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TV Review: 'Dietrich' documentary shallow but still interesting

Thursday, December 27, 2001

By Jerry Schwartz, The Associated Press

You can learn some things about Marlene Dietrich by watching Turner Classic Movies' "Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song."

"Marlene Dietrich:
Her Own Song."

When: 8 and 11:30 tonight on TCM.


1. She had an unconventional marriage, wedded to the same man for decades while mostly living apart from him and having love affairs.

2. She had an intense connection with the soldiers for whom she performed during World War II -- "my boys," she called them -- lavishing them with attention even after they (and she) were no longer young and in uniform.

3. She was strong-willed; told that she could not sing a song in German to an Israeli audience, she responded by singing nine.

These are all interesting facts. But facts alone do not explain Marlene Dietrich -- at least the facts presented by this documentary, which airs at 8 and 11:30 tonight, and twice next month along with 19 Dietrich films to mark the centennial of her birth.

Just try to keep your eyes off her in "The Blue Angel," the 1930 movie that made her a star. Her Lola-Lola is unforgettable, and it is not just fabulous facial structure and a supernaturally husky voice that makes her so.

Or watch Dietrich with Spencer Tracy in "Judgment at Nuremburg." They are like giants; watch long enough, and you will forget the name of every single star in any current movie ("It's George ... oh, you know. In that Sinatra remake ...")

How did Marlene become ... MARLENE?

This documentary, however long (more than an hour and a half) and lovingly assembled (the co-producer is Dietrich's grandson, J. David Riva), does not begin to answer the question. Or even ask it.

Sure, we hear about her upbringing, about the father and stepfather who died when she was young, about her strong Prussian mother. But then suddenly she is on stage and on the screen, and a success.

"She was quite young, she was emancipated, she showed no respect," says one film scholar. She was "a unique woman with a unique talent who received unique help when she was young," says her friend and fellow actress, Hildegard Knef. This is about as close as we get to an explanation of why Dietrich became a sensation.

But when we see her screen test for "The Blue Angel" -- and her off-key rendition of "You're the Cream in My Coffee" -- it is clear that Marlene was special from the very beginning. It would be nice to know why.

Likewise her strong political beliefs. She took a stand against the Nazis that would alienate her from many in her homeland for the rest of her life. She placed herself in jeopardy by following the troops into battle.

But did she become an American citizen with an eye toward improving her image? (She had had a series of flops, and her German background wasn't a plus.) Was she motivated to go to the front lines by depression that came when her lover, actor Jean Gabin, joined the Free French?

Marlene left scores of questions like these in the wake of a tempestuous life that ended in 1992, when she was 91. She deserves a more interesting, less conventional biography, and she got one in 1986: Maximillian Schell's "Marlene" remains one of the most peculiar and fascinating film studies ever made.

Which is not to say that the TCM show is without merit. There are some great stories here, among them the tale of her reunion with Gabin.

He was driving a tank in a victory parade when he looked out and saw a slight figure, running between the armored divisions. It was Marlene; she climbed onto the tank and they kissed, to an ovation.

Then there are clips from her films, wonderful and all too short. After the war, she likened acting to prostitution; it all seemed so shallow next to the work of saving the world.

As it turned out, her film career wound down, replaced by a concert career.

We hear her sing "Lili Marlene," "Boys in the Backroom" and, of course, "Falling in Love Again" many times; her bouffants become a little scary, but her power is unabated. Always, she is an actress who sings, never vice versa, until finally, at 74, she quits and goes into seclusion for the rest of her life.

We are told that she was always broke, and that she stayed in the spotlight as long as she did for the money. But watch her and you know that there's something more going on here, just as you know that vanity was just one of the reasons for her decision to step off the stage.

You will not find the answers to these questions in this documentary. It is only skin deep.

But boy, what a skin it was.

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