09 August 2014

An Interview with Sauli Miettinen

Marlene Dietrich: Nainen ja tähti 
[Marlene Dietrich: A Woman and A Star]
by Sauli Miettinen
Last year, I interviewed Sauli Miettinen, the author of the Finnish language Marlene Dietrich biography, Marlene Dietrich: Nainen ja tähti [Marlene Dietrich: A Woman and A Star], which will hopefully be translated into German and English. The questions that I posed to him had developed out of my interest in factors such as one's geographical location, linguistic abilities, age, as well as technological and media access that can affect one's ability to receive and seek information about a celebrity such as Marlene Dietrich. I also wanted to discover how Miettinen researched Dietrich's life and career and what his thoughts were on other Dietrich biographies--and on biographies in general. Miettinen answered these questions and more, and I now eagerly await the day when I can read his book in English translation. As you read this interview, please think of any questions that you may have. Hopefully, Miettinen will be able to respond in the comments section and turn this interview into an ongoing conversation about biographies and biographical research in relation to Dietrich and in general.

03 August 2014

Travis Banton's Inspiration

It all happened in Texas when Travis was a little boy, seven years old ...

His mother and father were going to a great ball given in honour of visiting celebrities. There had been talk of this occasion for weeks and weeks. All the women of the family had huddled in his mother's bedroom the day her gown came home from the shop in a big white box and mists of tissue paper.

Although it was almost nine o'clock the lights in the nursery were left on the night of the ball. He was waiting for his mother to kiss him good night. She was to stop in just before she left so he might see her in her gown.

His mother was so very beautiful. Her gown of soft blue chiffon might have been fashioned from a piece of Spring sky. It caught at her slim waist with crushed velvet. and on both of her shoulders were great bunches of forget-me-nots ...

"That gown of my mother's gave me my dream or whatever you want to call it of doing this sort of thing ... So in memory of that gown I designed one of the gowns Marlene Dietrich wears in Song of Songs the same way. Only Marlene's gown is violet, with violets on the shoulders."

 Modern Screen magazine, 1933

Designer Travis Banton with Marlene in 1937.

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 loopy wigs she wore in it, are what the movie is remembered for.

Marlene with designer Irene.
At that point in her career, an Arabian 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.