For five years, beginning with 1930’s “The Blue Angel” and ending with 1935’s “The Devil Is a Woman”, Marlene Dietrich had to be the most beautifully filmed actress around thanks to director Josef von Sternberg. The combination of the two led to seven films of majestic artifice, including “Morocco” (1930), “Dishonored” (1931), “Shanghai Express” (1932), “Blonde Venus” (1932), and “The Scarlet Empress” (1934). It was the ultimate pairing of Galatea and Pygmalion. That’s not to say that Sternberg created Dietrich, but it was the loving caress of his camera, the exquisite chiaroscuro, and his careful framing that accentuated all her best facial qualities and scant acting abilities. It’s something you never quite see in Dietrich’s later work, under other directors, like in Mitchell Leisen’s ridiculous “Golden Earrings” (1947) or even her bit roles, outside of Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” (1958), where she is given one of the film’s most glorious lines. Yet it was through Dietrich that Sternberg showed himself to be one of cinema’s greatest directors, where at least five of their pairings are masterpieces (“The Blue Angel”, “The Scarlet Empress”, “Morocco”, “Blonde Venus”, and “The Devil Is a Woman”). It took Sternberg’s highly controlled mise en scène to bring out her best work. In short, neither would be as remarkably remembered without the other. (Although Sternberg’s early silent films like “Underworld” (1927), “The Last Command” (1927) and “The Docks of New York” (1928) would have been enough to cement a decent, but more slight space in the film canon.)
Sternberg often filmed Dietrich in heavy top-lighting, giving her a halo glow. He would put male actors in black clothing (against her often white dresses) or cast them in shadow. Dietrich was allowed to prance and play, pucker and roll her eyes. She didn’t stare at the camera, and Sternberg never seemed to overindulge in close-ups. He lit Dietrich’s face in some scenes, then would cover it in luxurious veils and fashionable hats with dangling decor. It was more than sensuality and rolling the camera. It’s obvious he loved Dietrich in some way, because there isn’t one frame in the seven films that couldn’t be screen-captured and turned into a marvelous still photo. In some ways too, the poor sharpness of a film like “Morocco”, which can only be viewed via VHS tape or Universal’s “The Glamour Collection”, seems to add to the allure and dream-like quality of the picture. The current, unrestored image of that film is soft, giving it the appearance of watching through silk. It’s cinematic cashmere.
In “Morocco”, Dietrich falls in love with upstart ladies-man and foreign legionnaire, Tom Brown, played by Gary Cooper. She slinks across her boudoir, measuring her feel for this soldier. She mixes sensuality with confidence, but also shows a vulnerability that you don’t see in “The Blue Angel” — where she plays a cruel nightclub songstress. In “Blonde Venus”, she’s on the run with her child, as an angry husband hires a private eye to track her down. Even when she’s penniless and living hand-to-mouth with her son, Sternberg presents her stylishly, and in all the right angles. Certainly, Sternberg is one of Hollywood’s most synthetic masters, spray painting trees the color of aluminum, using studio sets to create North African locales or a Prussian palace. Adding to that fabricated background is Dietrich, masked in some way. Not always literally, like when she wears the ape suit in “Blonde Venus” or dons a ball mask in “The Devil Is a Woman”, but more figuratively. In “Morocco”, she tries in vain to hide her love. In “The Devil Is a Woman” and “The Blue Angel”, Dietrich feigns affection, hiding her true intent behind actions meant to lure weak and obsessive men.
Sternberg’s meticulous way of filming is so self-conscious in its detailed manufacturing, that it allows the audience to accept a false veneer as true. It’s one of his greatest strengths. In turn, we are dropped into this stylized world, and left to melt into its charm. We’re like the priggish Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) finding himself seduced by sight, as Lola Lola sings her songs, reveals her legs, and draws men as moths to flame. In his autobiography, Sternberg alludes to having to teach Dietrich the art of acting in some ways. And Leni Riefenstahl wrote in her autobiography that Sternberg even had to tell her to quit being vulgar on set. But that must be measured against a 1930s sensibility. And it’s also disingenuous to think Dietrich was simply like clay in Sternberg’s hands. That would be like Professor Higgins saying Eliza Doolittle’s success was all his. There’s little question that Dietrich needed direction and was more than casual about her roles, because she said as much in her 1984 audio documentary, “Marlene Dietrich: Porträt eines Mythos”. But admittedly, it was Sternberg’s delicate photographer’s eye, and his mini-dreamlands that turned her into a marvel. — David D. Robbins Jr.