I am a huge fan of Quentin Crisp’s commentary on the great goddesses of film that were compiled in his wonderful book How to Go to the Movies. In addition to being a phenomenal writer, Crisp’s insight into the particular dynamics of each of the actresses he discusses—in this case, Marlene Dietrich—is informed both by both a gay sensibility and having been a contemporary of his subjects. This combination is captivating, as Crisp is able to truly contextualize the actress within the her own time; his observations feel quite different from contemporary writers peering back in history. His essays are filled with thrilling moments where he seems to get it just right.
From How to Go to The Movies, by Quentin Crisp
Beauty is, as already noted, not so much a woman as a man’s idea of a woman—preferably born of a different race from his own or into another class so as to add a pinch of unattainability. In the movie industry, enchantment was acquired by Aryan goddesses when seen through Jewish eyes.
The relationship that most perfectly embodied this eternal law was that which bound Mr. von Sternberg to Miss Dietrich. She had, in fact, made many films before; against all odds, he cast her as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel, but he was the first director to realize the full possibilities of her immaculate insolence. This characteristic, he made into her personal method of stretching to the requisite hour and forty-five minutes the time lag between her first meeting with her leading man and their traditional close-up, fadeout kiss. Modern movies are not constructed on this principle. Delicious dalliance has gone out of fashion and the new film length of two and a quarter hours is deemed too long to wait just for a bit of you know what.
Miss Dietrich’s early Hollywood movies were the most immoral ever generally released. She did not reveal any more of her body than other screen sirens of her day, nor was she seen behaving in any more explicitly sexual way, but the plots of nearly all these pictures showed her living a life of total degradation. In Shanghai Express, for instance, she forever plied her trade back and forth from Shanghai to Peking until, after a great deal of mileage, to say nothing of footage, she meets her former fiancé quite by chance but without, one must add, the slightest sign of embarrassment. Here as elsewhere, her costar was chosen from among the most boring actors that the casting office could supply. This was done to make it clear that matrimony was inevitable.
Though on one occasion she sank so low as to wear a hat—the brim of which was weighted down with artificial cherries—Miss Dietrich never seemed to pay the smallest price for her sins, but perhaps I have read the message wrongly. It may be that the ultimate punishment for a lifetime of unremitting fornication is that you become too weak to defend yourself from marriage.
Alvaro is a world-renowned artist celebrated for his portraits and illustrations of the icons of film, music, and pop culture, as well as his “girls”—the super models. A true New Yorker, born in Brooklyn and raised in the South Bronx, Alvaro’s work is distinctive for projecting a contemporary streetwise sensibility while simultaneously evoking the timeless glamour of classic Hollywood.
About Quentin Crisp:
There are few writers who ever commented on Old Hollywood with the keen insight and exhilarating wit of Quentin Crisp. His observations about film and film stars in his fine book How to Go to the Movies uniquely combines a Queer sensibility with common sense analysis and the result, as you will see, is fascinating. Reading Quentin Crisp on film captures a similar kind of joy that I feel when I see a performer like Charles Busch at his best; good-naturedly poking fun and paying tribute simultaneously which, believe me, is a brilliant thing when it’s done with style.
More Quentin Crisp: