The Mega Star of the 1930s and 40’s: Marlene Dietrich Rides Again

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Marlene Dietrich, Dietrich Rides Again

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. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

We all remember German singer/actress Marlene Dietrich, the international superstar of the '30s and '40s. She was the sexy night club singer in the 1930 film The Blue Angel, one of the first talkie hits. She went on to star in a dozen or so Hollywood films, topped by Destry Rides Again, with James Stewart, a movie which she stole from everybody with her memorable performances and a film that made her legendary through thousands of showings on television. She was saucy and infamously dressed in men’s tuxedoes to exude her sexuality.

Now along comes Justyna Kostek, starring in a one-woman show about the star, Dietrich Rides Again, that just opened at the Medicine Show Theater, 549 W. 52d Street, in New York. It is a sprightly show that tells you a lot about Dietrich that most people already know but gives some intriguing glimpses into her personal (bisexual) life with which people, even fans, are not familiar.

The Medicine Show Theater was re-designed for the play, with a 1930s nightclub style bar outside the theater itself. Dozens of old black and white photos of Dietrich hang on the walls and the movie Destry Rides Again is shown on a television set. The lounge is a nice touch.

In the play, written by Kostek and Oliver Conant, Kostek shows Dietrich as an actress who understood her sexual impact and used it to maximize her success. She won her role in The Blue Angel that way and built her successful career in Germany and the United States with that sultry, voluptuous image. Kostek, who has a good voice, also sings a number of Dietrich’s most famous songs, such as Falling in Love Again, Lili Marlene, Hot Voodoo, You do Something to Me, and Where Have All the Flowers Gone.

What is interesting about the show is how Kostek concentrates on Dietrich’s flight from Germany in the early 1930s as Hitler rises to power. She travels to America where she became one of Hollywood’s highest paid actresses and used much of her money to help other Germans and Poles (she was from Poland) flee Europe. In one year. she donated over $500,000 (a few million in today’s money) to refugee organizations. She even housed dozens of refugees in her home. One story not told in the play is how Nazi officials, on direct orders from Hitler, met with her and tried to woo her back to Germany with the promise of being promoted as the film queen of the Third Reich (this was one of propaganda minister Josef Goebbels’s biggest projects). She refused. The way that Kostek pleads Dietrich’s case is impressive.

Overall, Kostek does a fine job in the show. She tries to cover too much, though. She starts the story when Dietrich was a little kid and then goes era by era, movie by movie and song by song. Yet, she still leaves out huge gaps in the star’s life. As an example, she talks about all of the people Dietrich loves, men and women, but really does not go into detail about any. There is little in the story about her one child. If she made so much money in Hollywood, why did she die practically broke in Paris twenty-five years ago? How did other movie stars see her? What problems did her language cause in America? There should be more story.

A mystery is why Kostek and fellow book writer Oliver Conan did not include more from the Destry movie, surely her most popular. There is the song, The Boys in the Back Room, and a mention of Stewart’s name, but nothing more. She should have told us more about the production of the movie and the fame that it gave her.

There should have been more effort to showcase Dietrich as the Hollywood glamour queen that she became, no matter where she was. Kostek does mention this, but not in enough detail (Dietrich was a frequent Vegas performer and from 1950s through the early 1970s took her show all over the world, to much applause). The woman had become her own “brand,” as they say today and everybody knew her.

Hats off to Kostek for two things, though. First, she brought Marlene Dietrich back to life for a younger generation of people who know little about her. To them, she is a dusty relic from “the old days.”

Second, she delivered a lot of German and U.S. history and explained how much work Dietrich did for the USO during the conflict in a colorful and riveting way. She performed tirelessly for the troops. The press joked that she was on the front lines more often than Eisenhower. You want history? This is the show.

PRODUCTION: Scenic Design: Oliver Conant, Costumes: Derek Nye Lockwood, Lighting: Alex Moore, Musical Direction Jono Mainelli, Choreography: Madeline Jaye. The show is directed by Oliver Conant. It runs through September 17.

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