Friday, 20 January 2017

Marlene Dietrich // Elsa Mars


Television show American Horror Story is no stranger to using faces and stories from Hollywood as it's inspiration for characters and episodes. One of the most striking and obvious examples is the character of Elsa Mars and the real-life Hollywood legend, Marlene Dietrich. Played by Jessica Lange in season 4 - 'Freak Show' - Elsa is a German woman who is desperately waiting to achieve her dream of stardom, for she encountered misfortune early in her career which she blames for not achieving fame. Instead, she spends the rest of her life managing a freak show - a maternal figure for the other performers but she remains bitter over the career and happiness she was robbed of.

The show itself spells out that Elsa is a rival of Marlene's - both from the same era and making films in Germany at the same time, but Marlene achieved stardom and iconic status, whereas Elsa was left behind. There are several verbal references to Marlene in the series:

'Marlene. That bitch. She stole my career,' 
- Elsa, episode 4, 'Edward Moordrake: Part 1'

'Do you want to hear about Marlene?' 
- Elsa, episode 5 - 'Edward Moordrake: Part 2'

'If you ask me, change your act. Marlene did it better,' 
- Receptionist to Elsa. episode 13, 'Curtain Call'

Aside from those several lines, there is no disputing the similarities between Elsa Mars and Marlene Dietrich. I have to commend the attention to detail that the producers, costume designers, and all the team behind the scenes put into creating a character so similar to Marlene. Having seen most of her films and regarding her as one of my favourite actresses, I recognised so many outfits that were almost identical to what Marlene would have worn. Of course, credit goes to Jessica Lange who absolutely nails the Dietrich mannerisms, gestures, facial expressions, and not forgetting, that unmistakable voice. Low, sensual, and not able to pronounce her 'r's, Lange gets everything spot on without seeming like a Marlene Dietrich impersonator. 

I have gathered some images from the series and Marlene's films/photographs to showcase exactly how much of Marlene Dietrich inspired the role of Elsa Mars. 

1.) Performing outfit. There are hundreds of reasons people admire and adore Marlene Dietrich, but what she will always be remembered for is performing in a top hat and tails. Making it acceptable and fashionable for women to wear trousers, Dietrich owned the androgynous look and even today, her influence can be seen in fashion, music and film. Elsa nearly always performs in a tuxedo, but if she doesn't, she's in a fancy dress with some sort of fur/feather scarf - just like Dietrich did later in her career.

Blonde Venus (1932)

Live performance (maybe London 1972)

2.) Androgyny & Pockets.
Dietrich's wearing of traditionally masculine clothing spilt over from her performances and she was often photographed wearing trousers and shirts. One key Dietrich mannerism is she would walk with her hands in her trouser pockets - both shoulders back and hips forward. She also looked very much at home in military uniform, whether onscreen or supporting allied troops at the European front during the Second World War. Casual yet authoritative, Dietrich looked every inch the movie star without the luxurious dresses.

Publicity still for Seven Sinners (1940)

3.) Feathers & Fur. There is no excuse for people to wear real fur and feathers, and I do hate it. But of course back in 1930s-60s, it was a staple of glamour and wealth. Every Hollywood star wore fur and feathers in some fashion, and AHS have certainly taken note of that (I hope they used fakes). Even the few images I found of Dietrich wearing sunglasses, a turban, or a dressing gown, Elsa had her very own version in AHS. Although the name Dietrich was synonymous with glamour, it wasn't uncommon for her to be filmed with little make-up, a dressing gown, pyjamas, and doing chores. AHS have taken note of this too and did the same with Elsa. 

Stage Fright (1950)

The Shanghai Express (1932)

Stage Fright (1950)

Stage Fright (1950)

The Shanghai Express (1932)

The Shanghai Express (1932)

Blonde Venus (1932)
A Foreign Affair (1948)

4.) Platinum Blonde. Throughout most of the series Elsa has a lightish brown/red colour to her hair, much like Dietrich in her first Hollywood films. For the majority of her career, Dietrich had light blonde hair but there was a short period of time where she went for a harsher, more platinum blonde. AHS use this colour for Elsa's flashbacks to when she was in Germany and when she first started managing the freak show in Florida. 

5.) Film scenes. There are some definite inspirations from Dietrich's film performances dotted throughout the series, especially her iconic scenes from The Shanghai Express (which has been recreated many times in popular culture - most notably, Madonna in her song, 'Vogue'). But even Dietrich's lesser known films seem to be given a shout-out in AHS. A definite nod is made to her focus on concerts and performances during the 1950s and 1960s, some of which were televised. This was the perfect inspiration for Elsa's eventual success as a television star. 

Iconic - Dietrich in The Shanghai Express (1932).

The Shanghai Express (1932)

The Devil is a Woman (1935)

Dietrich - the singer/performer.

 6.) Cigarettes. And finally, nearly every movie star back in studio era Hollywood was smoking in most of their scenes. But no one smoked a cigarette like Dietrich. Showing off her already prominent cheekbones and oozing both a sinister and sensual air, AHS made the most of this for the character of Elsa (mind you, every character Lange plays in each AHS series is constantly smoking.)

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