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After a three-year absence Marlene Dietrich returned to Hollywood in 1947 to star in Golden Earrings. It also marked her return to Paramount Studios, where she had earlier achieved stardom before her career went into decline after a string of box-office disasters. But even though she had to take second billing to leading man Ray Milland, Dietrich made sure the picture was all hers.
When director Mitchell Leisen first took on Yolanda Foldes' best seller about a gypsy woman who helps a downed British flyer hide from Nazi soldiers by disguising him as her gypsy lover, he knew he had to have Dietrich as his leading lady. He and his agent, Charles Feldman - who also represented Dietrich - had their work cut out for them convincing Paramount's executives to welcome back their one-time star. They finally argued that she was the only actress who could maintain her glamour while dressed in the gypsy's rags. They also suggested that audiences would welcome her back to the screen after her years of work with the USO during World War II.
Filming started while Dietrich was still in France, where she was engaged in a torrid affair with a French Army general. So the studio started with long shots of an escape sequence in which a stunt woman ran over hills and fallen logs clad in the Hollywood version of gypsy garb - complete with decidedly inauthentic spike heels. Meanwhile, Dietrich was researching gypsy life in the camps along the Seine. When she got to the set, she brought an authentic costume with her and insisted on playing the role barefoot. Paramount didn't want to pay to re-shoot the escape scene, so the close-ups of Dietrich show her in a different costume than in the long shots.
In addition to letting her dictate the character's wardrobe, Leisen also let her do her own makeup (Dietrich was the only Hollywood star who also belonged to the makeup artists' union) and light her own scenes. This did not go over well with Milland, who feared she would use her control to steal the picture from him.
Milland had not wanted to do the film, claiming the story was ridiculously lightweight for an actor who had just won an Oscar for playing the alcoholic writer in The Lost Weekend (1945). He also said that Dietrich, only two years his senior, was too old to be his love interest. For her part, she complained that he had body odor and was a lousy actor. In private, she even suggested that he'd gotten the part because Leisen, whose homosexuality was well-known throughout Hollywood, was attracted to him. This was a particularly nasty joke on Milland, who was one of the screen's most notorious homophobes and eventually refused to work with Leisen for fear that he might, indeed, make a pass at him.
On the set, Dietrich delighted in shocking Milland. For one scene by the campfire, she pulled a fish head out of her cauldron, popped it in her mouth, sucked out the eyes, then pulled the fish head back out. When Leisen called cut, she then stuck her finger down her throat so she could throw up the fish eyes. She did this in repeated takes, as Milland grew paler and paler under his gypsy makeup. In another scene she reached under her skirt to scratch for lice, then offered Milland some bread with the same hand.
Yet she was also the complete trouper. Her cauldron was actually only lukewarm, but bubbled and steamed thanks to some dry ice in the bottom. One day when they went to lunch, the props people forgot to put out the fire under the kettle. When they returned, the water really was boiling, which Dietrich found out when she reached into it. But even though she had second degree burns, she insisted on finishing the scene, even reaching into the cooled off cauldron with her injured hand.
Although the critics were not kind to Golden Earrings, it fared well at the box office, returning almost seven times its cost to the studio. The film's popularity was helped tremendously by its hit title song, which spent 14 weeks on the Hit Parade, and some free publicity by the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency, which condemned the film for showing Dietrich and Milland living together without benefit of wedlock. But the biggest draw was Dietrich herself. Milland and Leisen had both been right: she had used her witty turn as the gypsy to steal the film, and audience's were indeed eager to see the woman they thought had helped win the war. Top-billed Milland was none too happy to see the film's ad campaign focus almost entirely on his leading lady, with posters announcing "Dietrich's Back!" But after Golden Earrings became a hit, nobody could deny that the screen's most glamorous German was back and back to stay.
Producer: Harry TugendDirector: Mitchell Leisen
Screenplay: Frank Butler, Helen Deutsch, Abraham Polonsky
Based on the novel by Yolanda Foldes
Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, John Meehan
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Ray Milland (Colonel Ralph Denistoun), Marlene Dietrich (Lydia), Murvyn Vye (Zoltan), Bruce Lester (Richard Byrd), Dennis Hoey (Hoff), Reinhold Schunzel (Professor Otto Krosigk), Ivan Triesault (Major Reimann).
By Frank Miller