Monday Editor’s Pick: Blonde Venus (1932)

by on July 30, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Sun Jul 31 at 2:40, 6:10, 9:40 & Mon Aug 1 at 2:40, 8:35 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

*Double Feature with CALL HER SAVAGE (1932)

 

Von Sternberg’s pretty much always recommended around these parts, but do yourself the favor of catching one of his most neglected Dietrich showcases. Also check out Brynn White’s review of the double-billed feature Call Her Savage, starring Clara Bow.

 

Jaime N. Christley on the Film Forum series for Slant :

The series also features a number of the era’s bona fide classics. A blockbuster among early talkies that has since endured as an icon of movie-ness as well as a treasure trove for cinema studies majors who’ve dissected its inestimable bounty of sexual, racial, and surreal imagery, King Kong is a no-brainer for a group of films that intersects the era’s biggest headliners and its most shuddering, erotic night terrors. The other big ape is Marlene Dietrich in a gorilla suit, serving up “Hot Voodoo,” but when she first appears in Josef von Sternberg’s magnificent Blonde Venus she’s wearing nothing but a lazy, rolling brook, ensuring the smoky chanteuse would also infiltrate our nocturnal landscape as a glistening-skinned naiad.

 

How better to get in the mood than the Hot Voodoo number?

 

 

 

 

Judy Bloch in her program notes for the Pacific Film Archive:

It’s not surprising that the French Surrealists gave themselves over to Sternberg’s films with Marlene Dietrich, who for them embodied the disruptive force. Marlene singing “Hot Voodoo” in a gorilla suit brings the exotic home in Sternberg’s only Dietrich film set in America. And when she peels off her gorilla hands (not to mention her head), she is Gilda gilded with a delicious element of the absurd. Strip off the animal, and what’s underneath? More animal. Dietrich plays a cabaret performer with an ill husband (Herbert Marshall) and a very healthy protector (Cary Grant). She sets out with her son on a journey across Sternbergian America, leading an increasingly tattered existence as they move south to the Mexican border. Sternberg’s picture of family life is one of looming depression, even while his forests, bordellos, and flophouses have an uncanny incandescence.

 

Craig Keller for MUBI:

Next to Dishonored, Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus stands in 2011 as the least known of the JvS/Dietrich collaborations. Sternberg complicates the idea of woman’s dissimulation by having Dietrich scrub her nude son in a claw-foot tub; her outrageous wig will find its echo in little Johnny’s own Janus’ing, a harvest-fest mask slung wrong way round his skull. Marlene goes by “Helen Faraday” or “Jones” or “Troy” (like the Harfords’ daughter in Eyes Wide Shut) or, in an astonishing dance-number that is one of Jo’s greatest sequences, “Auntie Boonmee,” whereupon she embodies and escalates the inherent terror of the formulation “the beast inside the woman” by reversing its nouns. And so Helen of the Consubstantial Opposites ascends to the ranks of the complex characters of Cinema, moving beyond moré and boundary. From the moment Herbert Marshall, Ph.D. on a Schwarzwald walking-tour discovers Dietrich in the guise of wood-nymph, an experiment in living has been set in motion: even the couple’s connubial residence represents a project, the bedroom having been transformed literally into a chemistry lab. She’ll leave the husband, she’ll leave the kid, suck off Cary Grant, hit the Tropics and start a revue. She’ll come home again. But the key to the ending arrives earlier, with Marshall gazing for Helen on her ship, his figure framed by branches in the arch that fascinates—recursion of imagery around the first encounter with his future wife—now gone sere. It’s an image of understanding: water-sylphs have wings, he’s caught in the gyves. No normal living.

 

 

Andrew Sarris in his monograph on the director:

The plot of Blonde Venus exploits the sordid self-sacrifice which movies of this era prescribed for its female stars. Greta Garbo, Margaret Sullacan, Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Constance Bennett, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ginger Rogers paraded down Sin Street, usually more sinned against than sinning, for the sake of home and hearth. Blonde Venus could not have been produced after the censors clamped down in 1934, however, and thus quite accidentally a picaresque potboiler of times has acquired a distinctive period flavor.

 

[…] if Blonde Venus is essentially a one-woman show, it is still one of the best examples of the genre for the time. Garbo’s equivalent Susan Lennox: Her Fall and Rise was virtually a disaster. Garbo remains interesting of course, even under Robert Z. Leonard’s uninspired direction, but around her there is nothing except chaos and mediocrity. By contrast, Sternberg’s style begins gripping its hackneyed material halfway through the movie, and by the end his star has managed to move the audience with an uncompromising affirmation of her fearless femaleness, an affirmation comparable in spirit if not scale with the ultimate affirmation of The Blue Angel. Curiously, the fact that the plot of Blonde Venus lacks surface conviction gives it a certain freedom in its fantasizing, and not the least of its charms is the careless regard of Dietrich the Woman trying to cope with the demands of her myth. That her nightclub numbers are utterly unmotivated in terms of the plot is a key to the extreme stylization of Dietrich’s’ character, extreme, that is, even for Sternberg.

