29 July 2014

Seeing Double in Kismet

Some of the gold paint used in Kismet is still doing the rounds at the museum in Berlin housing Dietrich's collection, seventy years after the film was made. It's fitting, as her gilt legs – in that Jack Cole-choreographed dance – and the outrageous wigs she wore in it, are what the movie is remembered for.

Marlene with designer Irene.
At that point in her career, a Middle Eastern detour seemed fated for Marlene. She'd already done Scheherazade on radio (playing the title role and the slave girl and the monarch), and producer Edward Small announced that he was preparing an Egyptian-set film romance, Bella Donna, for her, to be released by United Artists.

The latter didn't materialise, but Kismet did – at MGM, where stars were “flattered and spoiled”. She thought her role (as Jamilla, in Baghdad by way of Macedonia) was “impossible”, but her star salary would cover expenses back home during her upcoming overseas USO tours. Marlene “couldn't be happier,” Screenland gushed about the star's new two picture deal at Metro, before wondering aloud if it was “true that she wasn't invited to the wedding when her daughter married recently. 'Tis rumored.”

While MGM was putting the final pre-production touches on its piece of exotica, Marlene divided her time between duties as Orson Welles' assistant in his Mercury Wonder Show on Cahuenga Boulevard – where she had replaced Rita Hayworth – and doing shifts at the nearby Hollywood Canteen.

Mind reader Orson Welles' assistants, Rita Hayworth (soon-to-be Mrs Welles) and Marlene Dietrich using the power of suggestion.

Principal photography on the film started in late October 1943. Costume designer Irene devised golden chainmail harem pants for Marlene to wear during her big dance number. These would “jingle” and “glitter” as Marlene lolled around on black lacquer floors (with the actual dancing provided by an uncredited contract dancer).

Marlene and her dance double.

On the first day of shooting of the number, Stravinsky boomed on loudspeakers on the sound stage and Marlene went into her dance. She later remembered: “Suddenly all one heard was crack, crack, crack, the sound of the chainlets breaking, one after the other, then two, six at a time, until I stood there without pants . . . General panic.”

Marlene, aware of schedules and budgets, went into practical mode. “'Gold,' I thought, 'how is a golden effect achieved on the screen?' It occurred to me to paint my legs with gold paint.”

This was done and – although the paint starved her legs from oxygen, causing hypothermia – she thought it looked “simply fabulous” on-screen.

They looked “fabulous” on Broadway too, where they dominated the huge billboard of the Astor Theatre. Kismet opened there on 22 August 1944 (replacing Bathing Beauty) and set a house record when it grossed $310 000 in its 11 week run in New York. Film Daily in its review thought Marlene was “stunning” and “definitely something for the boys.” 

Betty Grable also has Kismet on her mind.

Abbott and Costello's Lost in a Harem recycled sets and costumes  from Kismet. 

18 June 2014

Dietrich's Unfinished Film: "I Loved a Soldier" (1936)

Actresses Come! Actresses Go! Nothing Ever Happens!” may be an apt tagline for Marlene Dietrich's unfinished 1936 film, I Loved a Soldier. The production, a story about a servant girl who falls in love with a soldier at the grand Hotel Imperial, had  leading ladies checking in and out at a dizzying rate.

Paramount announced in September 1935 that they had secured the services of Walter Wanger's import, Charles Boyer, to co-star with Dietrich in Invitation to Happiness (a remake of the Pola Negri silent film,  Hotel Imperial). Principal photography would commence after Dietrich had completed Desire, which was then just about to go into production.

At work on "I Loved a Soldier".
Filming started in early January 1936, on what wags would soon be calling Paramount's “jinx” picture. Early on there was an accident with a gun, injuring one of the crew members. The bullet barely missed Boyer, singeing his toupée, which must have unnerved the French star.

What unnerved Dietrich was the screenplay (there wasn't a completed draft). Writers, headed by John van Druten and supervised by Ernst Lubitsch, didn't make much progress on that front, but the front office kept themselves busy by re-titling. On the same day Invitation to Happiness became I Loved A SoldierMae West's latest belle, Lou, changed her name to Klondike Annie. The casting office, meanwhile, had drafted Paul Lukas for a “major role” and recalled Marlene's Scarlet Empress cohort, Sam Jaffe from New York, as filming continued in a stop-start fashion on the lot.

Director Henry Hathaway would in later years jokingly tell how he had envisioned that Marlene's character – “a slob” – would gradually become more beautiful as her romance with Boyer blossoms:

“You're not supposed to be be beautiful until next Thursday,” Hathaway supposedly warned Dietrich, who pleaded, “can't it at least be Wednesday?”

As battles continued on several fronts, Dietrich wished she “could be like the Americans and get really mad” when she was angry. “The repression of feeling” – a result of her European upbringing, she said, was “very bad for the nerves.” Things came to a head in February when Paramount executives, looking at the shambles around them (not all of it only connected to this film) and tallying up the almost one million dollars already spent on the Dietrich vehicle, fired Lubitsch.

“When people refuse me something or annoy me, I do not rant, rave and make a scene. I freeze,” Dietrich confided:  “I walk out of the production or the room,” which she did, quitting Paramount early in March.

Stock shots like these are likely all that nowadays
survive of the Dietrich-Boyer vehicle, "I Loved a Soldier".
(Marlene wouldn't be unemployed for long: she had already agreed to do A Knight Without Armour for Alexander Korda in London later that year.)

About three chummy days after her walkout, Paramount and Marlene announced they were again “amicable and friendly”.  Paramount agreed to recast I Loved a Soldier without Dietrich, who would make another film for them on her return from London.

Margaret Sullavan was obtained from Universal by mid-March as Dietrich's replacement (in exchange for Carole Lombard's services for My Man Godfrey) but the “jinx” struck again when Sullavan broke her arm as she tripped over a wire on the set, after only a few days on the job. A battle-weary Paramount finally shelved the picture when their next replacement choice, Merle Oberon, was unavailable due to a “prior engagement” – The Garden of Allah.
Dietrich and Boyer, reunited at Selznick.

Producer David O. Selznick, however, on receiving the news that Dietrich and Boyer had checked out of the “Imperial”, promptly evicted Oberon (and co-star Gilbert Roland) from his Sahara with vague promises to Merle about Dark Victory (Bette Davis would eventually emerge victorious there). By this time Paramount had seemingly lost interest in poor Merle, too.

Dietrich negotiated, called Korda in London (to delay A Knight Without Armour for a couple of weeks) and, on 26 March 1936, signed a $ 200 000 deal with Selznick International: she (and Boyer, and his toupée) agreed to (de)camp to a Technicolor Garden of Allah.

Paramount did get Hotel Imperial on screens in 1939 –  in a production starring the Italian Dietrich, Isa Miranda, but even then the old “jinx” re-emerged during filming, when Ray Milland was hospitalised after falling off a horse.

20 May 2014

Дитрих '64

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Marlene's 1964 tour of the USSR, where she performed in Moscow and Leningrad.

Marlene was welcomed to Moscow by a group that included actress Tamara Makarova.

On her opening night in Moscow, after 15 minutes of curtain calls, she addressed the audience:

"I have loved you for a long time. I love your music, your poetry, your writers and your artists, but most of all I love your soul. You have no lukewarm feeling. You are either sad or happy. I think I have a Russian soul myself."