Moviegoers who saw the character of Lili von Schtup in Blazing Saddles might not have realized they were seeing a parody of the character played by legendary film actress Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again.
Marlene Dietrich began as a silent film actress in Germany in the 1920s, and then in the 1930s came to Hollywood with director Josef von Sternberg. It was how she was presented working with von Sternberg, and particularly how she looked with his movie lighting, which helped her to create one of the great careers in movie history.
Under von Sternberg’s lighting, Marlene had sculpted features, prominent cheekbones, and a glamorous, angular face. But photos of her earlier in her career and candid pictures shot over time, show that, in reality, she had a much rounder face, not nearly as lean and sculptured. The difference is that in von Sternberg films her key light in close-ups was positioned above her and to the front. This light coming down from above can be recognized because it leaves a small shadow right under the nose. The is called “Butterly Lighting” and it soon became a standard method of Hollywood glamour lighting in BW movies.
Dietrich understood the value of this kind of lighting in creating the kind of glamour image that became her “brand.” So throughout her career, working with other directors and DP’s, she insisted on being lit the same way. Hollywood, knowing a good thing when they saw it (meaning box office success), generally complied with her wishes.
Take a look at a Dietrich scene in a von Sternberg movie and you’ll see her moving around the set in longer shots, but when there is a close-up she positions herself under a key light located to the front and above. Notice the shadow under her nose. That is the sign of butterfly lighting, This was also known as Paramount lighting, but in my view, it could have been called Von Sternberg Lighting.
One of my favorite Hollywood studio photographers, George Hurrell, frequently used this lighting set up shooting stars from Dietrich and Greta Garbo to Tyrone Power and Clark Gable. If fact, butterfly lighting is still a great technique for shooting portraits that are dramatic, sculptural and glamourous.
Some artistic techniques may fall out of fashion but never go out of style.
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