Marlene was the first to admit that her onscreen image was a creation of her own and that of director Josef von Sternberg. Imported by Paramount Pictures in 1930 (the execs wanted their own Garbo to make MGM sweat a little at the box office), Marlene had made The Blue Angel in English as well as German to capitalize on the scandalous subject matter. But it was Marlene’s androgynous appeal to women as well as men that made her a huge crossover star in America. Arguably, the German-born actress was as beautiful as goddess Garbo with one distinct difference. Marlene’s sex appeal was derived from her self-effacing sense of humor. If Garbo’s love was tragic – Dietrich’s love was sardonic.
Marlene called herself the “ersatz-Garbo”. She didn’t like being compared to the Swedish Sphinx and her film roles reflected that fact. Plus, Marlene was more than just a movie goddess: she could sing and dance with the best of them. When she arrived in Hollywood the studio tried to make her sign a morality clause in her contract. America was coming off the hangover of Prohibition and Hollywood didn’t want their stars private lives to overshadow their on-screen creations. No doubt Marlene’s proclivity for bedding as many women as men (she traveled with her lover as well as her broad-thinking husband) gave the studio suits fits of worry and they thought they could control her with money. Little did they know how smart and strong Marlene could be.
Marlene may have been a creation of her favorite director/collaborator von Sternberg, but when it came to her career she took no chances. As soon as she could, she assumed control of her movies by becoming one of the first female producers in Hollywood. Now she had a say both on camera and off about the script, costumes, locations and, most importantly, what the censors cut and what she fought to keep in her films. In 1934, the tide changed in Hollywood and the code came into full effect. Only stars of Marlene and Garbo’s stature could fight for the best roles – often times their own studio bosses would try and tame them, watering down the storylines until there was little or no value left in them. Garbo would ultimately throw in the towel and retire in 1941. But Marlene’s star would rise even higher in the wasteland of World War II.
Dietrich was as strong as she was beautiful. When Hitler commanded her to return to Germany at the outbreak of hostilities – Marlene not only told him where to get off, she did everything in her power to aide the Allies. She was a fixture of War Bond fundraisers overseas. She entertained the troops at USO shows with song and dance (her fabulous legs were insured for a million dollars) and spoke passionately about democracy and her love for America, her adopted country). Marlene truly came into her own during and after the war – and her fans loved her all the more for it. She was like a blonde Venus rising from the catastrophic aftermath of her birth countries bid to rule the world. And she was a shining example of a woman who fought for freedom as hard as any man – and won on her own terms.