Nick-Davis.com: 100 Favorite Films
#23: Blonde Venus|
(USA, 1932; dir. Josef von Sternberg; scr. Jules Furthman and S.K. Lauren; cin. Bert Glennon; with Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, Cary Grant, Dickie Moore)
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I only took three film classes in college: a survey in American Cinema, a closer study of five directors' bodies of work (about which, more soon), and an upper-level immersion in Weimar Cinema. The first course was where I made contact with several movies that became enduring infatuations, and which continue to influence my sense of what's possible on screen: for example, A Woman under the Influence, Nashville, Harlan County USA, and Daughters of the Dust, all run for us on film. Maybe I would have loved these films no matter when or where I encountered them. Blonde Venus is different, though. My fervor for this one feels more specific to time and place. Tending to fall below several other Sternberg films in evaluations of his canon, Venus was hardly the obvious pick as a metonym for classic Hollywood narrative at a moment of industrial and stylistic consolidation. I'm not even 100% positive this was the logic behind Professor Charles Warren's inclusion of the film on the syllabus. I know he was especially compelled by the sidelong view of the Depression as glimpsed in middle America, as cabaret star and sometime prostitute Helen Jones, aka Helen Faraday, abducts her child and brings him on a whistle-stop tour of cities small enough to elude her husband's detectives but large enough to give her a place to singor to do, you know, whatever. If what you'd always missed in Galveston, TX, or Chattanooga, TN, was the sight of Marlene Dietrich in veils and cloche hats, then this is the movie for you. Still, whatever his hierarchy of teaching priorities, Prof. Warren certainly wanted us to track the logics of mise-en-scène, lighting, editing, scoring, and superimposition, gleaning a sense of Sternberg's particular mannerisms but also of a storytelling grammar that early-30s audiences could be expected to decode en masse. This was the framework in which I wrote about Blonde Venus, trying hard to understand its formal patterns and also to raise my game after my first essay on D.W. Griffith's True Heart Susie elicited a B from my TA, whose final comments began, "This paper is maddening."
Blonde Venus itself is pretty maddening, or maybe just mad. Granted, I would not have put down $19.95 from my campus job to buy the VHS at Tower Records if the movie had not utterly transfixed menot despite but due to its wild eccentricities. I have already invoked cabaret singing, child abduction, and prostitution; I have yet to mention nude bathing, radium poisoning, casting couches, key lights shining into a child's crib, Cary Grant as a possessive svengali, Marlene Dietrich washing dishes, and Herbert Marshall (not, sadly, Cary or Marlene) leading with the line, "I want to sell you my body." In the film's most famous sequence, Dietrich emerges from a gorilla suit, dons a platinum-blonde Afro with two glittering arrows running through it, and sings a song called "Hot Voodoo" while wearing a bedazzled, "tribal" camisole-cum-swimsuit with a huge fur muff right over her crotch.
Now, these sorts of moments are of the type that make contemporary audiences howl, especially younger ones. I can only assume I howled, too. But I think this case differs from how any black-and-white film, any pre-Method performance, any aesthetic idiom not totally obligated to quotidian realism tends to draw laughs from modern viewers. That reflex really gets my goat. Then again, just as it seems wrong to snicker at any departure from current aesthetic norms, it is equally misbegotten to assume that older movies never played as excessive or kitsch to period audiences. What is peculiar and special about Blonde Venus are its oscillations between winking at itself and projecting utter seriousness of purpose. The movie where Helen Faraday bitchily asks a woman named Taxi Belle if she earned that moniker by "charging for the first mile" is the same one where she (Marlene Dietrich!) needlepoints next to her husband at his chemistry station, imploring him to let her go back to work. The same movie where Dietrich's character sings about how "that African tempo has made me slave," festooned with primitivist accountrements and backed by a shrill pantomime of Skull Island indigeneity, is also the one where Hattie McDaniel pops in as a maid named Cora and plays her as a character, not a caricature. The movie where two parents lullaby their child with the tale of their first midnight assignation, after Dad caught Mom swimming naked in the forest with all her friends, is the same one that features a wordless, breathtakingly poignant scene as Helen gives up her boy, suddenly seeing herself as the hopeless, slatternly imposter of a mom that the law, the father, and the law of the father believe her to be. The ending sequence crystallizes all the movie's competing tendencies toward sincerity and camp. While I won't reveal what happens, let's just say nobody has ever bathed their toddler in quite the ensemble Helen Faraday elects for the occasion.
Faced with this many competing signals of earnestness and frivolity, turning to formal evidence is a sensible thing to do. As ever, Sternberg is a meticulous framer of images and, maybe even more than in other pictures, a savvy sustainer of visual motifs that convey a lot about character and backstory. Water images, for example, play a crucial role in Blonde Venus, as do lap dissolves. These were the methods by which I tried to unpack the madness of the film when I first wrote about it, eager to expose the emotional, graphic, and narrative logics I sensed within the film's gonzo touches and sudden movements. I don't remember how I did. I do know that Sternberg uses film grammar in such ostentatious but nuanced ways that Blonde Venus was, in fact, a great introduction to how formal analysis can disclose intention, complexity, and coherence even in movies that seem capricious.
These days, though, I'd be slightly less tempted to "solve" Blonde Venus through close textual scrutiny... or, at least, I would concede that no amount of hermeneutic labor can or should resolve its brazen unruliness. Even if you understand more about the film by close-reading it, and clues abound to help you do this, Blonde Venus remains a paean to impulse, unlikeliness, and incomprehensibility. Characters make choices throughout that answer a discernible need but also make no sense. Marlene Dietrich's cooping up in an East Coast flat with a cold-fish scientistobviously untenable for a hot-blooded, spotlight-hungry minx who sings in three languages and seduces in plenty moreentails both a credible critique of middle-class motherhood as a homogenizing regime and a flimsy, expedient launching pad for some incredible rebellions, musical and sexual, narrative and cosmetic. Alongside all that, Blonde Venus also accommodates an oddly direct appeal to the joys of motherhood, no matter how domesticating they prove. Sternberg and Dietrich avoid scenes where Helen tries to "have it all," insisting on her right to parent and perform. Wanting different things at different times, not easily seeing how they could coexist, is more Helen's thing. It's also Sternberg's: he votes for everything, having previously voted against it. Everything's fodder for his own rococo image-making, and yet he really seems to mean a lot of this.
Modern movies, if there were any remotely like Blonde Venus, would almost certainly frame themselves around an eventual choice, or offer some pat solution by which domesticity and divadom, the familial and the wildly facetious, can coexist. The audience implied by Blonde Venus was one that assumed neither of these things: you can't always choose, and yet "all of the above" rarely exists an option. They hooted but also related, I'd guess. I'm glad Blonde Venus taught me so much about directorial craft. I'm glad it also taught me that movies full of half-hidden codes aren't always crackable, and don't necessarily exist to be cracked. But mostly I'm glad it taught me that you can't always distinguish the worthiest from the craziest of classic Hollywood movies. "The whole night long, I don't know the right from wrong," Helen sings, and even if you're giggling at those lyrics, I'd recommend listening to them. There's wisdom in that voodoo.
Hey, Reader: Do you have a favorite Sternberg-Dietrich collaboration, or a favorite serious-ludicrous Hollywood classic? Spill the tea...