Marlene Dietrich was blonde eye candy in lumpen German movies of the 1920s, but she didn't become a real star until the talkies introduced her distinctive, heavy accent. The American director Josef von Sternberg
cast her as the trampily glamorous singer Lola Lola in Der Blaue Engel (1930) (The Blue Angel) and established her screen persona as a devastating woman who ensnares and ruins an older man. Exuding earlthy sexuality, she sprawls casually en deshabille and delivers songs in her imitable, but trademarked, husky voice.
Von Sternberg put Dietrich under contract, took her to Hollywood, then crafted exquisite, bizarre vehicles for her, often stressing her ambiguous sexuality. In male evening dress as another cabaret performer, she kisses a woman on the lips in Morocco (1930) - for which she received her only Academy Award
nomination. The Dietrich of von sternberg's American films is more fantastical than Lola Lola: the tawdry sparkle of the Blue Angel club gives way to exotic imaginings of the Far East (Shanghai Express, 1932) or Old Russia (The Scarlet Empress, 1934). Lasting cult movies, these films were too sophisticated for an America falling for Shirley Temple
and tended to flop.
After The Devil Is a Woman (1935), Dietrich broke with von Sternberg. Destry Rides Again (1939), her canny comeback, successfully reinvented Lola Lola for U.S. consumption and modified her image - now, she tended to play a brawling showgirl/harlot who sins (and sings) in style but is redeemed (often taking a bullet for the hero so he can marry the "good girl") at the end. Sadly, the humor of Destry was too often left out of the mix, and most of Dietrich's 1940s films are unremarkable. Thereafter, she worked rarely - stiff for Alfred Hitchcock
(Stage Fright, 1950) but with some of the old sparkle for Billy Wilder
(A Foreign Affair, 1948; Witness for the Prosecution, 1957) and Fritz Lang
(Rancho Notorious, 1952). Her best cameo was as the gypsy clairvoyant ("You don't have a future - it's all used up") in Orson Welles
's Touch of Evil (1958). Dietrich's career ended when she broke her leg onstage in 1975; she spent her last years bedridden in her Paris apartment.
Marlene Dietrich had great personal magnetism and attracted moviegoers and her costars alike. She was renowned for her love affairs, with both men and women, and was romantically linked to costars, such as Yul Brynner, as well as some high-profile names, including Frank Sinatra
and John F. Kennedy. The great love of her life was said to be French actor Jean Bagin. Rather than damaging her career, the romances seemed to fuel the androgynous star's popularity. She was married to Rudolf Sieber from 1924 to 1976; the couple lived apart for all but five years of their marriage but stayed friends.