I cringed, I cried like I was chopping a great big sweet vadalia and gosh darn it, if I didn't enjoy myself thoroughly. That's my one sentence, Gene Shallit-zed review of Blonde Venus.
This is one of many early Cary Grant films that I watched mainly for Cary and more or less forgot about. Grant has a smallish part as Nick Townsend the millionaire playboy who gets entangled with married showgirl Helen "Jones" Faraday (Marlene Dietrich.)
The next time I watched the movie, I was keeping an eye out for Herbert Marshall plays Dietrich's husband, a chemist, who is dying of radium poisoning. He needs $1,500 for the cure. His wife goes back to work on the stage, but decides she can make the money more quickly by shacking up with Nick Townsend. While her husband is in Germany being cured, she and Townsend have a long fling that includes some speedboat riding--one of Hollywood's favorite visual codes to represent free love.
It's clear that Dietrich has feelings for Townsend but decides to return to her husband. Unfortunately, he gets cured a few days early and comes home to an empty apartment and the unopened telegram, explaining his early return. Not exactly overwhelmed with gratitude when he finds out just how his wife raised the money to save his life, he threatens to divorce her and take custody of their son, Johnny. Dietrich kidnaps Johnny, played by professional toe-head Dickie Moore, and spends the next two reels hiding from her husband and the various private detectives he hires. When poverty, starvation and exhaustion catch up with her, she reluctantly returns the boy to his father. Dietrich is devastating here, looking every inch the hungry bag lady with torn clothes and hollow cheeks. You can see she's sacrificed for her kid who is returned to daddy looking a bit disheveled but the picture of ruddy health. Audiences were used to seeing Dietrich as the vamp, but here she plays a devoted wife and mother, albeit with her own peculiar spin on the institution. Of course, director Joseph Von Sternberg would never let her look dowdy and for my money Dietrich is never sexier than she is riding in a hay wagon with Johny singing him a German lullaby.
Speaking of lullabies, what makes Blonde Venus rise above the typical melodrama, are the three numbers Dietrich performs: I Couldn't Be Annoyed in her trademark tuxedo, the charmingly unintelligible You So and So and Hot Voodoo, a production number that you have to see to believe. When I saw Blonde Venus in a theater about a decade ago, this scene drew audible gasps from the audience. Dietrich arrives on stage in a fairly realistic gorilla costume with a back up chorus of black dancers in "native African" (in a 1930s nightclubby kind of way) costume. She pulls off the gorilla head to reveal a blond afro wig with rhinestone studded arrows poking out. Can you say "racially insensitive" boys and girls? But dang if it ain't also highly entertaining.
After the music, the thing I appreciated most was the complex nature of this love triangle. Dietrich is torn between two men, both of whom she cares for; and two lifestyles, both of which have attraction. There are no villains or heroes here. I won't go so far as to say it's realistic. Remember the radium poisoning, the gorilla suits and the speed boat. It's just that the decision to return to her husband isn't as pat and pre-figured as it would be if it were made a few years later.
Blonde Venus humanizes Dietrich's image one minute and immortalizes it the next with plenty of lavish costumes and Sternberg-ian lighting set-ups. Dietrich is an icon today in part because her irony and her androgynous and sophisticated sexuality still resonate with modern audiences. She has a unique style of singing, talking, even walking that is undeniably fascinating. And yet, I don't think she would be as popular today if she had not proven time and time again that she really could act. Blonde Venus is some of her strongest work. Though I watched it for her co-stars, they are little more than arm candy. It is Dietrich who owns the film and captures every second of the audience's attention.
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