“‘I tried my damnedest to believe in the rainbow that I tried to get over and I couldn’t.’” (Judy Garland, as quoted by Howe, par. 17)
“[B]ecause [Marlene Dietrich] was unwilling to change her image, she was finally victimized by it.” (James, par. 24)
My original intention for this post was to talk about the unexpected friendship between the glamorous Marlene Dietrich and the pixie-like Judy Garland and discuss their singing careers, since both turned to stage performing later in their careers. But the deeper I got into my research on both Garland and Dietrich, the more fascinated I became about their Hollywood images and how they dealt with that image.
The Hollywood image was of course foremost in many studio producers’ minds in the days of the studio system and many actors were, as Caryn James points out in her article “The Dietrich Mystique”, a victim of it. Both Garland and Dietrich were women with many layers, multi-talented, and had complex psychological realities. They were perhaps more victimized by the Hollywood image than most, in different ways.
On the face of it, there are probably no two actresses in Hollywood who were more different. Dietrich was elegant and sophisticated with the kind of chiseled beauty that made Hollywood stars unapproachable ideals. Dietrich worked hard to maintain this image, often coming off as maybe a little too cool and controlled. One of her characters, Christine Vole, in Witness For The Prosecution (1957), ironically says it best when she reassures Sir Wilfred Owen (Charles Lawton), she is “quite disciplined”. These words exactly describe Dietrich’s personality and work ethic. In this interview on Swedish television in the 1970’s, Dietrich insists she was a hard worker because she was taught to do her duty and her loyalty was to others rather than to herself. In other words, her German upbringing favored the collective over the individual.
The Hollywood image, or, mystique, as James refers to it, dictated Dietrich’s entire life and she sacrificed a lot to maintain it. The controlled, always-got-it-together image was partly fictional. As James points out, “[Dietrich] scorned facts and never settled for the truth when a pretty lie would do” (par. 7). One of the most notorious lies she told was about her age, “for publicity purposes [shaving] years off her age…” (James, par. 10). In this interview on the Jack Paar show in 1964, Garland, with her usual sharp wit, jokes there is no longer much difference in age between them, since Dietrich keeps bringing down her age (there was, in fact, 21 years between them). A more serious lie was Dietrich’s denial she had a sister. As James explains, during World War II when Dietrich was doing work in Europe supporting the troups, “she [learned] from the British that her sister and brother-in-law had been working for a group supporting the Nazis…. Dietrich publicly denied her sister’s existence from then on” (par. 21). Notoriously anti-Nazi and so outspoken about it her films were banned in Germany, Dietrich was so committed to her convictions she was willing to fabricate a family plot.
Dietrich also obliterated some of the seedier parts of her past prior to her arrival with director Joseph von Sternberg to the United States that kicked off her American film career in 1930. For example, “she did a notorious lesbian song-and-dance in a stage revue; she played many small roles in silent films, including one on which she astutely said she ‘looked like a potato’; she was carefree about her sex life and ambitious about her career” (James, par. 19). Indeed, many people see her life only from the point of her success in Sternberg’s The Blue Angel just before her arrival in the States. Sadly, the last years of Dietrich’s life were as blurry to the public as her first. Ironically, the substance abuse plaguing Garland throughout her life caught up with Dietrich as well, as “[b]y [the end of her life] she was addicted to pills and alcohol, and after falling and fracturing her hip in 1979, she ‘put herself to bed for the rest of her life’” (James, par. 15). Dietrich died in 1992, hiding her true self from the public to maintain her image for 23 years.
It’s ironic how, in the Swedish interview, Dietrich insisted all the images created by actors in Hollywood were really of their own choosing rather than forced upon them by the studios. Nothing could be farther from the truth for Judy Garland. In her article, Carolyn Howe explains Garland wanted to write a tell-all autobiography during the last years of her life because “[s]he wanted to hit back at the toll endless work days took on her, the lack of real schooling, how she was plied with pills to thin and pills to sleep and crush the endlessly perpetuated myths and lies about her life and loves” (Howe, par. 2). Where Dietrich held on to the Hollywood mystique until the end, Garland, in her admiringly straight-forward way, insisted “ ‘I’m going to talk. Maybe somebody will read it and maybe somebody will learn a little of the truth of this so-called legend! That’s what I’m supposed to be, a legend’” (as quoted by Howe, par. 12).
In fact, Garland was always honest about the life fabricated for her as a child star. As Howe indicates, “MGM put out stories about all of Judy’s fictitious likes and dislikes, her favorite foods and desire to eat like a truck driver, her physical activities including motorbiking” (Howe, par. 37). This is part of what made Garland the complex person she was, as her childhood was anything but the cotton candy and lollypops MGM made it out to be. Garland was pushed onto the stage at two-and-a-half years old by her stage mother, performing with her sister in vaudeville and signing an MGM contract at the age of thirteen. The fairy tale they made of her past even at that age set the tone for the troubles she experienced in her personal life later on:
“Surrogate childhoods were invented for the child stars. With Judy, that destroyed any hope of finding roots and stability that could possibly make up for the isolated, lonely childhood she felt growing up and the early death of her father when she was only twelve.” (Howe, par. 39)
The image set for Garland as the girl-next-door in the Andy Hardy films, the little girl with the big voice, made the transition from child star to adult star difficult. I think people expected her to be bubbly and energetic, the woman who was always ready to break out in song when asked, masked n astute and intelligent woman with a darker side. For example, Garland describes her experience with psychotherapy:
“‘In an effort to learn why I had never been able to get closer to people, I took a series of psychoanalytical treatments. I’m sure psychoanalysis has helped a great many people, but for me it was like taking strong medicine for a disease I didn’t have. It just tore me apart’” (as quoted by Howe, par. 51)
Similarly, some people are dismissive of Garland blaming the MGM studio for her struggles with addiction but Garland explains this in terms that go way beyond substance abuse:
“‘They’d give us pep pills. Then they’d take us to the studio hospital and knock us cold with sleeping pills. After four hours they’d wake us up and give us the pep pills again. That’s the way we worked, and that’s the way we got thin. That’s the way we got mixed up. And that’s the way we lost contact.’” (Howe, par. 41 and 42)
I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine Garland’s feeling of losing contact drove her to try to re-establish that contact with her fans, her loved ones, and her own legend for the rest of her life.
We can’t underestimate the Hollywood machine during the Golden Age of Hollywood and the toll it took on some of its stars. That they managed to become legends in spite of the confusion and chaos to their indentities I can attribute to their incredible talent. But beyond the legends are people, complex and aware. As Garland herself insisted, “‘[t]here’s me! There’s a lot of life going on here’” (as quoted by Howe, par. 16).
Howe, Carolyn. “’I tried my damnedest to believe in the rainbow that I tried to get over and I couldn’t. SO WHAT!’ Judy Garland, in her own words, on drugs, drink, suicide attempts and her loathing of Hollywood.” DailyMail.com, Associated Newspapers, Ltd., 2017. 3 September 2014. Web. 7 June 2017.
James, Caryn. “The Dietrich Mistique.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 2017. 29 January 1993. Web. 7 June 2017.