Marlene Dietrich — Master or Slave? (1932) 🇺🇸

Marlene Dietrich |

February 14, 2022

Is she the victim of an ambitious man or is she, rather, a clever woman who uses a very different method to get what she wants?

by Arthur Williams

With the solid success of “Shanghai Express” behind her, Hollywood is beginning to look at Marlene Dietrich with different eyes.

What is this woman who flashing from obscurity — with the benefit of one of the world’s finest advertising campaigns — reached the heights in a single picture?

She came into pictures, admittedly trading on the lure of another actress, Garbo. Even today with “Morocco,” “The Blue Angel,” “Dishonored” and “Shanghai Express” — all box-office successes registered by her — she still is Garbo-compared. Many thousands say they like her better than Greta. More thousands say they like Greta better than her. But Garbo always comes into the Dietrich story somewhere — Garbo and von Sternberg.

And that is what Hollywood is asking today — what would Dietrich be like if she weren’t directed to ape Garbo and also what would she be like if she were directed by any other person than von Sternberg?

Which is she — von Sternberg’s puppet, who has no personality of her own, or a wise and wily woman who has used a man to climb to the place she coveted?

Let’s consider von Sternberg and Dietrich as individuals. They’re vastly different — yet the difference can be expressed in the slight phonetic difference between the words “egoism” and “egotism.”

Marlene is an ego-ist. Which means she is not a deliberate self-exalter, but is, rather, subconsciously controlled by the belief that everything else is subordinate to the fact of her own existence, and the furtherance of her aims.

von Sternberg, on the other hand, is an ego-tist. He is a deliberate self-exalter. In thought, speech, actions he intentionally builds up the structure of his own importance. “The way to succeed,” he once said, “is to be hated.” So he has taught Hollywood to hate him. Like many other men of small stature (he is shorter than Marlene!), he has been able to rise by sheer, colossal selfish arrogance.

Until, in Germany, von Sternberg beheld Marlene in a stage play, cast her in “The Blue Angel,” brought her to America, and made her famous, however, Josef himself didn’t really amount to any great shakes in the movie world. Oh, he made magnificently artistic pictures, and as such, he could be called a great director.

But Art, in Hollywood, is subordinate to Box Office.

“Art,” once said a famous producer, “is any picture that grosses a million dollars.” And von Sternberg’s pictures didn’t gross millions, no matter how artistic they were. So von Sternberg, genius though he undoubtedly is, was headed for not-so-much in Hollywood, for directors whose pictures don’t make money don’t get places.

Then he went to Germany and found Marlene, who until that time had been very obscure. Nobody else saw much talent in her. He must have realized that what his Art needed was a dash of what he believed Marlene could give it. He made a picture with her and Jannings — “The Blue Angel” — and it was both Art and Box Office, and the movie moguls sat up and realized von Sternberg could now make them money — if he could repeat. Josef knew he could — with Marlene. And Marlene demonstrated her canniness, her astuteness, her intelligence by realizing that on von Sternberg’s genius she could ride to the top. And probably not at all without him.

So Marlene, the egoist who believes nothing important save self, followed not von Sternberg the man but von Sternberg the master to America. Behind her she left her husband, her baby — and also her love. For whisper what you may, Marlene does not love Josef von Sternberg. You have only to watch them when they are together to know that.

Once in America, von Sternberg began creating today’s Dietrich. Even in “The Blue Angel” under his direction in Germany she was not the woman she is today. She was all raw sex then, fuzzy-haired, buxom, and if you will pardon me, more than a little vulgar. It was a vital vulgarity. It attracted you even while it might shock you. But it was a long way from what we Americans demand — glamour. In America von Sternberg began giving Dietrich glamour.

Not the smallest thing escaped his attention, and he has an eagle eye. The way Dietrich walked, the way she stood, the way she did her hair, the very way she said “yes” — and she said “yes” some five hundred times before it satisfied him enough to record it on the sound track — were all von Sternberg’s doings.

Marlene wins credit there. She was a willing and an eager pupil. All her childhood background of complete German obedience stood her in good stead. She listened. She worked. And she obeyed. And Hollywood began whispering that it was a regular Svengali-Trilby affair, that the poor girl was under the spell of a man stronger than herself.

But now Hollywood is wondering. It seems now less like Svengali and Trilby than it does like Frankenstein and his creation. von Sternberg has created the glamorous Dietrich and she has grown greater than he. She is now in a position to turn against him and the signs are that she may do that very thing at any moment — that she certainly will do that very thing if she feels it is to her advantage.

