Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Christmas Album: Marlene


The Seventeenth day of our invasion campaign into the land of Holiday's Past finds us in an unglamorous moment with Marlene Dietrich, on the edge of the Ardennes Forest in Belgium, December, 1944. Sixty-four years ago this week, the Berlin-born actress was in the midst of a tour near the front lines of the Allied invasion forces. Fortunately, she was a girl who did not scare easily. If Dietrich had been caught by the Axis, things might have gotten uncomfortable, since she was an avowed enemy of the Reich and had become an American citizen in 1939.

With great pride in her reported Prussian military ties, Miss Dietrich had refused all offers from Adolf and his flunkies to return to Germany to work at the renowned studio UFA. Despite their ardor and the blandishments they offered, Dietrich, who saw the handwriting on the Weimar walls, took her chances after bringing "Lola Lola" to life in two versions of The Blue Angel/Der Blaue Engel (1930). She chose to work in the United States with some of the best, her mentor, Von Sternberg, then Lubitsch, Mamoulian, Borzage, Wilder and others in such films as Morocco (1930), The Song of Songs (1933), The Garden of Allah (1936), Desire (1936), Destry Rides Again (1939), A Foreign Affair (1948), Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1960). Some were classics, and some were just outlandish, but the woman created an aura we will not see again, celebrating her separateness from the Hollywood herd. Even if she never quite mastered the pronunciation of her "r"s in English, she was always eager to lend her glamour to any situation that enabled her to "see what the boys in the back room will have..." Surprisingly earthy off screen, given to bursts of hausfrau enthusiasm for nurturing her many lovers and friends, even if Marlene apparently neglected her only daughter, Maria, while all this was going on.

All that fades away in retrospect today. On a lonely road through the Belgian forest, just after the battle ground to an exhausted end in January, the lady pulled up on the back of a jeep to a small bunch of American survivors on the side of the road. To their utter disbelief, Marlene Dietrich applied a bit of makeup, whipped out her musical saw, (which she played with surprising feeling), and, despite where and when they were, transported a small squad to another, more civilized and captivating time and place. Dietrich was, according to all reports, seductively funny, bawdy and artful, singing "Falling in Love Again" and the German song "Lili Marlene" in such a way that all those listening, no matter their language, understood the meaning.

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