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Feature: My Momentary Celebrity Obsession–Marlene Dietrich

I cannot get enough of Marlene Dietrich. She stands out in cinematic history not only because of her talent but because of her unique look, her wise collaborations and a bewildering sexiness.

The German actress got her start in short silent flicks in that country and worked on the stage as well, with her long legs getting much attention. People often think her first picture was The Blue Angel, but that suggestion, created by Dietrich herself, was either one meant to add to her legend or a misinterpretation (she might have meant her first movie that mattered).

She was married and had a child while becoming a big deal in the German cinemas, and it was her performance in The Blue Angel that led Hollywood to seek her and her corresponding director, Joseph von Sternberg. The duo made seven films together for Paramount in their early years in America, most of them stellar pieces of art (see Shanghai Express, Morocco, The Scarlet Empress).

Von Sternberg knew how to physically use Dietrich to the best extent, and she too learned that angling her face upward while lit from directly above cast the best shadows that turned her face into an eye-catching enigma. Part of the false Dietrich legend suggests she had her face surgically altered on arrival to Hollywood to make her cheekbones more prominent. Those cheekbones are part of the look that screams sexy for a face that otherwise does not suggest a great beauty.

Dietrich’s move to America came well before that of her family. Although she never divorced her husband, they spent most of their marriage separated.

The actress’ sultry German accent and (frankly) bit of a speech impediment never hindered her in playing wildly diverse roles. She appeared in a couple westerns and played a gypsy in Touch of Evil.

Dietrich could play in comedies, and make fun of herself, but she was at her best in dramas. An abundance of strong scripts helped to pave her career with magnificent pictures, many of which will never be forgotten.

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Shanghai Express

Ring a Ding Ding

Shanghai Express (1932)

When Joseph Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich came together to make a movie, it in nearly all cases would place the heroine in an exotic setting. Von Sternberg, who was responsible for bringing Dietrich to Hollywood through the German production The Blue Angel, nearly recreates the woman’s character in that film –Lola Lola– through the one in Shanghai Express –Shanghai Lily. Dietrich was a far cry from the actress she would become when she made this the fourth collaboration with her director Von Sternberg. The man had put it upon himself to mold the Dietrich he found in Germany into a woman he held in his mind’s eye, and succeed he did. Dietrich’s performance here is full of the sultry seduction burlesque singer/dancer Lola Lola embodied with the same teasing air.

Shanghai Lily –whose real name is Magdalen (nearly the Magdalene that was Marlene’s real middle name)– is among the passengers taking the Shanghai Express train from Peking. She is the notorious white prostitute who sent many a man to ruin. Also on the train is her ex-lover Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook) a medical officer in the English military. The two loved each other before many a man turned the woman into Shanghai Lily. The feelings remain between them but Harvey is angry not only because of why they split but because of what his woman became. Lily has also made a fast friend of a Chinese hooker Hui Fei (Anna May Wong) and repelled an older English woman worried about her dog in the baggage car and a doctor of religious philosophy.

The train is traversing war-stricken China and is initially stopped and inspected for a rebel spy. The man is apprehended and the train moves on but is halted at another stop after a character aboard the train, Mr. Chang (Warner Oland), alerts his rebel pals of the trouble. Chang holds the train hostage while demanding the rebel previously removed be released. Harvey is identified as the most valuable passenger as he is expected to perform surgery on an important Englishman as soon as the train reaches its destination. Agreements are reached but Chang plans to gouge out Harvey’s eyes because he blocked the rebel from having his way with Lily. Shanghai Lily sacrifices herself to save the man she loves but it is likely Harvey will never know what she did for him.

The plot of Shanghai Express is riveting. The dialogue is great and the performances superb for the most part. Unfortunately, Dietrich’s delivery of about half her lines comes out contrived. She spouts off compelling words with seemingly no emotion behind them as if Von Sternberg instructed her as to how to say them and she did so but without any conviction behind them. Some critics praised this unemphasized manner of speaking, but for me it comes off as bad acting. That’s not to say Dietrich is not thrilling to watch. Von Sternberg has created a chiaroscuro dream land through his use of lighting and smoke. Dietrich is featured in what seem to be almost still photographs throughout the picture as she poses in incredibly artistic ways, as indicated in the stills I’ve included here.

Although Lily and Lola Lola share some characteristics, the Dietrich here is, as I mentioned, far from the one who would perform in films not directed by Von Sternberg in years to come. Her wide-eyed darting glances make her look young and secretive and her voice is at a higher octave than the register she would use to growl out lines later on. To see her this young, however, is stunning in and of itself. Her face is so beautiful and Von Sternberg’s lighting of it so impactful that Shanghai Express could be viewed without sound and still be a wonderful picture.

  • Shanghai Express is set for 2 a.m. ET Sept. 26 and 10 p.m. ET Nov. 14 on TCM.

Source: Marlene Dietrich (Applause Legends Series) by Alexander Walker

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