Blonde Venus (1932)
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
Written by: Jules Furthman, S.K. Lauren
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, Cary Grant, Dickie Moore
Being something of a self-professed film buff, I like to think that I’m fairly well-versed in movie history, especially when it comes to Hollywood. I have to admit that the films of Josef von Sternberg are a massive blind spot of mine, and the director’s relatively small filmography is one of the more daunting things I’ve yet to tackle. Sternberg’s 1932 film Blonde Venus seemed like a perfect place to start off because of its pre-code nature, so naturally I took advantage of the pairing. While Blonde Venus is generally considered to be one of Sternberg’s least memorable directorial efforts, I had quite a strong initial reaction to it – it features a very good performance from Marlene Dietrich, another Hollywood legend I have little experience with, a compelling narrative with real stakes, and is at its core a rather complex morality tale. An impressive and emotional supporting turn from Herbert Marshall certainly helps keep the film together, and an early appearance from Cary Grant was a joy to see.
Blonde Venus follows Helen (Marlene Dietrich) and Ned (Herbert Marshall) Faraday, a young married couple living together with their son Johnny (Dickie Moore). Ned had recently come down with a serious illness as a result of one of his experiments, and the Faraday’s do not have the money for treatment. Helen vows to return to the theatre in order to earn the funding needed to send Ned away to Germany for treatment. Helen’s work in the theatre quickly attracts the attention of Nick Townsend (Cary Grant), a cocksure young politician. With Ned leaving for Germany, Helen and Nick begin to have a love affair . Helen and Johnny move into an apartment owned by Nick, and Helen gradually falls in love with the young politician. When Ned returns home to find Helen and Johnny missing, things begin to fall apart. Ned eventually files for a divorce from Helen, causing her to flee with Johnny in order to keep her young son. What follows is an exciting, morally complex tale of a mother stopping at nothing to protect her young son, and the self-destruction she experiences when she loses him.
The first act of Blonde Venus serves strictly to set up the private lives of Helen and Ned Faraday, delivering a great deal of character development and exposition in a short twenty minutes. While it certainly isn’t the most exciting or innovative part of the film, it’s important in setting context for the events to come. When Marlene Dietrich takes to the stage for her famous “Hot Voodoo” musical number, Blonde Venus truly picks up and becomes something truly memorable. The number reveals Helen’s nature as a living, breathing woman with sexual needs and desires – a truly modern woman in a world that isn’t yet ready for these things. In this scene, Helen is simultaneously a strong matriarchal figure and a free, modern woman with real power over an audience made up almost entirely of older men. From here, Blonde Venus reveals its true nature as something more than a typical “woman’s picture” – a complex morality tale tackling themes of sex, marriage, freedom, and one’s meaning in life.
The film’s middle act sees Helen running away with her young son Johnny, followed in hot pursuit by her ex-husband Ned and a seemingly endless amount of law enforcement and private investigators. This section of the film is easily the most exciting, though it is rather brief. We see Ned’s desperation to get his son back from the woman who betrayed him, and Helen’s willingness to do anything to survive. When Helen hits rock bottom, she opts to return her son to her ex-husband, later making a pledge to kill herself. Instead of traditional suicide, Helen chooses an unfulfilling life of solitude, taking to the stage and using the men around her to become more successful than ever before. It is here where both Marlene Dietrich and Herbert Marshall shine – both of their characters have very real motivations for their actions, making it difficult to root for just one. The more radical pre-code elements of the film rear their heads during this act, where Helen is eventually forced to prostitute herself in order to feed Johnny. We also see a man threaten to punch his wife, and many subtle references to Helen’s sexuality in general. Hell, the entire first act of the film is about a married woman having an affair – if that doesn’t break the Code’s views of marriage, I don’t know what does.
Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus is a very strong entry into our pre-code marathon. While it may not be his best regarded film, I struggle to find many problems with it outside of some minor pacing issues. The first act is rather slow and filled with exposition, but it’s all vital in the context of what comes later. The film’s ending is disappointing in its suddenness, but it’s too sweet and good-natured to flat out hate. Marlene Dietrich’s performance as Helen Faraday is strong and groundbreaking in its portrayal of a modern, dignified woman who isn’t afraid to put her sexuality on display. Herbert Marshall’s turn as her spiteful, but well-meaning ex husband Ned is equally impressive. Blonde Venus tells a compelling rise and fall (and rise again) story of a truly compelling character, and is more than worth your time. Blonde Venus comes highly recommended.