On this day in history, Marlene Dietrich becomes an international sensation. 1930’s The Blue Angel was not only her breakthrough performance, but her first ‘talkie’ after starring in 19 silent films in Germany, shot twice in German and English. She was taken to Hollywood by Paramount Studios desperate to find a competitor to MGM’s Greta Garbo, who was already a sensation in Hollywood silent films and would also be a smash hit with the advent of sound. The two actresses had both come to the Berlin film industry at the same time, but publicly insisted they had never met, despite claims by Orson Welles to have introduced them at a 1945 party – or recent claims that they were involved in a romantic relationship that ended very badly. . When asked about their rivalry in later years, Garbo simply replied, “Who is this Marlene Dietrich?” In contrast, the German-born actress said much, much worse.
Garbo is known for retiring at the age of 35 after 28 films and for being the world’s oldest female star. The epitome of icy confidence, sophistication and control, she was always an enigma, and then she abruptly distanced herself from Hollywood and disappeared from the public eye.
The Swedish star’s background, however, was a poor childish struggle in the slums of Stockholm, and she was always very self-conscious. She left school at the age of thirteen, shortly before the death of her working-class father, leaving the family in dire straits.
Early jobs as a soap barbershop girl and shop errand girl were followed by modeling work, which led to acting work in the mid-1920s in Berlin, where Dietrich had already become a star.
In the early 1920s, Dietrich was the toast of interwar Berlin, a hotbed of sexual liberation and exploration. Washington Post columnist Diana McClellan wrote: “Marilyn was perhaps the busiest and most passionate bisexual on the Berlin scene… (she had) a notorious, compulsive appetite for the sexual seduction of other beautiful women.”
In her book The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood, McLellan describes how the two actresses met on the set of the 1925 little-known (and lost) film The Joyless Street, despite their later claims that they did not know each other.
A 23-year-old formerly from a wealthy family, Dietrich was sophisticated, confident, irresistible, and somewhat rugged. By contrast, the younger and more gullible Garbo was completely unprepared for what came between them and his ugly end.
The Swedish actress was only 20, from the province, poor and inexperienced in life and love – the other actress left her devastated and humiliated.
Dietrich later denied that she had appeared in Street Joyce but McClellan caused quite a stir when she announced that she had spotted the star in the remaining archived parts of the film. She details an affair between the two women and a subsequent devastating infidelity.
Dietrich was notoriously imprudent and cavalier with personal details of her affairs. She often described her lovers and mocked their faithful remarks to her husband, Rudolf Sieber, whom she married in 1923.
Garbo was by this time self-conscious about her lack of means and lack of refined manners and lifestyle. Shy and modest, she was horrified to hear that Dietrich was publicly mocking her and publishing lewd details, including spreading word that she was wearing “dirty underwear”.
“Garbo felt betrayed by a monster who spoke her secrets, mocked her roots and mocked her gender. She was shamed, disgraced and traumatized,” McClellan said.
Fortunately, her fortunes took a sudden turn when Hollywood studio boss Louis B. Mayer saw her in 1925 and signed her to MGM. Over the next fifteen years, she was one of the acknowledged queens of the silver screen, with iconic roles in Queen Christina, Mata Hari, The Grand Hotel, and Anna Karenina.
Years later, Dietrich reached out to try to apologize but Garbo refused to speak to her in private again.
McClellan’s claims that Dietrich appeared in St. Joylis were later disputed, with the role attributed to another actress, Herta von Walther, but Garbo and Dietrich were in Berlin at the time, and the decades-long split remains a part of Hollywood history.