Following the study of Casablanca as a sample of classical movie with a traditional gender dynamic, I have started to look at gender non-conformist movies in the liberal Pre-Code (Hays Code) era. The first actress on my list is Marlene Dietrich.
She was born in a traditional German family with her father serving in the German military. Growing up with an independent lifestyle because of her father’s absence, she entered the German entertainment industry as a cabaret singer in 1920s. Her fame, however, did not arise until 1930, when her collaboration with Emil Jannings and Josef von Sternberg The Blue Angel became a hit. She then immigrated to the U.S. and starred a number of successful productions, including Morocco, Shanghai Express, Desire, etc. Her deliberate gender non-conformity and daring acting of sometimes-sexually-neuter characters distinguish her from her contemporaries and becomes a highlight in film history. – Click here to learn more about her
Her success started with the film The Blue Angel, in which she acted as a cabaret dancer named Lola, whose charisma actively attracted the stoic professor Immanuel Rath from a local school to such an extent that he resigned in order to marry her. The professor later became a clown actor in her troupe to make a living and committed suicide upon finding out Lola’s amorous relationship with a young man. Click here to learn more about the plot or here to watch the full movie.
Lola actively flirts with the professor for her own satisfaction
The Blue Angel stood out because of its “blatant” yet satisfying reversal of the traditional gender dynamic. Rath, a respected scholar by look, appears awkwardly and stutters with pretentious yet clumsy formalities when he first meets Lola. He knows her from the erotic postcards confiscated from his students, to whom he appeared outrageous but then secretly enjoyed the picture on the postcard in privacy. Lola, on the other hand, actively flirts and plays with him, as if she is the predator instead of the prey. The professor, in response to her inquiry about her eye make-ups, can only clumsily answers, “eh…beautiful.” In another scene, the professor kneels down to pick up an item for her, while she sits aside, smoking.
Dietrich keeps her active role until the end of the movie, when she engages in another romantic relationship with a young man and leaves the aged Rath aside to die by himself. This ending is significant by itself, as in traditional narratives males are always the ones to abandon the females. Also noteworthy is the reversal of characters’ personalities. Rath, while being a male, always acts hesitantly and emotionally, traits traditionally recognized as feminine. Lola, meanwhile, behaves with calmness and confidence.
Quickly following The Blue Angel, she starred in the film Morocco as again a cabaret singer, Amy Jolly, who fell into a romantic relationship with a French legionnaire Tom Brown, played by Gary Cooper. Gary was later transferred into a battalion and moved out of the town, while Amy married a wealthy patron La Bessiere, hoping that he could help her lover. She quickly abandons La Bessiere in the luxurious wedding banquet and, in one of the most famous scenes of the movie, follows Tom’s battalion into the desert. – Click here to learn more about the film.
Dietrich’s most well-known image from Morocco
The film, hardly a masterpiece by the story itself, appeals to me because of Dietrich’s gender plurality in her image. In the most striking and memorable scene, she wears a masculine banquet attire and trouser, with a bow tied to her collars, smoking as always in her films. Then, she proceeds to kiss a female audience, to everyone’s amazement but applauses. Her disregard for La Bessiere and his wealth also confirms her independence and pursuit of a mutual and equal relationship.
Interestingly, as opposed to my prediction, her masculinity was generally well received, even by her contemporaries. Meanwhile, feminization of sexually muscular characters is generally demonized, especially during the Code era, when expression of feminized homosexual characters was ultimately banned. Certainly, this nuance reveals that the society then upheld masculinity while debasing femininity. Feminine homosexuality, as hinted in Morocco, seemed to be generally seen as unthreatening mischief that would not breach the gender norms, while masculine homosexuality is seldomly seen or depicted without a colored lens.
This difference raises the question of the nature of Dietrich’s success. Was she a pioneer in breaking the gender norm, or was her success largely due to her male audience who might see her masculinity as merely a change-of-favor to the traditional female characters? Moreover, does this difference remain the same for the modern American society? As I watch the Shanghai Express and potentially a movie in her later career, I will try to at least take an informed guess at those questions.
Jackson, Denny. “Marlene Dietrich Biography.” IMDb, IMDb.com, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000017/bio.
Sternberg, Joseph von. Morocco, 1930, http://www.iqiyi.com/v_19rrlmx8ww.html.
Sternberg, Joseph von. “The Blue Angel.” Internet Archive, archive.org/details/theblueangel1930.
Crowther, Bosley. “Marlene Dietrich.” Dr. Marco’s High Quality Movie Scan, http://www.doctormacro.com/Movie%20Summaries/B/Blue%20Angel,%20The.htm.
Esquevin, Christian. “MARLENE DIETRICH & TRAVIS BANTON – Silver Screen Modes by Christian Esquevin.” Silver Screen Modes , 3 Feb. 2014, silverscreenmodes.com/marlene-dietrich-travis-banton/.
Rideout, TD. “The Blue Angel (1930) – Josef von Sternberg.” The Mind Reels, 19 Oct. 2014, themindreels.com/2014/10/19/the-blue-angel-1930-josef-von-sternberg/.