Observe his flame,
That placid dame,
The moon’s Celestial Highness;
There’s not a trace
Upon her face
Of diffidence or shyness:
She borrows light
That, through the night,
Mankind may all acclaim her!
And, truth to tell,
She lights up well,
So, I, for one, don’t blame her!

– W.S. Gilbert.

Hats

They can be great fun. And it is true that they can put a woman in a good mood. Anyone who laughs at the fact just knows nothing about the finer point of woman’s capacity for survival.

– Marlene Dietrich’s ABC.

Was that knowingness the product of her mind, the vision of an audience, or the light laid on her skin by Josef von Sternberg?

– David Thomson.

On page seventy-six of Daniel Blum’s A Pictorial History of the Talkies, a cinecopial meta-text I’ve been poring over since I was ten, there are two consummate images of female beauty. One, top right, shows Greta Garbo, in all her MGM glory, in medium shot, flanked by a dashingly young Frederic March, attending some outdoors event, in Clarence Brown’s 1935 film version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The other, bottom centre, is a medium long shot of Marlene Dietrich, at the peak of her Paramount period, autonomously alone, standing in front of a swank-looking sofa, in Josef von Sternberg’s final collaboration with her, the sublimely titled The Devil Is a Woman (also 1935).

In the manner that distilled surfaces can sometimes reveal certain depths, even truths, so too does this pair of pictorial icons from the leaves of an illustrated “coffee-table book”, point not only to distinctly different styles of movie-star acting, but also to entirely separate ways of being in, and out of, the world. Just as the choice between, say, Gluck and Mozart, Manet and Lautrec, Joni Mitchell and k.d. lang (if, indeed, we were forced to have to make such impossibly aesthetic decisions) is virtually a philosophical one, the vote, here, is similarly weighty, similarly loaded. Do you opt for Greta’s tenderly tentative smile or for Marlene’s gaily, gallant grin? Sacrifice instead of survival? Substance over stylization? Grave poise above gaudy pose?

Garbo’s Anna, in sheer, silky crinoline and matching sun hat, seems to be muttering, “Behold my transcendently beautiful, romantic suffering!” Meanwhile, Dietrich’s Concha Perez, swathed in mountainous acres of glimmering lace, over a sinuously hip-hugging gown, complemented by a frivolously fluffy parasol and one really major headpiece, appears to be confiding, “Will you get a load of this outfit!” The singular creation that caps her regally highlighted dome radiates out like an aureole, a perfectly fitting crown for this Queen of Irony, this Mistress of Obliquity, this Directrix of the Indirect, this most supremely ambivalent of celluloid angels.

Where these two filmic femmes fatales, the Nordic Sphinx and the Prussian Siren, diverge is precisely the region, in which, superficially, they both converge, namely the ways in which each of them orchestrate distance and emotional reserve. For Garbo, it’s a matter of above-it-all-ness, a transportively self-effacing flight of ethereal ejection, a kind of saintly abandonment. The wind-swept macro close-up at the climax of Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933) and the soul-drained expiry that finishes George Cukor’s Camille (1937) are legendary examples of this particular cine-diva’s unique ability to move into auto-transfixing freeze-frame, a form of gloomily glamorous withdrawal. With Dietrich, the aloof not-being-there is, somehow, always reinforced by a sensually palpable being-there. She’s inside the diegetic action as much as she’s outside it, a talent she possibly shares only with the stoically elegant likes of Buster Keaton and Fred Astaire. Add to this absence of presence and presence of absence a genuinely bemused, practically winking attitude toward anything sexual and you’ve got exactly what the boys in the backroom, and the girls in the back-row, will gladly have again and again. Attitudinally speaking, the myth that Dietrich never ever even met Garbo certainly ought to be true, as is the gossip that, amongst her best “bosom buddies” were Claudette Colbert and (but of course) Mae West.

Literally part and parcel of Dietrich’s engagingly uncommitted persona is the fact that most of her really memorable roles have been “travelling ladies” or female characters on the move, in transit, employed as cabaret artists or actresses on tour. Women whose very jobs are about playing a part and constantly having to change. No other major Hollywood star, with the exception of perhaps Humphrey Bogart, consistently portrayed the existentially enigmatic, psychic wanderer as indelibly as La Dietrich. Gypsies, tramps and thieves make up her repertoire of “charming, alarming, blonde women”, to quote but one of the languidly sardonic songs she shouts and growls, in her first big international hit, Sternberg’s squalidly compelling tale of obsessive love, The Blue Angel/Der Blaue Engel (1930). Far from being “other-worldly”, Marlene D., though actually of Teutonic origins, is “every-worldly”, coming and going anywhere her celluloid identity pleases. When, for real-life, professional reasons, Dietrich decided to tour the globe as a whistle-stopping, concert performer the spell she cast proved irresistibly apt. Here she unbelievably was, the triumphantly artificial, continually self-reinventing star incarnate, the gorgeously bedecked, gravel-voiced troubadour, her own shimmering one-person carnival, of spectacular, body enhancing outfits, shimmering jewellery and mammoth, endlessly trailing furs.

Whether she’s a slightly fleshly flapper vamp in Alexander Korda’s German silent, A Modern Du Barry/Eine Dubarry von Heute (1926), or the man-devouring “naughty Lola, the wisest girl on earth” in The Blue Angel or a sophisticated Broadway entertainer in Mitchell Leisen’s The Lady Is Willing (1942) or the compromised, disillusioned, singing-and-dancing embodiment of post-WW2 Berlin, selling her jaded “goods” in Billy Wilder’s still underrated black comedy, A Foreign Affair (1948), Dietrich dazzles us with that proverbial “infinite sameness”, that ineffable mark of the eternal iron-ist, the distant-yet-near, travelling star. Long may her light shine on!

About The Author

Peter Kemp is a writer, broadcaster and lecturer in cinema studies in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University.