“See what the boys in the [dark]room will have”: No Highway, Angus McBean, and Dietrich’s Face

Marlene Dietrich (1951) by Angus McBean, SoAM&G, Aberystwyth University
Purchase: Adrian Woodhouse (2016)
Funding support: ACE/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and The Art Fund

Of all the pictures currently on display in Make/Believe, the latest in a series of annual exhibition projects I create for staging by students of my curating class at Aberystwyth University, Angus McBean’s 1951 photograph of Marlene Dietrich is my favorite. 

What draws me in is the blankness of Dietrich’s face, her eyes looking not at us but beyond us, at nothing in particular, with a lack of any definable expression, emotion or urgency. The vacant gaze, bespeaking an unavailability and a refusal to engage, suggests the subject’s control over an image that is all surface: like theatrical curtains, the lids may come down on those eyes any moment now, shutting us out entirely.

It is a blankness that is not nothingness, invested as it becomes with the spectacle it makes of our longing.  It is a blankness that is not openness; it gives nothing away while it commands our attention and inspires our awe at its sublime perfection – a perfection that belies the sprezzatura, the rehearsed effortlessness and nonchalance of the performance.

Nothing here encourages us to imagine what those eyes are looking at; nothing that invites us to see anything through those eyes.  Those eyes are the event in a face – a site – that is all look.  I am glamor, this face says, and what else, what more could you – or anyone – possibly be looking for!

The photograph holds me because the look withholds so much. What we are not getting is a portrait of the sitter, then in her fiftieth year.  This photograph, clearly, is not of Dietrich, the person.  It is the image of a mask that is already a persona.  In this masquerade, as intriguing as anything conceived by Cindy Sherman in her film stills, the image is a simulacrum – the fiction of a fiction of a fiction.

Prosaically speaking, the photograph is a publicity shot.  It shows the fictional film actress Monica Teasdale, a part that Dietrich did not so much inhabit as drift in and out of in the 1951 film No Highway in the Sky.  A review in the trade paper Motion Picture Herald (21 July 1951) declared that 

[p]rior to discussing the actual merits of this Twentieth Century-Fox film, […], a word should be said about the reappearance of Marlene Dietrich.  She still retains that aura of glamour and beauty which drew patrons, and her presence in this picture should be capitalized by all exhibitors. They can’t go wrong.

Co-star James Stewart – with whom Dietrich had a far more physical connection in Destry Rides Again, and off-screen, more than a decade earlier – can be glimpsed at in the celluloid film strip that forms both the flagpole and the banner under which the face creates the illusion of being the main event.

Produced in England, No Highway in the Sky was based on the 1948 novel No Highway by Nevil Shute, a 1950 edition of which I happened upon in a second-hand bookstore in Machynlleth a few weeks after the McBean exhibition opened.  I was curious to learn just how much of Monica Teasdale was in Shute’s novel – or, perhaps, how much of Dietrich was in Shute’s Monica Teasdale – and whether Dietrich, in her features or as a mystique, resembles the character in Shute’s novel.

The dust wrapper image – yet another interpretation of Monica Teasdale – suggests little physical resemblance.  The character Shute imagined is a beautiful woman in her fifties with “deep auburn hair.”  Aside from that, though, what we get in the novel is the essence of star power and the enduring – imaginary and yet real – hold it can assert over us.

In Shute’s novel, we experience Ms. Teasdale through the eyes of an unworldly scientist, Theodore Honey, whose research is concerned with “fatigue in aircraft structures.”  While his work has concrete applications, preventing death, Honey has become detached from the everyday after the death of his wife.  A negligent single father and a scientist whose methods are being questioned as too abstract, he is recalled to real life by the mirage that is Monica Teasdale, whose familiar face he unexpectedly encounters on a plane that he is convinced will crash:

Mr. Honey’s eyes rested on a woman travelling alone; he paused, and stared at her in frank curiosity.  She was seated two rows behind him, on the other side of the aisle.  She was a very beautiful woman […], carefully made up, wearing a most magnificent mink fur.  In spite of all the trimmings her face remained keen and intelligent, giving added charm to her great beauty.  Mr. Honey knew her at first glance, and his heart rose in sudden emotion and he felt a tightening in his throat and tears welling up behind his eyes.  She was Monica Teasdale.

When Honey had […] had married a girl as unsophisticated as he was. They were a very simple couple […].  They went a good deal to the movies, but they were discriminating picturegoers; if they didn’t like the film they would walk out of it, preferring to lose their money than to sit through an unworthy show. They never walked out of anything with Monica Teasdale in it.

They loved Monica Teasdale with all the enthusiasm of very simple people; throughout their life together they did not miss one of her films. […] That went on from the day that they became engaged till Mary Honey was killed in the year 1944.  That finished it abruptly: since that time Mr. Honey had not been inside a picture-house.

Monica Teasdale was for Mr. Honey part of his lost life, a part of the simple pleasures and enthusiasms he had shared with his young wife.

The illusions of the screen are so much part of the reality of Honey’s life – of our lives – that their preservation itself becomes a matter of life and death.

Dietrich and Stewart in a scene from No Highway in the Sky

Meanwhile, photographing stars like Dietrich was McBean’s bread and butter.  Of his experience of meeting Marlene Dietrich in his studio, the queer Welsh photographer told biographer Adrian Woodhouse: “Everyone was in such a daze and she was so much the personification of glamour that she was in and out almost before we had realized it.”  

To Dietrich – who reprised her role alongside Stewart in a 1952 adaptation of No Highway in the Sky produced by Lux Radio Theatre – this photoshoot was little more than another cameo, a brief but memorable appearance to which her later parts in movies were increasingly and strategically limited.  To McBean, on the other hand, the publicity shoot became an opportunity further to promote his practice.  An advertisement for his studio made the cheeky claim – drawing attention to the sitter we are expected to think away –  that all of his photographs “would reproduce as well as this picture of Miss Dietrich.”  No way! But, at a mere £6 for a sitting in four poses yielding four mounted prints, no highway robbery, either.

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