always lit to perfection, quick witted, and exceptionally glamorous, never a strand of hair out of place. So I was very fascinated by the fact that in Dishonored, there are moments when von Sternberg let her not be seen as supernaturally perfect. Early in the movie, there’s a scene where Marie walks into her apartment and takes off her elaborate hat and veil to reveal her very mussed hair underneath. I absolutely loved that moment, it was just so not how we typically picture Dietrich.  Later in the movie, when Marie is posing as a maid, not only does she wear very minimal make-up and an unflattering hairstyle, she acts pretty silly, too. Before seeing Dishonored, if you had told me that there was a Marlene Dietrich movie that involved a scene of her wearing little make-up and meowing, I probably would have laughed. But, believe it or not, it actually does happen here.