Gallery Gives Movie Star Marlene Dietrich The Big-Picture Treatment

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of the most glamorous creatures ever to grace the silver screen is back in pictures at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. There are dozens of photographs of the seductive, German-born movie star Marlene Dietrich in a new exhibition. I always trust NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg. And she says the photos are dazzling.

KATE LEMAY: (Singing) Falling in love again.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Oh, sure.

LEMAY: (Singing) Can't help it.

STAMBERG: (Singing) Can't help it.

LEMAY: (Singing) Can't help it. (Laughter) So great, yes.

STAMBERG: Seventy-something, 30-something, 21, 20 - we all know about Marlene Dietrich. But nobody sounds like her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BLUE ANGEL")

MARLENE DIETRICH: (As Lola, singing) Falling in love again. Never wanted to. What am I to do? I can't help it.

STAMBERG: Her nickname was Legs. And you can see why in the big photograph Milton Greene took of her in 1952. Her face is not visible. It's covered by a curtain of blond hair as Dietrich, sitting on an upholstered something, bends over her long, shapely, crossed and extremely exposed legs - legs so famous her studio insured them - legs so shapely that she shaped them in the photo, wrote notes on the contact sheet about touchups. Marlene Dietrich always controlled her image. Well, almost always.

LEMAY: This is a very sweet, innocent 17-year-old Marlene Dietrich...

STAMBERG: Kate Lemay is a historian with the National Portrait Gallery.

LEMAY: ...Who had recently changed her name.

STAMBERG: She was born Marie Magdalene Dietrich, this slightly pudgy Berlin schoolgirl with a big, black hair bow and big, lace collar. On closer inspection, she's not so innocent.

LEMAY: She has a curl escaping her hair. At the time, hair being brought all the way up off your neck was a sign of a good girl, a good family. And Dietrich let that that curl escape. She's already declaring her independence.

STAMBERG: And her wish to be looked at - her eyes, 17 years old and the eyes of a seductress, lids a bit lowered, looking straight at us, daring us not to notice. Twenty-six years later, a huge star, Dietrich entertains American troops in World War II. Hundreds of men are noticing her. In one photograph, standing in a sea of soldiers, she looks like a mermaid, skin-tight, sequined gown glimmering.

LEMAY: She's in her element. She is flirting - probably the best kind of flirt anyone's ever seen. She's just having the time of her life.

STAMBERG: By then, she had made "The Blue Angel" - 1930 - a man-killer cabaret singer, "Falling In Love Again" and Morocco - also 1930 - tromping through the desert in slingback pumps.

LEMAY: And she kissed a woman.

STAMBERG: "Blonde Venus" - sings "Hot Voodoo" in an ape suit - don't ask - all directed by Josef von Sternberg. He was her Pygmalion - slimmed her down, pencilled in the eyebrows and lit her into a femme fatale.

LEMAY: He knew how to transform a young woman who had beautiful eyes but maybe not the most perfect nose and some flaws. And he lit her from 4 feet above her head and from the right side of her face with a specific, soft lighting. She was transformed into this incredible magnet for the eye.

STAMBERG: She took that lesson from the director and applied it for the rest of her life. Bathed in light, made up to perfection, Dietrich often wore ties, top hats, tuxedoes.

LEMAY: She dressed in menswear. And she pioneered dressing in menswear in the '20s and '30s. She was the first cross-dressing woman to do so for a large audience.

STAMBERG: Shocking? It certainly was. But, says historian Kate Lemay...

LEMAY: Dietrich made it palatable. And that is what intrigued me in putting this show together - was, wow, this is 1930, and American audiences are conservative. And yet here we have this German-born actor who's presenting an androgynous image and kissing a woman on stage. That's incredible.

STAMBERG: How did she get away with it?

LEMAY: She was just really charismatic. And she never apologized. When people did criticize her and ask her why she would dare do such a thing, she just let it roll off her back. She really did not apologize.

STAMBERG: Remember that 17-year-old student? She grew up majoring in don't give a damn. Dietrich's image changed over the years, even though her lighting didn't. She got more relaxed in films - downright funny, even.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DESTRY RIDES AGAIN")

DIETRICH: (As Frenchy, singing) See what the boys in the backroom will have.

STAMBERG: In "Destry Rides Again," a 1939 Western with James Stewart, she was a saloon gal in cowboy hat, boots, a spangled vest. You can't give up the glitter. She had applied for American citizenship. And she adopted big American smiles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DESTRY RIDES AGAIN")

DIETRICH: (As Frenchy, singing) Just see what the boys in the backroom will have. And tell them I sighed. And tell them I cried. And tell them I died of the same.

STAMBERG: The National Portrait Gallery show has a copy of the scandal magazine Confidential from 1955. An article has this headline.

DIETRICH: "You've Heard Lots About Marlene But You Haven't Heard It All."

STAMBERG: They outed her. Married with a daughter and lots of lovers, Dietrich was bisexual. Few in her adoring public had a clue. In this age of social media, a secret like that couldn't be kept for long. But in Dietrich's day, stars and studios had secrets that stuck. How did the great, glamorous actress react to this secret getting out?

LEMAY: She wouldn't really have cared. I really do believe she was unapologetic and just thought that was their problem.

STAMBERG: Marlene was 90 when she died in 1992. Years earlier, she had stopped going out in public. Her looks had faded. Breaks in those gorgeous legs kept her bedridden. But she stayed in touch with friends by telephone. And her image - her guts - a fierce anti-Nazi, she called Hitler insane. Her uber-confidence blazed screens and memories for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SEVEN SINNERS")

DIETRICH: (As Bijou) I'm a bad influence.

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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