Cast & Crew
Josef Von Sternberg
Chemist Edward Faraday marries German cabaret singer Helen and the couple settles in the United States, where they have a son, Johnny. Years later, Ned develops radium poisoning and must travel to Europe to receive treatment, but cannot afford the trip. Helen, therefore, goes to work for nightclub manager Dan O'Connor, who gives her the name "Blonde Venus" and features her in his act. At Helen's debut, she enchants politician and millionaire Nick Townsend, who gives her the three-hundred dollars Ned needs. Helen tells Ned the money was an advance from O'Connor, and the next day Ned sails for Europe for six months. Nick convinces Helen to quit the club and let him support her for the summer. When Ned arrives home early, cured of his illness, Helen is on vacation with Nick. After Helen confesses her infidelity, Ned demands custody of Johnny. Helen runs away with Johnny, moving from town to town trying to get work in cabarets, while the Bureau of Missing Persons tracks her. In New Orleans, when Helen can no longer work because the authorities have circulated her picture in clubs all over the country, she gives Johnny up to Ned. Within a year after being reduced to staying in a women's flophouse, Helen has become a sensation in Paris nightclubs under the name Helen Jones. There she meets Nick again, who has heard rumors that Helen used men as a stepping stone to stardom. He swears his love to her, but she is cold to him. The next day, the couple sails for America as newspaper headlines announce that Helen is forfeiting Parisian success to marry a New York millionaire. Before they can marry, however, Nick insists that Helen see Johnny again, knowing that the boy is her only true happiness. When they arrive at the Faraday home, Ned refuses to let Helen inside until Nick offers to "buy" Helen a visit with Johnny. Ned refuses the bribe, but allows her in. Helen puts Johnny to bed, and he asks for the story of how his parents met. Reluctantly Ned and Helen tell it, but without the usual happy ending. When Helen sings Johnny to sleep, she asks Ned if she may stay with them both, and he says it is where she belongs.
Josef Von Sternberg
Rita La Roy
Robert E. O'connor
Harry D. English
S. K. Lauren
Josef Von Sternberg
But wait: Hall spends most of his review decrying the melodramatic and convoluted plot, complaining that he can't sympathize with any of the characters, and noting that Cary Grant, a newcomer at the time, deserves a much better role than the small one Sternberg cast him in. Only then does he get around to mentioning Dietrich's "two or three songs" (there are in fact three). And even then, he fails to mention that one of these numbers involves Dietrich's stepping onto a nightclub stage dressed in a gorilla suit. After cavorting with a chorus line of scantily clad native cuties, she removes the gorilla mask, tops her smoothed-back hair with an ethereal blonde Afro-wig, and steps out of her furry suit to finish the number in a scanty costume made of spangles and feathers. In 1932, or even today, it would have been unlike anything Hall had ever seen in cinema. You have to wonder if he even had eyes.
Or maybe he simply found that musical number, "Hot Voodoo," too hot to handle in the paper of record. And today, the routine certainly wouldn't win any prizes for political correctness - it has to be accepted as a product of its time. But it's a stunning sequence, and just one of the reasons that Blonde Venus, underappreciated in its day, deserves a careful look.
Hall is right when he says that the storyline is a little nutty. Dietrich plays Helen Faraday, a successful German cabaret singer who has given up her career to move to New York and be a wife and mother: Her husband, Ned (Herbert Marshall), is a chemist; her son, Johnny (Dickie Moore), is simply adorable. Then Ned contracts radium poisoning. He must travel to Europe for the treatments that can save him, but how will the family afford it? Helen decides to return to the stage only long enough to earn the money she needs to save her husband, but she succumbs to the advances of a suave but unusually principled playboy, Nick (Grant). Ned, discovering her infidelity, tries to wrest Johnny away from her, but she kidnaps him and begins an odyssey that takes her from New Orleans to Paris and, eventually, back to New York and domestic happiness.
