Classic Cinema Tuesday: Blonde Venus

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Marlene Dietrich was discovered by director Josef von Sternberg while she was performing in a cabaret club. He was casting for his new movie in Germany and asked her for a screen test. There is no doubt he was blown away by her because he gave her the part of a lifetime in the Blue Angel. She played Lola Lola, a cabaret singer vixen who slowly turns her professor lover into a sad clown. She lit up the screen with her famous songs and her beautiful small legs. (gams if you will) Josef von Sternberg followed up the Blue Angel with six more films featuring this wonderful actress. Unfortunately every subsequent film failed in capturing the magic that was on display in the Blue Angel. Blonde Venus is no exception.

Dietrich plays a cabaret singer turned housewife when she falls in love with a chemist. However the chemist exposed himself to poisoning and must secure a large amount of money in order to be cured. Helen Faraday (Dietrich) decides to return to the stage once again. She gives a marvelous performance in a gorilla costume and catches the eye of a very young Cary Grant, playing a millionaire dandy named Nick Townsend. Nick promises the world to Helen and she agrees to taking up with him in order to secure the money her husband needs and the security her son needs. Once her husband comes back to America, cured, he is furious with her for exploiting herself and their child like that. He threatens to take the kid away and she escapes into the night with the child underneath her arm. She goes on the run as her estranged husband searches for her in vain. She turns up in various towns as a vagrant and a call girl all to make enough money for her to move on with the child. Eventually she gets tired of the running and gives in to the husband. He takes the son from her and she is destroyed. Time passes. We join her once again in Paris, this time as a famous cabaret singer once again.

Marlene Dietrich is a passive protagonist for the most part, despite her actions. She lets herself get entangled with Nick, she lets her husband dominate her and threaten her, and she lets herself get caught when she is at the end of the line with her child. She even lets Nick take her to her old apartment at the end and has him do the negotiating in order for her to get to see the kid. This passivity is not a normal state for Dietrich, so she fades into the background despite her wonderful clothing choices. She only pops when she is in control of the situation like when she is on stage or confronting someone. She is dynamic, sassy, and just plain gorgeous. Unfortunately, these scenes are sparse. It is mostly her trying her hardest to look destitute, something she is unable to pull off well. The supporting actors don’t fare much better. Although you can see that Herbert Marshall (the husband) and Cary Grant have potential as actors, they are wasted here by uttering obvious lines and phoning in over the top emotions. This movie is just a mess.

I would say the only reason to watch this movie is to see Marlene Dietrich perform cabaret. Hot Voodoo is enough to understand why Marlene Dietrich is such a draw for many people. The clip of her performing this amazing song is on YouTube and I suggest you check it out. However I would just avoid watching the whole movie. It is unnecessary.

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