Partnership supreme: Dietrich & von Sternberg

  • by Tavo Amador
  • Wednesday October 17, 2018
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Although movies are often called a director's medium, they're a collaborative art, requiring cameramen, editors, writers, cinematographers, lighting technicians, set and costume designers, composers, and performers. Among the most celebrated collaborations are between directors and actors. Among them are George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn; Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant; John Ford and John Wayne. The most distinctive was between Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Their six pictures remain visually stunning, erotic, romantic, and atmospheric. They indelibly shaped Dietrich's image. Criterion has issued those films in a definitive Blu-Ray collection.

The Viennese von Sternberg (nee Josef Stern) (1895-1969) spent much of his youth in New York. He was a well-established director when, in 1929, Germany's UFA Studios invited him to Berlin to make a movie from Heinrich Mann's (Thomas' brother) novel "Professor Unrat" ("Professor Garbage"). Emil Jannings, the first Best Actor Oscar winner, would star as the respectable professor who debases himself for love of Lola Lola, a cabaret entertainer. Several actresses, including Leni Riefenstahl, were tested. None seemed right.

Then von Sternberg saw the Berlin-born Dietrich (1901-92) in "Two Bow Ties," a musical in which she sang suggestively and showed her sensational legs. She was his Lola Lola. She had been in about 17 movies since 1923, and had appeared in cabaret, revues, and plays without attaining stardom. In her celebrated nightclub and concert acts of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, however, Dietrich insisted she had been "a student in a theatre school" when von Sternberg "discovered" her. Her version prevailed until admiring researchers unearthed the truth.

Filmed in German and English, the movie was Germany's first talking picture. Von Sternberg toned down Jannings' overacting while encouraging Dietrich's underplaying. Her indifferent sexual wantonness was new. Realizing she was stealing the movie, he renamed it "The Blue Angel." Jannings, however, was billed solo above the title. The film and Dietrich were a sensation.

At von Sternberg's urging, Paramount signed Dietrich to a long-term contract. The pair then traveled to "Morocco" (1930). Dietrich played Amy Jolly, a cabaret singer living by her wits who is smitten with legionnaire Tom Brown (an Apollo-like Gary Cooper). In a famous scene, a tuxedo-wearing Amy kisses a woman on the lips, then tosses a rose to Tom. Later, she sings, "What am I bid for my apples?" before accepting Tom's offer. Their romance is complicated. Only Dietrich could make the ending believable. Von Sternberg's evocation of Morocco is extraordinary. This film hinted at Dietrich's bisexuality and established her androgynous allure. Released in America before "The Blue Angel," it made her a star, earning her a Best Actress Oscar nomination, her only one. Von Sternberg photographed her better than in "The Blue Angel." He would perfect lighting her in their subsequent pictures, in which she is slimmer and more beautiful.

"Morocco" and "The Blue Angel" were hits. Paramount publicized Dietrich as a rival to MGM's Greta Garbo. Although they claimed never to have met, in "The Girls" Diana McLellan convincingly argues that they had appeared together in 1926's "The Joyless Street" and may have had an affair. In any case, Garbo's screen image was that of a romantic fatalist, while Dietrich's was detached and ironic. Garbo was "Mata Hari" (1931), so Paramount cast Dietrich as a fictional Austrian WWI spy who is "Dishonored." She betrays her country for love of a Russian. As the firing squad prepares to shoot, she coolly applies her lipstick.

They next rode the "Shanghai Express" (1932). Again, von Sternberg's visual re-creation of China dazzles. Dietrich is the notorious Shanghai Lily, traveling to Beijing during a period of civil unrest. She casually explains to old flame and fellow passenger Clive Brook that "It took more than one man to change my name to 'Shanghai Lily.'" With Anna May Wong in a pivotal role and Warner Oland, who later played Charlie Chan in films. This was their biggest financial success and is regarded as their best movie.

Dietrich next was a "Blonde Venus" (1932), a dedicated wife and mother forced to use her cabaret talents to pay for her husband's (Herbert Marshall's) expensive, life-saving medical treatments. Wealthy Cary Grant supplements her income. When her husband learns of her infidelity, he demands custody of their son (Dickie Moore). Dietrich flees with the boy. Eventually the truth of her noble sacrifice is revealed. In a gorilla outfit that she later removes, Dietrich sings "Hot Voodoo." She also appears in white tie and tails to sing suggestively. The film failed at the box-office.

Dietrich starred in Rueben Mamoulian's "Song of Songs," (1933) before reuniting with von Sternberg to play Catharine the Great in 1934's "The Scarlet Empress." She looks sensational. The film is visually stunning, with lavish sets and exquisite costumes. Handsome John Lodge is Count Alexis, Catharine's lover who helps her seize the throne. Dietrich hints at being a dominatrix in their sado-masochist relationship. Her real-life daughter Maria plays Catharine as a child. Despite the outstanding production values and von Sternberg's expert direction, the film failed commercially. Paramount was worried.

The studio tried again, sending the pair to Spain to prove "The Devil Is a Woman" (1935). It was Dietrich's favorite because she felt she never looked more beautiful. Set in 1890s Seville, Dietrich is an unlikely Concha Perez, a temptress who fascinates handsome Antonio (Cesar Romero) and nearly destroys his friend, Don Pascual's (Lionel Atwill). The pacing is slow and the ending absurd, but the film looks glorious, and if Dietrich is not convincing as a Spaniard, she's very entertaining. The Spanish government objected to the portrayal of the characters and asked Paramount to withdraw the film from circulation. Despite that free, titillating publicity, it flopped. This was the last collaboration between Von Sternberg and Dietrich. He made only a few more movies. She, however, continued starring in films until the 1960s. Galatea outlasted Pygmalion.