It wasn’t a notable anniversary, nor a restoration; just a 35mm projection of Blonde Venus, a Josef von Sternberg movie from 1932. It’s the fifth of a hugely successful run of seven films starring Marlene Dietrich, perhaps the highest profile of all European expats to Hollywood during the early sound era. Having never seen any of von Sternberg’s work before, and knowing only Dietrich’s excellent and portentous later role in Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremburg as proof of her legend, a rare screening of Blonde Venus seemed like a great opportunity to bone up on my Hollywood history and adorn a weekday evening with a bit of old-fashioned soft focus glitz.
Over the course of the film, Dietrich’s cabaret-singer-turned-housewife Helen Faraday never looks anything but glamorous, even through her wildly fluctuating fortunes. But this is to be expected, surely. By this stage in their careers, Von Sternberg was well aware that his leading lady would always have the presence and gravity of a Weimar-era superstar no matter what story and character she might inhabit. He and his scriptwriters Jules Furthman and S. K. Lauren must have worked this to their advantage by treating her innately theatrical nature as a palpable character trait within the story; even when she’s a loving mother and wife who has long since given up her days on the German stage, her talent is already primed for an immediate return to showbiz. All she needs, seemingly, is a change of clothes, and she’s there: she’s Marlene Dietrich again.
This inevitability is more deftly handled, in storytelling terms, than I’ve made it sound. The opening scene, rather racy for its time, introduces Helen as she is bathing in the German forest with her fellow stage actresses. They are spied upon by a group of travelling American college students, among whom is the chemist Ned Faraday. He bluffs his way to a date with the magnetic Helen as she attempts to shoo the overexcited lads away, and then the film jumps forward in time considerably. Suddenly they are a devoted married couple with a young son, living in modest circumstances. The pace slows to reveal their rapport: as a bedtime story for the boy, they playfully parry back and forth an account of how they met, married, and left Germany for America.
Ned Faraday’s research has left him exposed to toxic chemicals, and he learns he is critically ill. The only way he can be saved is to return to Europe for experimental treatment by one of his old colleagues, and there’s no way he can even afford the journey. Helen reluctantly suggests that she return to her old vocation to raise the money, and the plot proper is set in motion.
She immediately transcends the other young hopefuls bustling to get an audience with a booking agent – as I said, she’s star-material-in-waiting – and is propelled into the cabaret scene with all its paper-thin promise, its desperation, exploitation and sleaze. Von Sternberg presents us with a procession of ugly male grotesques, posturing and hustling and feeding on the vulnerable. First it’s her club manager; later, when she’s on the run, it’s the fat barman with the ash-spilling cigar who makes her wash dishes to pay for the meal she can’t afford. And finally, the jobsworth private detective sent to retrieve her from the deepest of the Deep South, the lowest rung of the ladder.
This fall from grace (and legitimacy) is occasioned by her affair, while her husband is recuperating, with the playboy Cary buy viagra rome Grant. (I could tell you his character’s name, but let’s face it, he’s just Cary Grant.) It’s him who keeps the payments up for Ned Faraday’s treatment, and when the latter comes home early to discover she’s long since quit cabaret and skipped town with their son and the lovestruck new benefactor, he initiates separation proceedings, which, because of her infidelity, means he’ll get custody of the boy. Cary Grant has already fled for glamorous France, as he can’t bear to remain in America with Ned back on the scene. So she takes off with her son, who never questions or complains about their increasingly slender means and constant evasion of the forces tracking her down.
Perhaps I’ve got too caught up in descriptive mode, but really, there’s an awful lot of plot in Blonde Venus, and its power lies in certain longer scenes and the conflicting motivations of its characters, rather than plot mechanisms. It manages to keep a brisk pace and remain genuinely unpredictable throughout, and this is partly due to the moral ambiguity that marks it as a definitively pre-Code drama. (The Hays Code, for those readers who haven’t heard of it, was a strict set of guidelines about the content and ethics of mainstream American movies, enforced in 1934.) There is a real conundrum at the heart of Helen Faraday’s character: she is a mother, a performer, and an adulteress, and the audience is forced into admitting that we can’t be sure which role fits her most comfortably.
I must admit to hoping that the film would end on one of its bleaker, more estranged moments. But the worldly pressures conspiring upon the desperate Helen Faraday, seeming to force her into a decision between her family and her only means of independence, are revealed to be just as irreducible to rights and wrongs as her own behaviour – or indeed the behaviour of all three earnest, tussling, dissatisfied characters. Who do we prefer, the playboy or the chemist, and why? Cary Grant has no nasty streak here: he’s used to getting his own way, but he’s generous to a fault, and ultimately the story at stake in Blonde Venus is not really his. And despite Von Sternberg’s population of the cabaret world with backstabbers, yes men, sleazeballs and women with serious self-esteem issues, who are we to decide that the profession itself is irresponsible, even if it is ‘nonvirtuous’?
Let’s talk business for a moment: Von Sternberg and Paramount Pictures knew how many cinema tickets would be sold by the promise of a few well-choreographed and dynamically shot Marlene Dietrich cabaret numbers. The ‘Hot Voodoo’ song alone, during which she emerges from a gorilla costume, is eyebrow-raising enough to be worth the entry fee. But it’s the unsettled threshold between glitz and sleaze that makes these elements interesting and still unresolvable in a narrative sense. When she’s performing, she has the effortless poise of an aristocratic Master of Ceremonies, and is the inescapable magnetic pole for all the attention and influence in the room. It’s tempting to suggest that ‘celebrity’ might simply be incompatible with motherhood in the eyes of society, but then, Von Sternberg never attempts to handle morality in such a blunt, reductive or presumptuous way. Very ‘Pre-Code’ indeed.
In visual terms, Von Sternberg is clearly a great director of interiors. There’s nothing remotely ‘open’ and airy about the composition and camera movement in Blonde Venus – many shots are boxed in by stairs, doorframes, chairs and tables, and hung with drapes. It’s a movie of close quarters, and there’s a few lingering naturalistic close-ups in the last scene – moments painfully sustained between dialogue – that are more deeply communicative than the (generally decent) script itself. It’s a truism that very few silent filmmakers adapted well to the advent of sound, but Blonde Venus is an outstanding example of a director making the transition almost totally unfazed. Even Hitchcock needed a couple more years to work out how to make sound films as robust and energetic as The Thirty-Nine Steps and Sabotage in 1935-6. Von Sternberg also beat another great master, Jean Renoir, to a fabulous staging of a halfway house for the destitute. And although the latter’s Les Bas-fonds is probably the better film of the two, Von Sternberg’s tracking shot of a drunk and/or unhinged Helen Faraday as she rants, flaunts and discards her final worldly effects is an apex of bitterness – the kind of moment every actor relishes.
Words: David Hamilton-Smith