Friday, August 21, 2015


Summer Under the Stars, August 22: Marlene Dietrich

It was 1929, and Marlene Dietrich was appearing on the Berlin stage when Austrian-American film director Josef von Sternberg first caught sight of her. Something in her attitude intrigued him and he thought she might be right for the female lead in his next film, The Blue Angel, to be Germany's first sound film and produced in both German and English-language versions.

Marlene Dietrich, 1930, by Irving Chidnoff
Dietrich would later claim, "My so-called biographers eagerly published a long list of films in which I had appeared at that time and supposedly played leading roles. This is not so. When Josef von Sternberg chose me for The Blue Angel, he was hiring an unknown."

She was cast as Lola Lola, a singer/dancer in a tawdry dive called "The Blue Angel," a more wanton and fleshy seductress than those the actress would later portray. Dietrich's transformation from curvy brownette to svelte blonde would become a subject of some conjecture.

She credited her changing onscreen appearance (and quite a bit more) to her director. Von Sternberg, she said, had placed the main spotlight very low and far away from her to add prominence to the roundness of her face, "No hollow cheeks for The Blue Angel," she would write. "The secret face with the hollow cheeks," the look she became famous for, "was achieved as a result of placing the main spotlight close to my face and high above it." From von Sternberg, Dietrich learned a tremendous amount about lighting and camera; so much so that her knowledge was often greater than that of directors and cameramen she worked with after their collaboration ended. And, to ensure she was being photographed to her best advantage, she came up with the idea of watching herself while filming by placing a full-length mirror next to the camera.

Friday, August 14, 2015


Mr. Benchley, by Al Kilgore

Mr. Benchley, originally of Worcester, Massachusetts, was first and foremost enamored of Manhattan. He was later lured to Hollywood but he was not especially fond of the movie capital. And though his love for New York City endured, Hollywood did, nonetheless, manage to seduce him.

When Mr. Benchley moved to New York, he was a zealous teetotaler and committed pacifist recently wed to his childhood sweetheart. Some years later, while managing editor of Vanity Fair (then an arts and culture magazine), he fell in with other ambitious young writers who, with him, would form the famed "Vicious Circle" at a round table in the Algonquin Hotel. As one of the centerpieces of what would become New York's "in crowd" of the Prohibition Era, it was not long before Mr. Benchley, while visiting a speakeasy with Mrs. Parker and Mr. Sherwood, took his first sip of "demon rum."  The drink with which his friends introduced him to the joys and tragedies of alcohol was the Orange Blossom cocktail.

Sunday, August 9, 2015



Summer Under the Stars, August 9: Robert Walker

From the New York TimesAugust 30, 1951: "Los Angeles, Aug. 29 - Robert Walker, 32-year-old film star whose own desperate and protracted struggle with dark emotional forces topped any of his conflicts on the screen, died last night while undergoing medical treatment for the latest of many tragic crises in his life."

Though his film career was cut short by his untimely end, Robert Walker had managed to be credited in 20 films during his nine years in Hollywood. Most of these movies are long-forgotten, but two of his best endure: Vincente Minnelli's classic war-time romance, The Clock (1945), with Judy Garland, and the Alfred Hitchcock mid-century masterpiece Strangers on a Train (1951). Both films were featured on Sunday, August 9, as part of Turner Classic Movies' Summer Under the Stars day-long tribute to Robert Walker.