Marlene Dietrich — Marlene Answers All Your Questions (1935) 🇺🇸

Marlene Dietrich — Marlene Answers All Your Questions (1935) |

April 17, 2023

I have just had twenty minutes with Marlene Dietrich.

by Ben Maddox

It took me three months to get them. But when I finally got to La Dietrich she talked as she has never talked before. So this, really, will have to be an unusual sort of story. Because the woman herself is so extraordinarily different.

An appointment with Marlene can only be made after the greatest maneuvering. Her agent sorts the sheep. So few are chosen that half a year has elapsed since she was last interviewed. I felt complimented when her agent telephoned me that he would be glad to have me interview her.

Then came one broken date after another, for three months. Finally I was told to appear at the studio. I was walked out to her dressing-room. She hadn't yet come off the set. In two minutes a large, gray Rolls-Royce drew up and out stepped a maid who expressed disappointment at her mistress' absence. A few more minutes and Marlene came walking around the corner from the sound stage.

We were left alone in her dressing-room.

She was attired in a striking black satin Spanish gown of elaborate design and over one ear she wore a red flower. But I didn't pay much attention to her costuming. I came to see Dietrich.

Sitting on a small straight chair beside her desk, she turned toward me. She was gorgeous. She has the biggest blue eyes, in which lurk a constant twinkle. There was a slight curve of merriment on her wide, lovely mouth. I suspected that she classes interviews as amusing.

Marlene isn't a terribly curious person herself. She is polite and kind. But she distinctly has enough in her own life to keep her occupied.

"You have been subjected to such a lot of criticism," I began, "that I thought you might like to give me a story on what your four years in Hollywood have meant to you. We've had everyone's opinion but yours."

She smiled a little. Just as she does on the screen. To myself I stated that they can protest all they wish about beauty being no longer a woman's major asset. See Dietrich and succumb!

Perhaps her remarkable charm is due in part to her serenity. She is still, not silent. And friendly, though not fluttery. Her voice is slow, caressingly rich in tone.

"I should not like to do the story in the first person, as if I were writing it. Somehow, that sounds conceited to me," she said.

The 'phone rang. Excusing herself, she answered it. It was a good old-fashioned instrument, not a coy French hand-piece. She uttered one word — "No." With no attempt to explain something which didn't concern me, she faced me again, waiting for me to speak.

"In what ways do you feel that you have been changed by Hollywood?"

"I do not believe I have changed, except to grow older, of course. And I have more responsibilities. There is a realization that a whole production rests on one's shoulders. But Hollywood? It doesn't do anything drastic to people. Certainly not to those who have strong personalities and firm minds of their own."

"They say that you were dowdy when you arrived. And the Trilby legend has hung on."

Marlene smiled anew. A smile of hers can reveal so much. It makes questions suddenly seem trivial banter.

"That theory that I was dowdy, a dumb German housewife-kind-of-actress is absurd. I came from metropolitan Berlin. And I brought trunks full of Parisian gowns. If you will compare photographs of me then and today, I do look better, now. But that isn't any Hollywood polish. That is the effect of time. You examine old photographs of yourself. They, too, will be quaint."

That was a long speech for Marlene. She hesitated, then continued:

"As for this Von Sternberg-Trilby chatter, it is humorous to me. Anyone with intelligence can see that I'm not hypnotized. Obviously I have something of my own behind this face. You can't put a brain into a woman's head if it isn't there already."

I wondered about her approaching split with Von Sternberg. He has announced that she will not do her next film under his direction. Apparently, she will switch to Ernst Lubitsch. This report crops up every once in a while. It has come up again at this writing. Marlene stated, "People will make much of nothing. This is the situation: I do only one picture a year. Sometimes it has taken Mr. Von Sternberg nearly a year to find a proper vehicle. He will be a long time cutting and completing this one we are finishing now. He thinks I should not wait around when he hasn't a story for me. I did the one picture away from him, with Mamoulian, only because he telephoned me from abroad and advised me to. We are not separating now. If, until he is ready for me, I find something I like I will do it for another director."

All of which blasts beforehand the mystery that is apt to arise when she works in 1935 with a different man at the helm.

"How has Hollywood changed your mode of living?" I queried.

"Not at all. My parents had money. I live as I did in Germany, except that I have to have guards here."

She has been residing in the pretentious Colleen Moore place in Bel-Air and I had heard that she had leased it for two years, indicating permanency. So I inquired about it.

"But I just rent it from month to month," she retorted. "I never tie myself down. How do I know what will happen? Where I shall want to go?"

"But you do like Hollywood?"

"Oh, yes indeed. And this is strange. I am not bothered here as so many stars claim to be. Why, I am not even recognized on the streets.

"There are too many stars for one to be a novelty. Nor do they try to disturb my home life. No one ever attempts to climb over my walls, to break into my house. A few children come and ask for autographs, but that is no nuisance. I think all this talk of lack of privacy is odd. I notice it only when I am away from Hollywood. Then everyone stares and I am scared. I am eager to get back here where it is quiet and peaceful."

