Hollywood History: Behind the Scenes and Between the Sheets with Marlene Dietrich

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway
Long Branch, N.J.

Marlene Dietrich remains one of the most famous women in the world more than twenty years after her death.  The gorgeous blonde Dietrich, with her soft, sexy German accent, provocative lifestyle and fashionista style of dressing, starred in a number of hit Hollywood movies following her stunning debut as Lola in The Blue Angel and as Amy Jolly in Morocco in the early 1930s.  She fled Germany after the Nazis took power and wound up living in Los Angeles.

Entertainment gossip columnists linked her romantically to dozens of Hollywood stars, politicians and fabled athletes and her face graced the covers of hundreds of film magazines. Newsreels of her at parties and cinema premiers filled up theater screens all over the world.  But who was she?

We get a good look in Puma, an entertaining play about her romantic relationship with writer Erich Maria Remarque at the New Jersey Repertory Company, a theater that specializes in new plays.  The drama, by Julie Gilbert and Frank Evans, is based on the recently discovered diaries and journals of Remarque, author of the classic All Quiet on the Western Front.  The history, then, at least from Remarque’s point of view, is pretty good (“Puma” was the writer’s nickname for Dietrich).

Dietrich and Remarque began their love affair in Paris in 1938, where both had fled after Hitler’s rise to power (the Nazis had falsely accused Remarque of being Jewish and they murdered his sister).  She uses her influence to get him out of France and to Hollywood, where she continued her affair while remaining married to her husband, Rudolf Siebert (who had many extramarital liaisons himself).  Remarque was married, too, while he slept with Dietrich.

The play covers several years of their life in Hollywood, where they lived in separate apartments.  We get a complete picture of Marlene Dietrich in it, from her affair with actor Jimmy Stewart (Remarque claims) and Yul Brynner to her steamy romantic liaisons with many Hollywood actresses.  We learn about her films, old and new boyfriends and girlfriends, her social life and her life as a friend to many Hollywood stars, whom she discusses, and criticizes, very freely.  There is plenty of star gossip.  We learn about the studio system and the way ideas are sold as movies even before they are written as scripts.  There are dozens of fast scenes in the play that depict the relationships with Marlene and dozens of Hollywood people—at parties and in jewelry stores.  The audience also learns much about Dietrich’s longtime volunteer work for the American USO shows during World War II.

By the end of the play you learn much about Marlene and admire her, despite all of her faults and the way that she devoured men.  Marlene Dietrich lived nearly forty years after she split with Remarque and maintained her superstar status into her seventies, frequently appearing on Las Vegas stages and touring the world in a one woman entertainment show. Wrapped in one lavish gown or another, she repeatedly turned up in the fashion pages.  Here, in this nice little movie history play, Gilbert and Evans have given us a refreshing look at Marlene.

John Fitzgibbon does a decent job as Remarque, who wrote a dozen novels after ‘All Quiet on the Western Front, but the main attraction is Dietrich; Fitzgibbon is much more of a narrator than a fully-fleshed character in the story.

Ylfa Edelstein, a slender, blonde, Icelandic actress, is absolutely dazzling as Dietrich, whom she has evidently studied closely. First, Edelstein looks a lot like her, a resemblance that is accentuated by her costumes.  She has, of course, copied Dietrich’s accent, but, most importantly, she moves like Dietrich in her effortless, elegant manner.  She has just about brought the German American superstar back to life.

Remarque’s view of the affair is different than Dietrich’s.  Marlene’s daughter Maria Riva did not devote much space to Remarque in her biography of her mother.  According to Remarque, the pair loved each other from 1938 into the 1950s; the daughter has them together for just four or five years.  Remarque casts Marlene as deeply infatuated with him; the daughter said he was just one of many men in her life.

Another problem, and this extends to the entire genre of star memoirs and family bios, is that they tend to exaggerate their stories and always wind up as the hero or heroine in the tale.  Memoirs should always be read with a grain of salt, but Hollywood memoirs are particularly image-centric.  One cannot help but wonder what Charlie Sheen’s memoirs would be like.

Even so, the benefit of this kind of play based on papers is that you find out a lot about show business history and the roles these two people had in it.  As an example, one of Dietrich’s biggest hits was a Western she did not want to star in, Destroy Rides Again.  Her co-star was Jimmy Stewart.  The play suggests they had an affair and through that story we learn much about Stewart, Dietrich, and Stewart’s wife Gloria.

The play takes place on a luscious set that shouts “Hollywood” at you louder than a director with a megaphone.  Director SuzAnne Barabas does a fine job of using the same set for numerous scenes.  She has also built a nice pace into the play and takes her actors off the stage when they are not needed.  This is a memoir, not an action story, yet it moves along at a fast clip.

The play is interesting, but has its problems.  There are too many flat moments in it and it could use more actors to tell the story and give the play more of a Hollywood feel.  There is no real story to the play, just a behind-the-scenes story of two people and their relationship, and as such the ending is disappointing.

For me, the most wonderful moment of the play was in the middle, when the first act ends and then, without warning, we hear a tape of Dietrich singing her signature hit song, “Falling in Love Again.”

Hooray for Hollywood, hooray for Marlene and hooray for the New Jersey Repertory for giving its audience a nice look at show biz history and the unforgettable Marlene Dietrich.

PRODUCTION: Set – Jessica Parks, Lighting – Jill Nagle, Costumes – Patricia Doherty, Sound – Merek Royce Press. Directed by SuzAnne Barabas.

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