The “Femme Fatale” segment on NoirWhale.com is designed to highlight the life and merits of exceptional film noir actresses. These women are the embodiment of the femme fatale archetype, and propel possibly the most recognizable and integral theme in the noir genre.
“Darling, the legs aren’t so beautiful, I just know what to do with them.”
Born Marie Magdalene Dietrich on December 27th 1901, this German-American Actress rose to become one of the most prominent women in the history of show business. Her lifetime spanned both World Wars, and she personally felt the impact of the turbulent era, losing both her father and step-father at an extremely young age. As a teenager, she studied poetry, theatre, and the violin though her dreams of becoming a violinist were shattered by an unfortunate wrist injury.
“She was nicknamed “Lena” and “Lene” (pronounced Lay-neh) within the family. Around the age of 11, she contracted her two first names to form the then-novel name of “Marlene”.”
Her first appearances on the stage were as a chorus girl in vaudeville-style shows. Eventually she landed a part in the 1922 film: So sind die Männer (The Little Napoleon), but it wasn’t anything earth shaking. A year later she married Rudolf Sieber, and bore her only child the year after that; a daughter, named Marie Elisabeth Sieber. Throughout the remainder of the 1920’s Dietrich continued to land roles on both the stage and film in Berlin.
1929 saw the starlet’s breakthrough. She played the role of the cabaret singer Lola-Lola in the film The Blue Angel. Riding the wave of the film’s success, Marlene relocated to Hollywood, CA on a contract with Paramount Pictures. Her first American Film, Morocco, saw her cast again as a cabaret singer and was considered greatly provocative for the era because at one point in the film she wears a man’s white neck-tie and kisses another woman. The role earned her an Oscar Nom for “Best Actress in a Leading Role”. She didn’t win.
Dietrich went on to star in some of the most cinematically beautiful films in history, including: Dishonored (1931), Blonde Venus (1932), Shanghai Express (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil is a Woman (1935).
In the late 1930’s while Marlene was in London, she was approached by official representatives of the Nazi party. They desired her to return to Germany as the foremost film star of the Third Reich. Dietrich refused their lucrative offer and applied for U.S. Citizenship. She was awarded it in 1939.
Throughout World Ward II Marlene was a staunch anti-Nazi and was rarely matched in her efforts to raise war bonds.
From the early 1950s to the mid 1970s Dietrich became a famous cabaret performer, headlining her own “one-woman” show. She was in great demand worldwide throughout the time period and became well known for her top-hat and tails costume. Here are a few fun facts:
Her daringly sheer “nude dress” — a heavily beaded evening gown of silk soufflé, which gave the illusion of transparency — designed by Jean Louis, attracted a lot of publicity
Dietrich employed Burt Bacharach as her musical arranger starting in the mid-1950s; together they refined her nightclub act into a more ambitious theatrical one-woman show with an expanded repertoire. Bacharach’s arrangements helped to disguise Dietrich’s limited vocal range – she was a contralto – and allowed her to perform her songs to maximum dramatic effect.
She would often perform the first part of her show in one of her body-hugging dresses and a swansdown coat, and change to top-hat and tails for the second half of the performance. This allowed her to sing songs usually associated with male singers.
Late in her life, Marlene’s health took a turn. She suffered from Cervical Cancer and poor circulation in her legs. The discomfort led her to be dangerously reliant on painkillers and alcohol. In 1975 she tragically broke her leg during a stage performance in Australia, ending her career. A year later her husband Rudolf succumbed to cancer.
Marlene Dietrich eventually died of renal failure in Paris in 1992. She was 90 years old.
Her personal life was largely hidden from the public view, but she was a bisexual who participated in the gay/drag scene frequently. She also carried on numerous affairs with famous contemporaries; among them: Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Erich Maria Remarque, Jean Gabin, Mercedes de Acosta, Yul Brynner, John Wayne, George Bernard Shaw, and John F. Kennedy. Although raised Protestant, she said that she lost her faith during World War II. She said, “If God exists, he needs to review his plan.”
She is an irreplaceable femme fatale figure in the world of film noir. Her iconic image has influenced generations of actresses in the genre across the world.
In 1999, the American Film Institute named Dietrich the ninth-greatest female star of all time.
“Glamour is what I sell, it’s my stock in trade.”
A scandalous tale:
At age 60, Marlene Dietrich was summoned to the White House by President Kennedy and was received in his private quarters. Seduction was inevitable, and she helped him remove the wrapping that supported his fragile back. Afterwards the president asked Dietrich if she had ever slept with his father. She said no, and the president was delighted to have “gotten somewhere first before the old man could”. -The Academy Awards: The Complete History of Oscar
*All biographical information was snagged from:
*Quotes were snagged from: