Wednesday 15 August 2018

Mary Kenny: When sirens called the shots

The femme fatale was the active seductress, not the passive victim

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

I have before me a picture of Marlene Dietrich in her prime, sent by a friend in Berlin. It's taken soon after her 1930s debut in The Blue Angel, an erotic tale about a sedate professor who falls under the spell of a night-club singer. Dietrich played the role of femme fatale in many a film, when as a woman whose power is in her beauty and her compelling personality, she calls the shots.

As a teenager I formed an ambition to be a bad-girl (sometimes achieved) after seeing Marlene Dietrich's languid courtesan in Shanghai Express. There's a key moment when an old flame, played by the rather stuffed-shirt British actor Clive Brooks, places a jodhpurred boot on a stool and asks Marlene meaningfully: "Are you married yet?" Through a cloud of cigarette smoke, she replies with self-assurance: "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lil!" Ah, what a gal!

The 1940s were marked by movies with women as strong characters, sexy sirens and femmes fatales. Bette Davis swaggered in dominatrix style through All About Eve, Joan Crawford was a driven single mother in Mildred Pierce and Barbara Stanwyck was a darkly active protagonist in film noir.

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