Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Marlene Dietrich Forever

Marlene Dietrich, Hollywood legend (born 27 December 1901)

Several years ago, one of my students stopped by my office to talk about a topic for a paper she was working on. We were reading Renaissance drama, and she was excited by the "cross-dressed heroines" that appeared in several plays. She was connecting the plays we were reading with a play she knew, Shakespeare's As You Like It, and was shocked by the issues of sex, gender, sexuality, and desire that these plays were raising (we had read Lyly's Galatea, Jonson's Epicoene, and, for a real twist, Margaret Cavendish's The Convent of Pleasure).

A "cross-dressed" Dietrich in
My student was struggling with ideas that weren't exactly new--feminist, gender, and queer theorists and critics have been reading these early-modern "transvestite heroines" for several decades--but they were new to her, and that was the point. She was struggling to sort out her insights and ideas and what exactly she wanted to say. 

She was excited and that made me excited--and after an hour or so of great conversation, as she was picking up all her texts, she pointed to a poster I had hanging in my office. "I've been meaning to ask," she said. "Who's that, anyway?"

That was a picture of Marlene Dietrich, one of the great screen presences. I was stunned that this bright, articulate, and very well read student didn't recognize Marlene Dietrich.

Well, to be honest, it's not that she didn't recognize Dietrich, she just had no idea who it was at all. 

I probably went on and on (okay, I did go on and on), but I suggested that, if she had a Netflix subscription, she make sure to put the 1930 film Morocco at the top of her queue--it had a great scene with a cross-dressed heroine . . .  

I don't remember much about the literature paper my student wrote, but I do remember that she watched that Dietrich film! And then went on to watch all the Dietrich that she could find . . . 

A glorious still from Shanghai Express
There are great online sites if you don't know Dietrich, or don't know as much about her as you'd like. So I'm linking here to the official Marlene Dietrich website, which doesn't try to sell you stuff and seems to be associated with the estate.* There is all kinds of biographical information there. I'll also link you here to the New York Times obituary, which also gives you good biographical information, and here to the entry for Dietrich on the Turner Classic Movies website.

Mostly, though, the best way to know Marlene Dietrich is by her films! Definitely watch Morocco, but I'd also recommend Shanghai Express--which also features the brilliant Anna May Wong--and the truly bizarre Blonde Venus. And you might also enjoy The Scarlet Empress, with Dietrich as Catherine the Great . . . 

And one of my favorites is a film from very late in her career, 1957's Witness for the Prosecution. I watch it almost every time I find it on the TCM schedule, and it never fails to mesmerize me. 

Finally, I love Dietrich as a singer. Here's "Falling in Love Again" from a 1972 television special--this woman was in her seventies, people! (There are many performances from her long career posted on YouTube. They are occasionally removed, I am assuming for copyright reasons. If the link I've provided here doesn't work, just search YouTube, and you'll find many, many Marlene Dietrich songs, some recorded during live performances, others from her recordings.)

Update (June 2017): The National Portrait Gallery (Washington, D. C.) is hosting an exhibition, "Marlene Dietrich: Dressed for the Image," open from 16 June 2017 to 15 April 2018--focusing on Dietrich's androgyny and the way she "challenged strictly limited notions of femininity." For more details, click here.

*Update, 27 December 2021: This link seems to be no longer working, and I have not been able to find the new online address for this "official" Marlene Dietrich website. I've left the link, hoping the site may be back at some point.