Cleaning Up Her Act: Dietrich, Hollywood, and Lola Lola’s Laundry

Her name was Lola Lola. She was a showgirl. Never mind yellow feathers in her hair. Her dive wasn’t exactly the Copa. She was a practical kind of dame who worked up a sweat making those drool who followed her curves as she did her “Head to Toe” number over at the Blue Angel. She wasn’t the “Angel” . . . at least not until Paramount took her under its ample wing and transformed her into a goddess, a Blonde Venus whose heavenly body was beyond the touch of mortals. It was certainly beyond the thought of body odor.

Last night, as I watched Der Blaue Engel (1930), the German classic responsible for Marlene Dietrich’s career in Hollywood, I thought of that transformation and thought of it as a fortunate mistake. Fortunate because it gave us this iconic figure—slimmer, trimmer than that of the fleshy Lola—and a face that was all cheekbones and arched, pencilled brows. A mistake because all that glamour inhibited an actress who henceforth was thought of as a star, dazzling and distant.

In Hollywood, Dietrich was an exotic figure whose very voice spelled foreign. In Der Blaue Engel, she had an accent as well; but one that told German audiences that she was a girl of the streets and not a creature from Mount Olympus.

Right at the beginning of the film, Lola Lola gets a dousing; her image, that is, which is on display in a shop window. She seems in need of it; her life and trade being none too clean. “Mensch, mach Dir bloss keen Fleck,” she snaps at her short-tempered boss (“don’t soil yourself”), just before she sets out to reduce the respectable academic Dr. Rath (“Dr. Council”) to Professor Unrat (“Professor Refuse”). That is where that box of soap powder comes in, with which the showgirl washes her undies (as pictured above).
Those are Lux flakes, prominently displayed in the center of the frame. Some six years after the success of The Blue Angel, Dietrich once again became associated with the stuff, without having to come in contact with it. On 1 June 1936, she became the first actress to appear in the overhauled Lux Radio Theater, whose stage had been moved from Broadway to Hollywood. After slipping into the role of Amy Jolly in an adaptation of her first American picture (Morocco), Dietrich had a chance to sing Lola Lola’s signature song “Falling in Love Again,” perhaps as a plea to an audience rather less enthralled by her than poor Dr. Rath. In German, that had been “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt,” lines that translate as follows:

I am from head to toe
Ready for love
Since that is my world
And else nothing.

From head to toe, and every body part in between. Die “fesche Lola” was all flesh; what was returned to us from Paramount Olympus was a shape in shadow and light, a statue made of glamour and enlivened by suggestion. And when audiences were through adoring her, whether irritated by her anaemic vehicles or incensed by the bloodshed in Europe, it was tough for Dietrich to regain the earthiness she had agreed to renounce . . .

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