The film begins with the ever-dull and wooden Herbert Marshall as an American soldier in Germany during World War I. At one point, he 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 reluctant 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 Marlene Dietrich to fall in love with Marshall and come to America as his war bride. They have a precocious son, Little Dickie Moore, who can only fall asleep if his loving parents recount the story of how they met – and if Dietrich will sing him a sweet German lullaby, accompanied by a music box.
An idyllic family, yes. That said, trouble starts when Marshall comes down with some kind of unspecified radiation disease that will cost a fortune to cure. That's when Dietrich insists that she go back to work on the stage to get the funds for his operation. She is hired immediately and billed as “The Blonde Venus.”
In her first number, she comes onstage wearing a gorilla suit to the beat of African tom-toms. She pulls off the gorilla arms, revealing bracelets and assorted jewels, then takes off the head and dons a blonde Afro wig to sing
Hot Voodoo, black as mud
Hot Voodoo in my blood.
That African tempo
has made me a slave…
She presently meets 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 pass, and Dietrich is not only a big cabaret sensation but she and her kid are also shacking up with Grant. Her husband comes back cured of his disease and finds her missing. It's not long until he discovers her compromising lifestyle and threatens to take the kid away from her. One scene in an attic has Dietrich and Dickie hiding, chickens flying all over the place, and Hattie McDaniel performing as refreshingly as only she can do.
But chickens or no, everything turns out for the best.
The only problem I have with the early Dietrich 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 her character finally hits the skids, Dietrich plays an impressive dramatic scene in a women's flophouse, all drunk and throwing her money around.
As a plus, her music 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, rhine-studded tuxedo singing in French and English.
I know that Marlene Dietrich is sometimes criticized for being nothing more than a visual “prop” for von Sternberg's camera, but the Dietrich of Blonde Venus is considerably more complex than that. In fact, I believe it is her – and his – highest achievement.
© Danny Fortune
Blonde Venus (1932). Dir.: Josef von Sternberg. Scr.: Jules Furthman and S. K. Lauren. Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, Cary Grant, Dickie Moore, Gene Morgan, Rita La Roy, Sidney Toler, Robert Emmett O'Connor, Hattie McDaniel.