Josef von Sternberg
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 22 August 2010
Source Universal Pictures DVD
Categories von Sternberg & Dietrich
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.
More so than most of the films in the cycle, Blonde Venus lays out its odd, lurching plotline with perfunctory dispatch, allowing von Sternberg to dive quickly and efficiently into the elaborate set-pieces and expressionistic emotional scenes that really interest him. An idyllic, springtime prelude recounts the first meeting of Helen and Ned near a pond in Germany’s Black Forest, where Ned and his buddies happen upon Helen and her chorus-girl friends swimming in the nude. But soon the film catapults forward in time to New York, where Ned, Helen, and their beloved son Johnny (Our Gang member Dickie Moore) share a cozy, but decidedly modest apartment. Ned is a chemist (or something) who, in the process of working on something very important, has become lethally poisoned with radiation and must undergo expensive treatment in Europe. Devastated by her husband’s condition, Helen unreluctantly returns to her work on the stage, where her glamourous status as “The Blonde Venus” attracts the attention of politician/gangster Nick Townsend (Cary Grant in his first starring role), who seems willing to pay Helen handsomely in exchange for certain friendly favors. Accepting this role, Helen finances Ned’s treatment abroad while carrying on with Nick—either through love or need, we don’t quite know which.
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.1 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.2 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.
Of course, this does not mean that von Sternberg is out for social realism—after all, Blonde Venus is most widely remembered for one of Dietrich’s most bizarre and elaborate performances, the infamous “African” dance number “Hot Voodoo.” Complete with its parade of black dancers made up as primitive African princesses and a pretty low gag involving a stuttering black waiter named Charlie, “Hot Voodoo” is a tough scene to defend as a whole, but it’s also too mesmerizingly weird to be labelled as simply racist. However regrettable it is in its iconography, there’s nothing simple about Dietrich’s metamorphosis from a chained gorilla - an obviously masculine symbol of brute sexuality with clear racial overtones - into a glittering, blonde-afroed Aphrodite, a white goddess amongst the savages. It’s a blunt equation of blackness and womanhood as mutual signifiers of uncontrolled instinct and emotion, further beaten into the ground by Rainger and Coslow’s iffy song “Hot Voodoo,” which has Dietrich intoning in her improbably German drawl, “I’m beginning to feel like an African Queen… I want to be bad.” (It’s a sentiment she caricatures later, when she sarcastically confesses, “I’m no good—no good at all.”)
Once Helen moves into a baroque, sultry, and seagull-festooned atelier on the Gulf Coast with Hattie McDaniel - an act of joining the ethnic other that recalls the end of Morocco - it’s clear whose (collective) side von Sternberg is on, and Dietrich spends the rest of the film evading the grasps of Nick, Ned, and the Bureau of Missing Persons. The film, in turn, pays tribute to Helen’s epic, shape-shifting performance (nymph-mother-starlet-gorilla-whore-heroine) with two dizzying montages that obliquely follow first her descent into the moral and geographical Deep South and then her exhilarating ascent back into the celebrity firmament. In the latter, Dietrich drunkenly instructs us, with a cock of her hat, to “Just watch!” as the film inexplicably leaps across every possible gap of logic from Helen’s impoverished nadir to her masterful performance in a white top hat and tails in a Paris nightclub. It’s a transition that’s literally dazzling, a dissolving flurry of glittering oceans and flashing neon lights that blinds the spectator to any sense of narrative coherence. Both Bill Nichols and Gaylyn Studlar have noted the repeated ellipses in von Sternberg’s narrative structure - he attributes it to von Sternberg’s modernism; she to his masochism - and in Blonde Venus in particular he uses this strategy as part of the mythologization of Dietrich’s persona. While the details of her rise and fall are implicit, what’s important is her agency and her ability to transform herself in the face of oppressive forces. And this ability to transform and command the narrative without any regard for logic or realism is what’s necessary to effect a resolution. To restore the family, for better or worse, Helen, Ned, and Johnny must repeat the ritual of reciting the couple’s mythic love story, their first meeting in the German springtime when all was innocent and green. This story has now become a fable, a bedtime story, and in order for the family to survive Dietrich and von Sternberg must force it to end happily ever after.
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