Blonde Venus is a melodramatic fantasy, but it has roots in social realism, too. Seeing a refined beauty like Helen struggling to support herself and her young son brings home the reality that hard times could hit anybody. And if you look beneath the surface of the picture's (supposedly) happy ending, you'll see that Dietrich's character is actually very much in control of her own destiny, as well as her sexuality. In her study of women in movies, From Reverence to Rape, critic Molly Haskell cites Dietrich's character in Blonde Venus as one of the pre-code era's "sensualists without guilt." Haskell writes, "Until the Production Code went into full force, between 1933 and 1934, women were conceived of as having sexual desire without being freaks, villains, or even necessarily Europeans - an attitude surprising to those of us nurtured on the movies of any other period. Women were entitled to initiate sexual encounters, to pursue men, even to embody certain 'male' characteristics without being stigmatized as 'unfeminine' or 'predatory.'" That certainly is true of Dietrich's character in Blonde Venus: She's two things at once, a doting housewife and mother but also an unapologetically sensual being - before the Hays Office cracked down, you could find that kind of complexity in a character. And the white tuxedo Dietrich wears late in Blonde Venus is just one of many examples of how the actress defied the boundaries of her gender throughout her career.
The picture is notable for other reasons, too: It's fun to watch Dietrich playing the role of a mother, and considering how hypnotically aloof and elegant an on-screen presence she could be, she's surprisingly good at it. Her scenes with Moore are casual and sweet without ever being cloying; in these moments, she's pleasingly naturalistic, a screen goddess who has temporarily stepped down from her Mount Olympus to mingle with mere mortals.
As it turns out, Dietrich, a mother in a real life, was facing some unusual difficulties of her own as Blonde Venus was being filmed. Just as shooting was about to commence, Dietrich received a threatening letter from an anonymous extortionist, demanding that she pay the sum of $10,000 or her young daughter, Maria, would be kidnapped. Though nothing came of the threat, Dietrich was terrified and refused to let Maria out of her sight during the making of the film, bringing her to the studio every day.
Even beyond that, the film was beset with problems. Sternberg and B.P. Schulberg, then the head of Paramount, had quarreled over the script: Both the censors and Schulberg took issue with the story, though not necessarily for the same reasons, and Sternberg was forced to negotiate. Upon the film's release, Sternberg himself wrote it off as a disaster. And the mysterious, complicated relationship between Sternberg and Dietrich was apparent to everyone working on the film, particularly Grant, who was at that time just launching his career. As Grant would later say to Peter Bogdanovich, he could see what Sternberg and Dietrich "were up to" and he steered clear of them as much as possible. He did say that Sternberg gave him one invaluable bit of advice. Bogdanovich quotes Grant, including the actor's famous inflections: "The first day of shoot-ing he took one look at me and said, 'Your hair is part-ed on the wrong side.'" So what did Grant do? "I parted it on the other side and wore it that way for the rest of my career!"
By Stephanie Zacharek
Charlotte Chandler, Marlene Dietrich: A Personal Biography. Simon & Schuster, 2011
Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Hell's in It: Portraits and Conversations. Knopf, 2004
Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. University of Chicago Press, 1987.
