WCW: Marlene Dietrich


Marlene Dietrich is not known for her historical costume movies. The German actress is better known for the cabaret singing and dancing she often brought to her film roles, as well as for her personal glamor and androgynous image. However, in her long career (spanning the 1910s to the 1980s), Dietrich did take a few historical roles, even if the productions emphasized flash and fantasy more than historical accuracy. One of  these films, Destry Rides Again (1939), is credited with reviving her career after a series of flops, and the Western became iconic, leading to similar parts and solidifying a certain trope of a Western saloon singer seen in movies and TV ever since. Marlene Dietrich’s style and personal life has become as influential as her movie roles. Her carefully curated fashion continues to be copied today, while her open marriage, affairs with many of her movies’ leading men, and her “sewing circle” of famous female lovers was a rational precedent for reevaluation of outdated norms. In addition to her unconventional life and her film work, she refused Nazi overtures to return to Germany, and instead, Dietrich worked for the United States war effort and became a U.S. citizen. She was awarded the United States Medal of Freedom in 1947. After her final film and suffering an injury, Marlene Dietrich retired to Paris, where she died in 1992.


Princess Sophia Frederica / Catherine II in The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Marlene Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress (1934)


Alexandra in Knight Without Armor (1937)

Marlene Dietrich in Knight Without Armor (1937)

Dietrich donated her salary from this film to help Jews and dissidents escape from Nazi Germany.


Frenchy in Destry Rides Again (1939)

Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939)

Dietrich’s performance in this film is the inspiration for Lili Von Schtupp in Blazing Saddles (1974), played by Madeline Kahn.


Claire Ledeux in The Flame of New Orleans (1941)

Marlene Dietrich in The Flame of New Orleans (1941)


Cherry Malotte in The Spoilers (1942)

Marlene Dietrich in The Spoilers (1942)

“Crashing fists in the gold-crazed Alaska of ’98!”


Jamilla in Kismet (1944)

Marlene Dietrich in Kismet (1944)

That hair, though…


Altar Keane in Rancho Notorious (1952)

Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious (1952)

She runs the West’s strangest hideout … and she’d not taking shit from anyone!


Barbary Coast Saloon Owner in Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Around the World in 80 Days (1956) movie costumes

A cameo along with the cast of thousands.


Baroness von Semering in Just a Gigolo (1978)

Marlene Dietrich in Just a Gigalo (1978)

She was David Bowie‘s madam, he was one of the gigolos, but they never met during the filming.


What’s your favorite Marlene Dietrich film, historical or otherwise?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

15 Responses

  1. MoHub

    Love Destry. “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” is the highlight of the film.

  2. Susan Pola Staples

    Love Scarlet Empress and Around the World in 80 Days as well as Destry.
    But two of my favourite movies of hers are Witness for the Prosecution and Judgement at Nuremberg with Spencer Tracy.

    • MoHub

      Agree wholeheartedly, but they’re not technically historical costume flicks—although the case might be made for Judgment at Nuremberg.

      • Susan Pola Staples

        I also agree with your comment. But just wanted to let my fellow FrockFlickers know my favourite Marlene Dietrich movies. Besides IMHO these are some of her finest roles.

  3. Kathleen Norvell


    If anyone is, or will be, in the Washington, DC area within the next year, the National Portrait Gallery has a new exhibit on Marlene Dietrich :

    “Marlene Dietrich: Dressed for the Image” showcases the breadth and specificity of the Dietrich look through home videos, articles, photos and film clips. In tweed or top hat, she is powerful and magnetic. And that impression is real, if one that she reserved for the public.

    “Marlene Dietrich: Dressed for the Image” is on at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington until April 15, 2018.

    • MoHub

      Ooh! I live in the DC area. I’ll have to check it out!

  4. mmcquown

    TCM just did a Garbo retrospective. I just watched “Desire” this morning. If you think about it, most of her films are “period” because of the time in which they were made. Either way, she was luminous and sexy. She was funeralised with military honours for the efforts during the war.

  5. Maria D.

    I think it’s a toss up between Destry Rides Again, Witness for the Prosecution and Judgement at Nuremberg. I don’t really think that there are any “stinkers” in her movies – she was a good actress and was fairly selective in her acting choices

  6. Janet Nickerson

    A quote attributed to Lord Beaverbrook: “Marlene Dietrich standing on a bar in black net stockings, belting out ‘See What the Boys In the Back Room Will Have’, is a greater work of art than the Venus de Milo.”

  7. robintmp

    It’s too bad she and Bowie never actually met–think of the conversation they could have had, and the stories they could have shared! I suspect they would have hit it off very well indeed…

      • themodernmantuamaker

        I wish I could’ve met Madeleine Kahn! Hey – has there been a Madeleine Kahn WCW yet?