Rudolph Sieber, Marlene's director husband, has decided to stay in Hollywood permanently. That is, as long as his wife is fated to remain. Their four-year separation, which was punctuated by twice-a-year visits, is thus over.

"I was only away from my little girl for the first six months I was here. I didn't bring her from Germany because I was very uncertain. I didn't know whether I was to succeed here. It was for her own good that she stayed at home until I learned. Now she is growing up to be very American. I think that personality is determined when one is very young. I was never allowed to express any emotion in my face, to show dislike for anything. That is why I couldn't act all over the set. I would be ashamed to be unrestrained. But Maria is being raised to have freedom."

Hollywood plays such jokes on ambitious women. Marlene has escaped the town's capricious whims. She has had no terrific disillusionment because she never was lured into a worship for fame.

"I always had an admiration for the screen. But I never dreamed of becoming a star," she said. "Even when I first came to Hollywood it was not the fame and the money which attracted me. I came to work with Mr. Von Sternberg."

"But doesn't the money mean a lot to you?" I probed.

"No. Half of what I earn goes for income tax. I could accumulate more in Europe. Or I could go on the radio here and make enough in a year so I should never need to work again."

"The applause, the flattery, do they please you?"

"No," she replied. "I am not proud of being a film star! I see no reason to be. Compared to important professions this, that I am doing, is so unimportant. Even in comparison to the stage this work of mine falls far short. On the stage you must struggle for years before you can advance to a lead. In pictures, stars are made overnight because of their beauty. There is a haste and a lack of dignity to film stardom. I do not mean to criticize. There are many stars here who have great talent. I merely say that from my own standpoint I am not at all proud because I have become a film star."

Such modesty had never come my way from a Hollywood lady. So I asked:

"But what makes all this worth while to you then?"

"The sheer joy of acting, of creating a characterization, of being associated with Mr. Von Sternberg."

"And," I reiterated, "have you no desire to stand on your own feet, to work with another director? A fine actress should be as fine under any guidance, shouldn't she?"

"Certainly she should. But I do not understand why I must prove I am not an automaton. As I said, if I find an interesting story I will do it with someone else. Then I shall return to Mr. Von Sternberg's direction."

"And the stage...?"

"No. I haven't command enough of English to act on the stage in this country. Perhaps some day again in Europe. As for the screen, when there are no more plots which are appealing, then I will stop.

"I have never been the kind who could mix with many people, so I have few close acquaintances in Hollywood. In Berlin I had three or four friends. Does anyone really have more? Here I go straight home from the studio. I am perfectly content to have just a few friends. I do not want any more. There isn't time. Between my home and my work I am kept busy."

"But how can you develop your personality if you don't notice what others are doing and adapt yourself in various ways to suit those others?"

"I said I thought one's personality was determined when young. I don't believe in making one's self over. I have never tried to please everyone. If it is someone I respect highly I pay attention. But I don't want to make other people over, either. And as for developing, I have never endeavored to consciously improve myself. That is confusing. I mean, of course, that I do my best to be my best. But I simply trust to life to mold my personality."

"I was becoming more and more intrigued with this amazing woman. So feminine is she, and yet so thoroughly brave in her convictions. Every article about her has been an attempt to reveal how she has been changed by Hollywood. They've missed the point. Marlene has been perfectly poised. It's the rest who have been doing the flustering.

But if her replies to my pertinent questions have astonished you, wait until you hear her sum up these four film years in America. I asked her what she considers her accomplishments to date.

"I have a child," she said, without a second's pause. There was no mention of Hollywood peaks! I must have looked startled for she then added, "And I have made a few people happy. That is all."

"But your career!" I exclaimed, so used to listening to the cinema stars chatter on and on endlessly, egotistically.

"Ah," she declared, "there is so much more in life for me. Earning the respect of the people I love, carrying out my duties to them, bringing up my child..."

You have read numberless tales about Marlene. No one had ever gone to her and frankly asked for her own explanations. I'm glad I did because now she seems not a high-hat mystery, but a normal, eager, and loyal woman. Four years have brought overwhelming changes to Hollywood. But none to the tranquil, tantalizing Dietrich.

Even if she hadn't behaved so intelligently during my twenty minutes with her, I'd have approved of her. She is so marvelously beautiful.

Do you suppose she has ever delved into Lord Chesterfield's tomes? Remember, he advised, "address yourself to the senses if you would please; dazzle the eyes, soothe and flatter the ears of mankind, engage their hearts and let their reason do its worst against you."

I am sure of few things in this perplexing world, but one of my certainties now is that none of the slams on Marlene could have been written by a man who has met her!

Mr. Arliss is back from London after completing "The Iron Duke" for Gaumont British.

Collection: Modern Screen MagazineFebruary 1935