The New York Times
Producer: Josef von Sternberg (uncredited)
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: Jules Furthman, S.K. Lauren
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Music: W. Franke Harling, John Leipold, Paul Marquardt, Oscar Potoker (all uncredited)
Film Editing: Josef von Sternberg
Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Helen Faraday), Herbert Marshall (Edward Faraday), Cary Grant (Nick Townsend), Dickie Moore (Johnny Faraday), Francis Sayles (Charlie Blaine)
The pre-production title for this film was Velvet. A July 20, 1932 Film Daily news item lists "Getting What I Want When I Want It" among the new songs to be performed by Marlene Dietrich in the film, but apparently it was cut. According to files in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, on April 19, 1932, the film had been scheduled to start 28 Apr; however, according to a Film Daily news item on April 27, 1932, director Josef von Sternberg and Paramount studio head B. P. Schulberg had a dispute over the story for the film, which caused Sternberg to quit the picture and leave for New York, while Schulberg assigned Richard Wallace to direct. According to a Hays Office memo dated April 22, 1932, Sternberg's original script was being entirely re-written according to Schulberg's demands. In his autobiography, Sternberg says that he tried to quit Paramount, but Dietrich refused to work with another director, and because they were both under contract, Sternberg was forced to return to the studio. A modern source states that Sternberg was suspended for two weeks, and after a few concessions were made by him regarding the script, production was resumed. A memo dated May 21, 1932 from Director of Studio Relations, AMPP, Colonel Jason S. Joy to Will H. Hays, head of the MPPDA, states: "The argument started because the original script was too raw for Schulberg. A perfectly safe version of the script was developed, but now that von Sternberg and Schulberg have patched up their differences, the re-write on the script seems to indicate that Schulberg has compromised pretty much with von Sternberg." Despite Schulberg's compromises, the Hays Office approved the film without significant recommendations for deletions. In a letter to Paramount executive John Hammell dated September 16, 1932, Joy explained why the film had received a Code seal: "Never is [Helen] glorified as an unfaithful wife or as a prostitute; and never are infidelity and prostitution themselves made attractive." Although no evidence of specific Hays Office recommendations for a revised ending were found in the Code file, a modern source states that the Hays Office, and subsequently Paramount executives, considered Helen's reunion with Ned at the end of the film immoral, and according to the Paramount Script Collection at the AMPAS Library, an alternate ending was written for the film on April 26, 1932. It reads: "Nick makes allegation that Ned has been living with his young housekeeper for a year and threatens a custody suit until Ned capitulates to let Helen see Johnny. Nick then proposes to her." According to a modern source, while Sternberg was removed from Paramount, he secretly tried to set up his own production company in Berlin, but found conditions unfavorable. According to the papers of cinematographer Paul Ivano at the AMPAS Library, he did camera work on this film.
According to a modern source, this film was released in two versions, one which cut out the opening scene in which Ned discovers Helen and her friends swimming naked in a lake. Modern critics have written much about the nightclub scene in which Dietrich, in a blonde wig, emerges from a gorilla suit singing "Hot Voodoo." In his autobiography, Sternberg refers to a night he spent in a Bowery flophouse at the age of seventeen that "emerged in one of my films" [probably Blonde Venus]. Sternberg says the film's story was "written swiftly to provide something other than the sob stories that were being submitted." Referring to the fashion craze of women wearing pants allegedly started by Dietrich in this film, Sternberg states, "in one of my earlier films I had Miss Dietrich dress in well-cut trousers without fully considering the frightful influence she exerted on others." An ad for the film touting Dietrich's talents states, "no other personality can give such beauty...such dignity-such pity-quickening allure to the scarlet letter. A fallen woman you can not help but love...understand and-forgive." An exploitation preview ad in Film Daily on March 24, 1932 for a Dietrich/Sternberg film called Deep Night is possibly an ad for an earlier version of this film. The ad reads, "How they'll go for her as the gorgeous stage beauty who takes New York by storm...the idol of millions and millionaires...who gives up a brilliant career to marry the man she loves-and sacrifices her soul to save his life!" Modern sources credit Wiard Ihnen with art direction, Oscar Potoker with musical score and Travis Banton with costumes for this film. Modern sources list the following character names for actors listed above: Robert Graves (La Farge), James Kilgannon (Janitor), Charles Morton (Bob), Ferdinand Schumann-Heink (Henry) and Jerry Tucker (Otto). Additional cast members included in modern sources are: Lloyd Whitlock (Baltimore manager), Emile Chautard (Chautard), Pat Somerset (Companion) and Kent Taylor.
Released in United States 1999
Released in United States Fall October 1932
Released in United States July 1932
Released in United States 1999 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "The Joy of Pre-Code: Sex, Booze and Red Hot Jazz, 1930-1933" August 20 - September 14, 1999.)
Released in United States July 1932 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (UCLA Archives Tribute: The Films of 1932) July 5-20, 1984.)
Released in United States Fall October 1932