Blonde Venus movie review: Pre-Code melodrama is the best Marlene Dietrich-Josef von Sternberg collaboration
Blonde Venus is my favorite Marlene Dietrich-Josef von Sternberg collaboration. This 1932 Pre-Code melodrama has it all.
The film begins with the wooden and ever-dull Herbert Marshall as an American soldier, Edward ‘Ned’ Faraday, in Germany during World War I. At one point, Ned and his troops come upon a group of lovely Fräulein bathing nude in a secluded lake.
Now, I must stop the plot description to comment on this sequence, which I find humorous because one of the soldiers is played by Sterling Holloway – the voice of Winnie The Pooh and other cartoon characters. Holloway was usually cast as a stubborn country bumpkin or as an eccentric bellboy, and always on the effeminate side. Here, he is a womanizing Lothario and it just doesn’t work.
But leave it to nude swimmer and stage performer Helen (Marlene Dietrich) to fall in love with Ned and come to America as his war bride.
The couple have a precocious son, little Johnny (Dickie Moore, decades later the husband of MGM star Jane Powell), who is able to fall asleep only if his loving parents recount the story of how they met – and as long as Helen sings him a sweet German lullaby, accompanied by a music box.
An idyllic family, yes.
That said, trouble starts when Ned comes down with some kind of unspecified radiation disease that will cost a fortune to cure. That’s when Helen insists that she go back to work on the stage to get the funds for his operation. She is hired immediately, getting billed as “The Blonde Venus.”
In her first number, Helen comes onstage wearing a gorilla suit to the beat of African tom-toms. At first, she pulls off the gorilla arms, revealing bracelets and assorted jewels; she then takes off the head and puts on a blonde Afro wig to sing:
Hot Voodoo, black as mud
Hot Voodoo in my blood.
That African tempo
has made me a slave…
Helen presently meets wealthy playboy Nick Townsend (Cary Grant), who must have liked that high-camp number because he gives her a whole lot of money. Now she can afford to send her husband overseas for that mysterious operation.
Months later, Helen has become not only a big cabaret sensation but she and Johnny have also been shacking up at Nick’s place. That’s when a radiation-free Ned returns home to find his wife missing.
It’s not long until he discovers her compromising behavior and threatens to take the kid away from her. That’s when Helen skips town with her child.
Sometime later we get to witness Helen and Johnny hiding in an attic, chickens flying all over the place, and future Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel (Gone with the Wind, 1939) performing as refreshingly as only she can do.
But flying chickens or no, everything turns out for the best. It helps that this is a Pre-Code release.
The only problem I have with Marlene Dietrich in her early American films is some of her line delivery; she often darts her eyes all over the place as if looking for her motivation.
But in Blonde Venus, she really gets a chance to shine. For instance, when Helen hits the skids while on the run, Dietrich plays an impressive dramatic scene in a women’s flophouse, all drunk and throwing her money around.
As a plus, her musical numbers are among my favorites: “You So and So” and the frivolous “I Couldn’t Be Annoyed,” performed when she comes out in a white, rhinestone-studded tuxedo singing in French and English.
More than a von Sternberg prop
I know that Marlene Dietrich is sometimes criticized for being nothing more than a visual “prop” for Josef von Sternberg’s camera. However, the Dietrich of Blonde Venus is considerably more complex than that.
In fact, I believe this 1932 melodrama is her – and his – highest achievement.
Blonde Venus (1932)
Director: Josef von Sternberg.
Screenplay: Jules Furthman & S.K. Lauren.
Cast: Marlene Dietrich. Herbert Marshall. Cary Grant. Dickie Moore. Gene Morgan. Rita La Roy. Sidney Toler. Robert Emmett O’Connor. Morgan Wallace. Charles Morton. Kent Taylor. Stanley Holloway. Hattie McDaniel.
“Blonde Venus (1932): Dietrich & von Sternberg Career Peak” review text © Danny Fortune; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
Blonde Venus (1932) Movie Review” endnotes
“Hot Voodoo” has music by Ralph Rainger, lyrics by Sam Coslow.
Marlene Dietrich Blonde Venus movie image: Paramount Pictures.
“Blonde Venus (1932): Dietrich & von Sternberg Career Peak” last updated in October 2021.