Sternberg, by nature, is a deeply sensitive creature. His arrogance is merely the shell which protects him against an inferiority complex’s pains. There have been manifestations, already, of the hurt Dietrich can cause him — and it’s not at all improbable that Dietrich may have caused that hurt intentionally. For she does not love von Sternberg, and when he goes too far with her, she may strike back. Look:

Marlene’s true nature is bubbly, gay, laughing, merry. von Sternberg’s is the opposite — dark, heavy, saturnine, deep-mental. So, willing to pay the master his demands, she puts herself in sympathy with his mood when he is present.

When he works, von Sternberg is a fiend for work. He does not reckon time, effort, or pain. So when he demands twenty or thirty time-killing, nerve-wrecking, body-torturing retakes on 200-foot close-ups (they run some two minutes each), Marlene pays the master his demands — sits for them, suffers his browbeating, suffers bodily and mental torture, and does not complain.

But — when Sternberg one day on the set openly criticised her for what he believed was overeating — too much tummy, to be utterly frank! — he hurt the woman Marlene. And the woman struck back. She walked off the set. flashing woman’s first weapon — tears. von Sternberg went into a panic — a panic that was seen by his co-workers, and commented on. Marlene went further. For ten days, she snubbed von Sternberg. Those were the ten days during which she was seen with Maurice Chevalier. In the Paramount studio cafe, she lunched with Chevalier — and they laughed, and joked, and giggled, and gazed into each other’s eyes. And out of the corner of her own eyes, Marlene might have seen Josef von Sternberg at a nearby table, with a little-touched dish of food before him, the picture of — shall we say distress, or jealousy or what?

Then, when she apparently thought he had been sufficiently punished, she stopped lunching with Chevalier ; stopped laughing, smiling, giggling with the Frenchman; went back to von Sternberg’s table, and the dark, moody, quiet, unsmiling luncheons they have together.

One other time when Dietrich hurt von Sternberg is amusing — and indicative, too. That was the day von Sternberg appeared on the set, without warning, with his moustache shaved off. Marlene looked amazed for a moment — and then laughed. Laughed at Josef!! They say that never has von Sternberg been more the martinet on the set than he was the rest of that day — and that’s something!

von Sternberg won’t discuss the ethics of directing with anyone. He directs according to his way, gets hated for it, and doesn’t care what people say. At least, he says he doesn’t care. If they’re sure nobody’ll tell on them, his co-workers on the set will tell you that his arrogance, his bitter bawl-outs of others, constitute nothing more than “a big act.” But he is a martinet — and demands strict obedience from everybody — even featured actors. Everything must be done his way, and others’ ideas are scorned. He even utters lines the way he wants them spoken — and his players, no matter how big their names, must speak them parrot-like after him. Not their ideas, but his, must go into the sound-track. And when he is annoyed or vexed, his satire and spleen are fiery. No player, assistant, will risk a bawling-out from him more than once.

Dietrich comes in for her share of these bawlings out. Mostly, they are spoken in German. When she feels they are justified, she does not resent them. When they help her learn what she wants from Josef, she suffers then. Only when he tells her that her tummy’s getting too big, does she flare up. And then Sternberg suffers.

Well — let’s get back to cases. It is this egotism that’s going to hurt von Sternberg, when and if. Because he is so hated, he has virtually no friends. Dietrich, subordinating herself to the master, is his only confidante, intimate. To carry her and himself where he wants to go, von Sternberg has bought a $17,000 imported car; it flatters his vanity. He has an amateur movie camera — spends countless feet of film, shooting Marlene, shooting Marlene’s daughter. On location, it is with Marlene that he lunches — and the spread is like a German picnic luncheon. He brings sausages and such things in a private hamper for just the two of them. When he is not with Marlene, it is a safe bet von Sternberg is alone.

Marlene now tells interviewers she wants to go back home, and back to her husband. If she does that, Marlene will have learned much of von Sternberg’s genius; she will be the better actress, the more glamorous woman.

But von Sternberg — he has been too egotistically busy teaching, molding Dietrich, to have learned.

When she is gone, he will have lost the thing that made his pictures successes. When she is gone, he will have lost the person to whom he turned in Hollywood, on whom he depended for companionship, for that love that has all the semblance of being only the reflection of his own egotism, for it is a love for the thing he himself created.

von Sternberg — where and what will he be without Dietrich?

Dietrich, where will she be without von Sternberg?

Will she be a famous actress, mistress of many screen arts and tricks she has learned from von Sternberg; will there be bright, wide, open roads ahead of her to choose?

Or will she be quite lost? Is she the slave or is she the master?

Personally I’m ready to bet she is no slave, and never has been.

Dietrich is more beautiful than ever in “Shanghai Express,” though her famous legs are at no time visible.

von Sternberg was called an artist before he discovered Dietrich, but until then he had never been a success.

Never has an actress been blessed with such close-ups as those which flatter Dietrich the glamorous in “Shanghai Express”

The Marlene of “The Blue Angel” was all raw sex appeal. von Sternberg has taught her glamour.

Source: Movie Mirror Magazine, May 1932