BLONDE VENUS is the fifth of the seven career-and legend-molding collaborations between director Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. This highly fanciful, episodic rags-riches-repeat drama from 1932 is too daffy to be taken seriously, but is a hoot as camp, with prime cuts of the Marlene mystique displayed in some key musical numbers.
Jules Furthman and S.K. Lauren were responsible for the foolish screenplay (granted, there are a dozen good lines scattered around), from a story hatched by the director, who also produced and edited the 93 minutes to showcase his muse/obsession over the leading lady. *
In leaps of time and logic, the story has skinny-dipping German showgirl Marlene meet and marry an American fellow (played by Brit import Herbert Marshall), have a kid (busy child star Dickie Moore,6), discover the chemist hubby has radium poisoning (from his ‘experiments’ that he does in their apartment). She gamely heads back to theater work to raise money for his treatment-trip to Europe, meets a suave playboy (Cary Grant) who helps her out with the moola: they fall for each other while Marshall is away. ‘Cured’ husband returns, finds out, is enraged; she flees with the child (Grant’s playboy now off to Europe) and is pursued by Marshall’s detective-types across half the country, as she sinks ever-lower on the do-what-it-takes scale. Just when things have skidded to the trash heap of a flophouse, a za-zam lightning rebound to instant cabaret fame shows up (in Paris, somehow, cue montage). The now-hardened fugitive mama-turned-sensation and both the hexed/perplexed men have hard choices to make. In a nutshell.
Most of the acting is…pretty bad, but much of that can be laid on the director as much as their talkie inexperience, as von Sternberg has everyone race their dialogue, line readings both zippy and flat, furious but unemotional. Ending a phone conversation, they’re hanging up before the last line is out of their mouth. Beyond Dietrich’s zany musical numbers, which she delivers with a casual flourish and that knowing smile, the most convincing acting comes from uncredited bit player Hattie McDaniel, 36, in the sixth of eight roles in her debut year.
As to Look, due applause goes to cinematographer Bert Glennon, who comes up with some great closeups, and the flamboyance from costume designer Travis Benton. Beyond the absurd turnarounds providing chuckles, the camp aspect reigns with the songs, “You Little So-and-So”, “I Couldn’t Be Annoyed” (done in a white top hat and tux, eye-flirting with showgirls) and the triumphantly goofy “Hot Voodoo”. In that one-of-a-kind salvo, an undulating lineup of ‘African native’ chorus girls lead a gorilla through a nightclub. Presently, the ape removes its furry hands and head (well, mask), revealing our heroine, adorned with a cosmic blonde-Afro wig. Emerging fully from the furry suit—the “blonde Venus”, rising not from the sea, but from a simian?—shows her under-costume to be a mashup of glittering spangles and trailing feathers. A situation you see every day. **
The deadpan silliness only hit #65 among the years releases, grossing $1,400,000. With Gene Morgan, Rita La Roy, Sidney Toler, Sterling Holloway and Clarence Muse.
* Best dialogue exchange comes when Rita La Roy’s tough cookie offers “My name’s Taxi Belle Hooper. Taxi for short.” Dietrich’s comeback: “Do you charge for the first mile?”
** Factoids, figures and fans—
—though Marlene gets the glory of peeling herself out of that gorilla get-up, doing most of its capering is Hollywood’s go-to monkey man Charles Gemora (see review of the same year’s Murders In The Rue Morgue).
—the baroque costume underneath, as well as all the outfits the actress wore in the film were whipped up by snazz designer Travis Banton, who worked on 18 productions that year alone. His career list of credits topped 258.
—for the up’n coming Mr.Grant, 27, this was his fifth of seven gigs in his first year on film. The director didn’t fancy him, but at least gave the dashing young blade a crucial tip. Cary: “The first day of shoot-ing he took one look at me and said, ‘Your hair is part-ed on the wrong side.‘”…I parted it on the other side and wore it that way for the rest of my career!”
—Dietrich’s salary of $125,000 went a long way in the middle of the Depression: it would equal $2,249,306.57 today. Though her previous pic, the same year’s Shanghai Express, was a #3 smash, patronage of her Euro-nymph persona fell off rapidly with this one limping at #65. Over time, camp value would give it a lasting sheen. Nothing if not honest, she later offered “Stupid people annoy me. There are fans of mine who worship and idolize me, and who are in awe of me. They are stupid people. Who am I to be held in awe? What have I accomplished? If one is to be in awe of anyone, let it be a doctor or a brilliant scientist. Not a performer. I could never be friends with anyone who is stupid enough to worship me.” Another reason to like her.