What popularized the baby name Marlene in the 1930s?

Actress Marlene Dietrich in the film "The Blue Angel" (1930)
Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel

According to the U.S. baby name data, the name Marlene was the fastest-rising baby name of 1931. It went on to see its highest-ever usage several years later, in the mid-1930s:

  • 1937: 5,037 baby girls named Marlene [rank: 40th]
  • 1936: 5,331 baby girls named Marlene [rank: 39th] – peak usage
  • 1935: 4,830 baby girls named Marlene [rank: 39th]
  • 1934: 3,755 baby girls named Marlene [rank: 57th]
  • 1933: 4,045 baby girls named Marlene [rank: 50th]
  • 1932: 3,218 baby girls named Marlene [rank: 78th]
  • 1931: 2,586 baby girls named Marlene [rank: 95th]
  • 1930: 306 baby girls named Marlene [rank: 388th]
  • 1929: 129 baby girls named Marlene [rank: 605th]

Here’s a visual:

Graph of the usage of the baby name Marlene in the U.S. since 1880
Usage of the baby name Marlene

What was popularizing Marlene during the the 1930s?

German actress Marlene Dietrich (pronounced mar-LAY-nah DEET-rikh).

She became an international star upon the release of Der blaue Engel (translation: The Blue Angel), Germany’s first feature-length sound film, in April of 1930.

Directed by Josef von Sternberg, the movie told the story of a respectable school teacher (played by Emil Jannings) whose obsession with a seductive cabaret singer named Lola Lola (Dietrich) led to his downfall.

Actress Marlene Dietrich in the film "The Blue Angel" (1930)
Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel

Following the success of Der blaue Engel, both von Sternberg and Dietrich moved to Hollywood to continue “what would become one of the most legendary partnerships in cinema history.”

Over the course of six films produced by Paramount in the 1930s, the pair refined their shared fantasy of pleasure, beauty, and excess. Dietrich’s coolly transgressive mystique was a perfect match for the provocative roles von Sternberg cast her in — including a sultry chanteuse, a cunning spy, and the hedonistic Catherine the Great.

Those six films were…

Dietrich continued to appear on the big screen for decades to come, but reached the height of her fame — in terms of bankability as a movie star — during the 1930s.

She was born Marie Magdalene Dietrich in Berlin in 1901. Her earliest nicknames were Leni and Lene, but, while still a child, she voiced her preference for the contraction Marlene. Here’s her account of the story:

When I created my name, the first person I told was my sister [Elisabeth]. I told her that I didn’t like my name because it was too common a name in Germany.

I told Liesel I had decided to combine Marie and Magdalene to make a new name for myself, Marlene.

My sister said I would have a very peculiar name. No one else in school would have a name like Marlene. That’s just what I wanted to hear.

Dietrich also noted that she saw Marlene as a “glamorous name” with “a kind of French aura.”

What are your thoughts on the name Marlene?


Images: Screenshots of The Blue Angel

3 thoughts on “What popularized the baby name Marlene in the 1930s?

  1. I can’t believe that I never put that together for myself, that Marlene is a contraction of Mary (or Marie) Magdalene. I think it’s a beautiful name in German. I don’t like the 2-syllable “mar-LEEN” pronunciation that much. But I love Marla.

    I also hadn’t realized that Liesel is a nickname for Elisabeth. I’ve only known one Liesel in real life, plus the famous character from The Sound of Music. I love it.

  2. I wish we had data on pronunciation — I’d love to know how many of the babies named Marlene in the 1930s were taught to pronounce their names mar-LEEN as opposed to mar-LAY-nah. I suspect most of them were, because that’s how the other trendy -lene names of the era (Arlene, Darlene, Charlene, etc.) were pronounced.

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