Five Unmissable Marlene Dietrich Films
The joy of programming a season of Marlene Dietrich films is that she’s wonderful in everything – she had such electric charisma. But I had to whittle my list of favorite Dietrich performances down to just a few key films for the season. Because while you’ll never go wrong with a Dietrich movie, some of her roles are simply unmissable. Here are a few highlights from the BFI Southbank season, Marlene Dietrich: Falling in Love Again, which opens in December 2020.
1) The Blue Angel (1930)
This is the film that made Marlene Dietrich an international star, an early talkie directed by the man who would become her most important collaborator, Josef von Sternberg. Dietrich plays Lola Lola, the captivating cabaret singer with legs to die for, who enthralls Emil Jannings’ weak schoolteacher. It’s a compelling story of sex, obsession and life’s cruelty, adapted from the novel Professor Unrat by Heinrich Mann. Almost every character Dietrich ever played has a touch of Lola.
2) Shanghai Express (1932)
Dietrich’s fourth film with Von Sternberg and their third in Hollywood. She plays the notorious Shanghai Lily (“The notorious white flower of China. You heard of me, and you always believed what you heard”), who boards a train across China with her companion Hui Fei, played by Anna May Wong. Clive Brook plays the handsome face from her past who stirs up a lake of romantic regret. Dietrich is perfectly lit by Von Sternberg and cinematographer Lee Garmes, and decadently dressed by Travis Banton – every image of her in this film is indecently sublime.
3) Destry Rides Again (1939)
In which the divine love goddess reveals her human side. Playing saloon singer Frenchy in this boisterous comedy western opposite James Stewart (as the fastidious Destry) gave Dietrich the comeback role she needed after being labelled “box-office poison” in the late 1930s. She sings (‘See What the Boys in the Back Room Will have’), she flirts, and she even indulges in an epic bar-room brawl. In doing so, Dietrich unlocked an ability to gently spoof her own carefully constructed persona, while still retaining the glamorous allure her fans adored.
4) A Foreign Affair (1948)
Dietrich had spent the war years raising funds for the US war effort by selling war bonds, raising the morale of Allied troops in her USO tours and dishing out hot dinners in the Hollywood Canteen. In this bittersweet comedy by Billy Wilder, she returns to her native Berlin to play a cabaret singer suspected of having Nazi connections. The film is a kind of Ninotchka in reverse, as Dietrich’s imperious Erika loosens the collar of Jean Arthur’s uptight US Congresswoman. And don’t miss Dietrich’s spine-tingling performance of the song ‘Illusions’.
5) Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
The first time I saw Dietrich on screen must have been watching this Agatha Christie adaptation on TV as a child, and it’s a role that is impossible to forget. This film was Christie’s favorite screen adaptation of her work, and director Wilder kept the surprise ending a secret even from most of the cast. A challenge, certainly for a star whose face and voice were her fortune, but Dietrich rose to it. So much so that she was devastated not to receive as Oscar nomination for this magnificent performance.
— Pamela Hutchinson for Classic Movie Hub
An Exclusive Offer especially for Classic Movie Hub fans in the UK – when ordering movie tickets for the Marlene Dietrich: Falling in Love Again event, use coupon code DIETRICH to purchase your movie ticket for just £8.20.
The BFI is the UK’s lead organization for film, television and the moving image. This December, BFI Southbank celebrates one of the screen’s most enduring icons with a new season Marlene Dietrich: Falling in Love Again, programmed by film critic and writer Pamela Hutchinson. You can follow British Film Institute on twitter at @BFI.
Photos courtesy of BFI.