Director Josef von Sternberg and his marvelous muse Marlene Dietrich teamed for their fifth film together with BLONDE VENUS, a deliciously decadent soap opera that’s a whole lot of fun for Pre-Code lovers. Sternberg indulges his Marlene fetish by exploring both sides of her personality, as both Madonna and whore, and Dietrich plays it to the hilt in a film that no censor would dare let pass just a scant two years later.
How’s this for an opening: a group of schoolboys hiking through the Black Forest stumble upon a bevy of naked stage chanteuses taking a swim! The girls scream and try to hide, and beautiful Helen (Marlene) tries to shoo them away. Ned Faraday refuses until Helen agrees to meet him later. Flash forward to a scene of Helen and Ned now married with a young son named Johnny. Ned, a chemist by trade, has been poisoned by radiation and is thinking of selling his body to science. There’s a chance of a cure, but it’s in Dresden, and New Yorker Ned can’t afford the $1500 for the trip. Helen offers to return to the stage to raise the money, and although Ned disapproves, he eventually comes to grips with the fact there’s no other way out.
From there, we follow Helen’s journey from docile hausfrau to nightclub sensation to wandering prostitute, with Sternberg’s camera slavishly keeping all eyes on Marlene. Dietrich could command the screen with the best of them – Cagney, Wayne, Lugosi at his peak. She gets an agent, who gets “all hopped up” over this “pip” of a woman, and lands her a gig at a club, redubbing her “The Blonde Venus”. Her ‘Hot Voodoo’ number, with Marlene crouching about in a gorilla costume, then seductively stripping it off piece by piece while donning a blonde afro wig, with native dancers writhing to the pounding rhythm of the drums, then turning into a hot jazz vamp, her knowing smile exuding sex appeal, makes the film worth watching all by itself!
In the audience is political ‘boss’ Nick Townsend, who immediately wants her, and Nick always gets what he wants. This was the fourth film appearance for 28-year-old Cary Grant , before he honed his screen persona to perfection, and he’s quite effective in the part. Helen tells Ned the club manager has given her an advance, and he’s off to Dresden, but in reality the money came from Nick – and now they’re more than just friends! When Ned returns from abroad and finds his home empty, he tracks her down. She tells him the truth, and he threatens to take Johnny away from her, so Helen and her child take a powder, an oddessy that takes them halfway across the country, trailed by a PI who catches up with her in Galveston.
After coming to the realization she’s “no good at all, no good for anything”, Helen gives up Johnny and sinks to a new low. Heartbroken and drunk, staggering into a flophouse, Helen’s on the verge of suicide, but instead winds up back to Europe, becoming the Toast of Paris. We get another number, “I Couldn’t Be Annoyed”, which Marlene sings in both French and English, dressed in a masculine white tuxedo and smoking from a long cigarette holder. Nick, who went abroad to forget her, is again in the audience, but now Helen is “cold as the proverbial icicle”. She returns to New York with him so she can see Johnny one more time, and things come full circle in a real tear-jerker of an ending.
All this goes on under the watchful eye of Sternberg and DP Bert Glennon, a favorite of both the German director and John Ford. Sternberg’s trademark Expressionist shadowplay would be a heavy influence on films noir to come. The breakneck script by Jules Furthman and S.K. Lauren (allegedly from an original story by Dietrich herself) takes Marlene from domestic bliss to the depths of despair, and the audience on a ride filled with eye-popping moments.
Herbert Marshall has the thankless part of Ned Faraday, although BLOND VENUS would make him a star in America. It’s a bit of a stretch to find Ned, who first laid eyes on Helen skinnydipping, would turn so prudish, but these were the mores of the times. Little Dickie Moore , former OUR GANG star, was one of the busiest child actors of the early thirties, and he’s good as young Johnny. Future Charlie Chan Sidney Toler warms up for the role as Detective Wilson, Rita LeRoy has a juicy bit as Helen’s rival Taxi Belle, and among the Familiar Faces are Al Bridge, Cecil Cunningham , the ubiquitous Bess Flowers , Mary Gordon, Sterling Holloway , Hattie McDaniel, Clarence Muse, Robert Emmett O’Connor, Dewey Robinson, and Morgan Wallace. BLONDE VENUS is a merry-go-round of a movie, and though some don’t rank it high in the von Sternberg/Dietrich catalogue, I found it a delightful exercise in debauchery, and as I said earlier, that “Hot Voodoo” number alone makes it worthy of your attention!