Marlene Dietrich was not like other stars of Hollywood. Between her diva-like professional demands, her freewheeling personal life, and her sexy gender-bending style, she was what we now call an ‘instant icon’. For example, she became the highest-paid actress in Hollywood despite never having made a Hollywood movie. She gave detailed instructions to directors of Welles’ and Hitchcock’s stature on how she wanted to be filmed. And she barely bothered pretending to lead a normal life offscreen. It hardly mattered, beyond all that, that her talents were relatively negligible. The only role she really knew how to play was herself, and it was enough. It certainly wasn’t uncommon; many Hollywood stars based their entire careers on their ability to loosely embody an archetype rather than any passion or talent for acting. Dietrich’s singing career outlived her acting by decades, and her recordings might indeed prove to be more enduring than most of her films. Dietrich was, by any technical standards, a poor singer. She had a deep, husky voice and no high range at all. At a time when popular music was extremely bland and singers were expected to sound as pretty as they looked, Dietrich predated the modern idea that a strongly individual delivery and a compelling persona could be more important than technical proficiency. She performed with her personality, conveying a sense of ironic detachment, languid glamour, a sly sense of humor, and whole lot of sexual oomph. Her songs were very frequently risque, and even the conventionally romantic ones feel disruptive. Dietrich makes no pretense of being the kind of a gal who would actually pine for a guy who stood her up; romantic pining is a joke to her. She was well known for always juggling a handful of lovers of both genders, assured that if one left there would be a line of eager replacements standing behind. The sense of knowing irony that she brought to the torch songs she sang was her real musical talent, and it was ahead of her time – as she was in so many aspects of her life.
Leave it to Marlene Dietrich, one of the naughtiest dames of the silver screen, to make a song about abstinence and fidelity sound like such a perverse dream. It’s not so much a promise to remain faithful; judging from that purr, it’s more of a promise to deliver every fantasy, when the time comes. No one would believe that Dietrich was the type to sit with her ankles crossed while her man went off to war, even if we didn’t already know that she very categorically was not. She never did have much use for monogamy, and when it came to war, she was the first to race to the front lines. She never pretended to be very wholesome for the public either. She pushed the boundaries of innuendo as much as she could in her constricted day. A song that would be, in anyone else’s rendition, a typically saccharine self-abnegating love song is from her a tease and a rebuke, a groan of barely veiled sexual frustration.
Marlene Dietrich’s signature song. Others have done it, but it belongs to Dietrich. As she recounts in the video, this was one of the tunes she sang when she risked her life entertaining Allied troops during WWII. Dietrich became the first woman to receive a Medal of Freedom for her efforts during the war. She did indeed spend the war years crisscrossing Europe and the Pacific to perform for troops, sometimes coming within mere miles of active frontlines. Having left Germany for Hollywood in 1930, she turned down Hitler’s personal invitation to come home and instead became an American citizen and one of the most prominent and outspoken anti-Nazis in Hollywood. Besides her work entertaining and selling war bonds, she was enlisted by the OSS to take part in a secret project that aimed to use music as a propaganda tool. Lili Marlene was one of the songs she recorded for that mission, both in English and German renditions. How the same tune was supposed to moralize Allied soldiers while de-moralizing the Axis, I don’t know, nor do I know if the musical propaganda project had any effect or was just a shot in the dark. Dietrich’s personal appearances certainly had the desired effect of raising morale, though. She sold more bonds and logged more miles than any other star. It must have pained her to reject her birthplace so completely and take up the flag for a new homeland, but she felt very strongly that it was right. She had staunchly opposed Nazism from the very beginning and refused to make the compromises that many other artists made in order to continue surviving in an increasingly oppressive atmosphere. She would not take the cushy but morally bankrupt place as a state-approved public figure that her peer and rival Leni Riefenstahl took. She was a woman far ahead of her time in every respect, not least in her choice of where to place her loyalties.
Merry Christmas and here for you is the inimitable Marlene Dietrich with one of her signature slightly naughty chansons. It’s lovely and romantic this time, which should cheer your heart on this most joyous of holidays.
(Photo by Milton H. Greene)
And the award for Most Depressing Old Pop Song goes to Marlene Dietrich. If such a thing did exist, Dietrich would have a cabinet full of them (right next to the liquor). Sunshine and lollipops she was not. There have been plenty of stars who hid kinky personal lives underneath a wholesome image, but Dietrich never made that pretense. That’s not to say that she wasn’t a classy person who kept her life as private as possible. She created an image that hinted at dark and sexy secrets, which was not at odds with her personality, unlike many stars who were shepherded into portraying an image they didn’t even relate to. Singing some of the raunchiest and/or darkest songs that could slip past the Hayes Code was part of that.
Marlene Dietrich was a very naughty lady. She was way ahead of her time, and it was not a well-kept secret that she explored life to the fullest, so to say. Her aura of decadence was her appeal. She was not much as a singer, in technical terms, but her songs remain priceless. Many of them are frankly filthy, barely disguised by euphemism. In this case, feel safe in assuming that when she speaks of love it’s not holding hands and pancake breakfasts she’s thinking of. It’s slightly shocking; we don’t associate the 1930’s with blatancy like this. Blatant racism, for sure. Blatant sexuality, not so much. Here, for instance, she practically announces to the world that she learned her kissing skills by practicing on other women. Which she totally did. Not everyone could get away with it, true, but Marlene Dietrich could.
What a naughty song! It’s all about fucking sailors, if you didn’t get that. Not a real acceptable topic in the 1950s. Of course, only Marlene Dietrich could get away with something like that. For her to brag about not coming home at night, well, that suited her femme fatale persona just fine. Not to mention that people’s sense of propriety took a nosedive during the war years. Servicing service members was just another part of the war effort, a morale booster for everyone involved. Because folks naturally get sluttier when they’re living in the constant shadow of obliteration. Marlene Dietrich became a glamorous personification of the ballsy, tough wartime woman, a woman who worked as hard as a man and knew how to cut loose afterwards. Dietrich was as free spirited and liberated a broad as the times allowed. Heck, she was a wild one even by today’s standards. But she never allowed her sexy persona get in the way of being taken seriously, or being seen as a moral person. She certainly proved herself a hero in WWII. Having lived and worked in America since 1930, she became a citizen in 1939, refusing Hitler’s invitation to return to the motherland. Throughout the war she sold more war bonds than any other star, traveled to the front lines to entertain the troops and worked with the OSS on musical propaganda. For that work she earned the Medal of Freedom, being the first woman to receive that honor. I don’t know if this song was originally recorded in that era, or if she recorded it at the time she filmed Witness for the Prosecution in 1957, but I think it’s a great bawdy memento of the times either way.