Apr 27, 2011

Book Review: "Marlene" by Charlotte Chandler

Disclosure: People at Simon & Schuster contacted me & sent me a copy of Marlene two weeks ago. Thank you guys!

Charlotte Chandler talked with Marlene Dietrich in 1977. That's a big deal, for starters. I mean, you just have to watch this great documentary by Maximilian Schell to notice how difficult it was to talk with her and even more, to discuss personal matters. After retirement, Marlene pretty much didn't want to see anybody. She didn't want to appear in the media looking old. She wanted to keep the mystery, the light of the Blue Angel untouched. And she was disciplined, like her mother taught her to be. I can imagine how much she wanted at some points talk with some old friends anxious to meet her. I guess she had to made an effort to restrain herself, fake a voice and say that Miss Dietrich wasn't there. 

But Charlotte Chandler visited her in Paris and talked to her. And surprisingly, Marlene was very cooperative, very open, funny at times, wise and direct. I'm a fan of direct quotes. You can imagine how the person pronounced a sentence, certain word. Where she made a pause. You can follow their train of thoughts and that way, know them a bit more. The strongest point of this book is precisely direct quotes.

"I'm not surprised you want to hear about my life. I've had an interesting life. I found it interesting. That's the important thing. Wouldn't be terrible if you didn't find your own life interesting?"

And, in Marlene's own words, you can read about her life in Berlin, about diets, her love for cooking, her parents. You read, believe it or not, about her sister, the one she always denied, because she wanted to protect her. Her friend Ernest Hemingway. Her movies, Hollywood, her dear husband Rudi (the love of her life) and his mistress, her lovers ('Douggie' Fairbanks Jr, Jean Gabin, James Stewart, John Wayne, Joseph AND John Kennedy, etc). Her sentiment about Germany and her role in the war. Her directors. Her dolls collection. A page about her "bohemian" life ("I didn't believe in rejecting anything until I knew what it was"). Music and songs. Her pregnancy and how it affected her physically and mentally.

But there are more direct quotes. Unexpected, interesting direct quotes. You turn a page, and guess what, Bette Davis remembers the time when they participated in the Hollywood Canteen and how Dietrich cooked or scrubbed the floor in the kitchen ("I have a lot of admiration for Marlene Dietrich"), or maybe Douglas Fairbanks Jr. remembers very vividly, very openly his relationship with her and the things she said to him, including her plan to kill Hitler (oh, he also tells a very interesting fact about Laurence Olivier). Joan Crawford was also interviewed by the author and shared what she knew about von Sternberg. Burt Bacharach explains how great and professional Marlene was on stage. The daughter of John Gilbert says she's very grateful with the actress because she was very good to her father and herself ("It was like having a beautiful fairy godmother"). That passage was very moving. 

More people talked: maybe a technician who remembered an anecdote with the star, maybe a then young guy who assisted to university and remembers how he managed to get the legend for a movie and shares all the feelings of a classic film fan who actually met Marlene Dietrich. Great stuff.

But Charlotte Chandler made a mistake. And that mistake has cost her a lot, in my opinion, more than her hard work deserved. She had wonderful material, terrific material, but the way she wrapped it up was wrong. We didn't need another biography, there are plenty, even one written by her own daughter, Maria Riva. We didn't need her to add a very boring description of each movie Marlene did between the marvelous direct quotes I'm telling you about. Because in most cases there are not related quotes to make a real contribution and the plot is left alone, disconnected. The problem is that people reading "a personal biography" in the cover may be disappointed. If she had focused the material as "unpublished interviews", "remembering Marlene", "a conversation with the Blue Angel", she would have nailed it. 

I really enjoyed the book. Now I admire more Marlene Dietrich and at the same time I feel more nostalgia and sadness of the way stars started to fade, their pressure of keeping the myth alive. I think that there is just a format problem that can be  overlooked if you want to read Marlene in her own words.

PS: I'll post today's haiku tonight and it will be about a movie from Marlene :)


  1. I wholly agree with your criticism regarding the film synopses in this book. They are misplaced within the text of the biography and would be more appropriately combined with the filmography.

  2. Hi Joseph, well, yes, I think that she didn't need to tell the plot of each movie, in most cases mentioning the title would had been enough. That's why I think the format was wrong, she should have linked the quotes giving a general vision of what was happening with her filmography. Interesting book, anyway. Thanks for visiting!

  3. I wholly agree with your criticism regarding the film synopses in this book. They are misplaced within the text of the biography and would be more appropriately combined with the filmography.



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