 

[…]It may take a whole film or a whole lifetime for a Sternbergian character to find out the truth about himself and one or two other people, and then that truth may be savored for only a moment or an hour before death, disaster, or disgrace. For Sternberg the truth is worth knowing whatever the price because there is dramatic beauty in the process of self-awakening. As for Dietrich’s fall and rise in Blonde Venus, Sternberg’s point is that what Marlene lacks inc haracter she more than makes up in style, and genuine style can never be dragged through the dirt indefinitely.

 

 

Leo Goldsmith for Not Coming To A Theater Near You:

Of all of Josef von Sternberg’s collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, their fifth film together is perhaps the most unusual because, at first glance, it seems so conventional. For one, Blonde Venus is the only entry in the seven-film cycle to be set in America – a comparatively ordinary setting for a director fond of exotic locales – and as Andrew Sarris has noted, it conforms more or less to the subgenre of contemporary films about women who sacrifice themselves (and their bodies and their moral characters) for the sake of their families. This notion of casting Dietrich as a maternal figure – as well as a chanteuse and a hooker – is perhaps the film’s most glaring curiosity, but it’s an innovation that allows von Sternberg to extend many of the same themes that had always preoccupied him and to deepen the already unfathomable persona he had created for his star.

 

[…]While the roles of performer and prostitute were not new to the Dietrich persona, the motivations for expanding these duties to those of a mother are somewhat more convoluted, driven in part by a studio desperate to capitalize on one of its biggest stars (Dishonored had flopped, and Shanghai Express was in the can and awaiting release), but also wary of the moralistic admonitions of the Hays Office. But at the same time, Blonde Venus was also a strangely personal project for both director and star—Dietrich even co-authored the story, though studio policy dictated that this contribution should go uncredited. Like her character Helen Faraday, Dietrich was in fact a doting mother whisked away from a cabaret career in Germany to a life in America, and like her character, she also had a husband who was only sometimes in the picture. As its watery overture of springtime in Germany gives way to the gritty, male-dominated demi-monde of nightclubs and speakeasies, Blonde Venus offers a cynical refraction of Marlene’s transcontinental experience, where the female “talent” is trafficked between a series of medium-time show biz lechers to fame on the stage (and infamy behind it). From the start, Helen is of course hip to the implicit assumption that showgirls are tramps – she jibes “Taxi Belle” Hooper (“Taxi” for short), “Do you charge for the first mile?” – but soon, Nick Townsend is writing Helen a check for two hundred dollars. The moral convolutions of the plot demand a remarkably complex performance from Dietrich, who must alternate between lusty maternal smooches with Johnny and a world-weary acquiescence to her perilous place as a woman in an exploitative world.

 

For his part, von Sternberg puts forth a typically probing analysis of gender and exploitation that’s uncomfortably close to home. By setting the film in America, the director evokes his own migration to the United States—he even confides in his autobiography that one of the film’s scene in the film recreates a “Bowery flophouse” where he spent a few nights as an impoverished youth. In charting Helen’s rise to stardom, and then her descent into poverty after Ned returns and bitterly casts her out, Blonde Venus infuses what might seem a fairly banal location for a von Sternberg film with an uncharacteristic degree of social and political currency. It’s an Ellis Island immigrant’s view of Depression-era America, from the height of New York nightclub gaudiness to depths of Deep South flophouse destitution.

 

 

Sternberg is a tad dismissive of this collaboration in his diatribe/philosophical treatise posting as a memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry:

I became more and more partial to fancy as I proceeded to make a fifth film with my fair lady in another vehicle deemed unworthy of her superb talents. One writer stated it thus: “It is as if the Delphic Oracle had stepped down from her pedastal to give her opinion of the weather.” This film was Blonde Venus, also based on a story of mine written swiftly to provide something other than the sob stories that were being submitted. There is little to be said about this film, except that I tried to leave the company before making it. But Miss Dietrich also left, regusing to work with anyone else, and I was forced to return, as we were both under contract. I remember this opus very vaguely, but recalled some of it years later while driving through France with a charming companion who, in a moment of confidence, after we had stopped in Rouen for goose and Beaujolais, leaned toward me to say, “You know, it took me five years to understand what you said to me when I worked in your film.” This was Cary Grant, whom I had rescued from a status as one of Mae West’s foils to launch him on his stellar career. After all, five years is not too long a time to understand what someone else is trying to impart.

 

Director Guy Maddin:

My favorite von Sternberg movie is Blonde Venus, where, once again, Dietrich cheats on her husband Herbert Marshall with Cary Grant, because she needs some money to help save her marriage, and support her child, and so there are extenuating circumstances that excuse it, but the pain of the cuckold is real. And if you’ve been through a similar experience, it’s hard to watch the movie and be objective. Every time you see the movie, you see it from a different vantage point. You hate her and can’t forgive her if you’ve been through the experience recently; with a little more distance, you understand the incredible balance and the raw agony. But the movie is distanced because Dietrich gives an unbelievably stylized and mannered performance, and von Sternberg is always accused of being more interested in décors, and a perverse sense of humor above all else, but I disagree. He’s really interested in the way people love each other. But even the best critics don’t see that in him.

 

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