Marlene Dietrich, “Lili Marleen”

Marlene Dietrich, “Lili Marleen”, 1945, Decca Records

Marlene Dietrich was born on December 27th of 1901 in Berlin, Germany, with the given name Maria Magdalene Dietrich. Growing up, she studied French, English, and the violin at a private school, with the aspiration of becoming a professional violinist. Later in her teen years, Dietrich decided to explore acting, enrolling in Austrian-born theater director Max Reinhardt’s drama school, eventually acting in small parts on stage and in films. Because of her family’s disapproval of theater as a profession, she changed her name to Marlene Dietrich.

Dietrich married Rudolf Sieber in 1923 and, with his help, was able to get the small role of ‘Lucy’ in director Joe May’s 1923 “Tragedy of Love”. After the birth of their only child Maria in 1924, the marriage began to fail, leading to a separation but not a divorce. During this time, Paramount Studios signed to a contract director and filmmaker Josef von Sternberg, who already had produced a number of notable films. In 1929, Sternberg was sent to UFA, Paramount’s studio in Berlin, to direct the sound production of “The Blue Angel” based on Heinrich Mann’s book “Professor Unrat”.

Sternberg cast the little-known Marlene Dietrich in the female lead role of Lola Lola, the cabaret singer and dancer whose allure would attract and lead to the decline of Professor Unrat. With her sophisticated manner and sultry looks, Dietrich naturally fit into the role and became a star. The 1930 “Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel)”, the first talking picture in Germany, became a big hit, eventually making Dietrich an international star with its English language version in the United States.

In April of 1930, Marlene Dietrich moved to America. Working once again with Sternberg, she starred in the 1930 romantic-drama “Morocco” with actor Gary Cooper. The film received four Academy Award nominations; Dietrich was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role, her one and only Academy Award nomination.She continued in her next films to play the femme-fatale roles, creating new more-masculine fashion trends for women and challenging accepted views of the female image.

Dietrich made several more films working with director Sternberg: the 1931 successful spy film “Dishonored”, “Shanghai Express” in 1932, “The Scarlet Empress” in 1934, and her personal favorite film “The Devil is a Woman”, a 1935 romance film set in Spain in which she played a cold-hearted temptress. A strong opponent of the Nazi government in Germany, she disassociated herself from the German film companies and became a US citizen in 1939, resulting in the banning of her films in Germany. During the war, Dietrich traveled extensively, entertaining the troops, selling war bonds, and recording anti-Nazi messages to broadcast in Germany. 

Following the war, Marlene Dietrich worked with director Billy Wilder on his 1948 film “A Foreign Affair” and the 1957 film “Witness for the Prosecution” with actor Tyrone Power, based on the book by Agatha Christie. She also played strong supporting roles in director Orson Welles’ famous 1958 film-noir “Touch of Evil” and in Stanley Kramer’s 1941 courtroom drama “Judgement at Nuremberg”. As her acting career faded, Dietrich began a successful singing career in the mid-1950s performing from Las Vegas to Paris, and finally singing in Germany in 1960, her first visit since the war.

Marlene Dietrich gave up performing in the middle of the 1970s, moving to Paris and living in near-seclusion. She did agree to provide some audio commentary for the documentary “Marlene”, filmed by Maximillian Schell in 1984; however, she would not appear on camera for the film. Marlene Dietrich, one of the most glamorous leading ladies of the 1930s and 1940s, died in her Paris home on May 6th of 1992 and was buried next to her mother in Berlin.

The song “LiLi Marleen” is a German love song that became popular during WWII throughout Europe and the Mediterranean among both Axis and Allied troops. Written in 1915 as a poem of three verses by Hans Leip, a school theacher, it was set to music by Norbert Schultze in 1938 and recorded for the first time by Lale Andersen in 1939.  In 1944 the Morale Operations Branch of the US Office of Strategic Services initiated the Muzak Project. Marlene Dietrich recorded a number of songs in German for the project, including “Lili Marleen”, which became a massive success. This version of the song with Dietrich singing eventually became recorded as a single by Decca Records in 1944 and released in 1945.

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