In today’s film we see Marlene Dietrich move away from the jolly role of a woman struggling to find work and love into the role of wife and mother; in a way, Dietrich’s role in Blonde Venus acts as a makeshift sequel to Morocco with Dietrich as a woman torn between two worlds. Blonde Venus is a more enjoyable movie than the former, with a clearly (almost formulaic) plot and another amazing performance by Dietrich. That doesn’t excuse the contrived plot littered with domestic issues that help this to be an early Lifetime movie, but it fairy-tale quality and continued pushing of the pre-Code boundaries help it to be a fun experience. Ned and Helen Faraday (Herbert Marshall and Dietrich) are a happy couple living with their young son. Unfortunately, Ned is sick with radiation poisoning and needs money to go overseas to find a cure. As Helen gets back into being a cabaret singer to secure said funds she meets Nick Townsend (Cary Grant) who gives her the money. This starts a chain reaction with Helen torn between two lovers and her young son caught in the middle. Outside of being another starring vehicle for Dietrich, Blonde Venus holds the distinction for being the first starring role for Cary Grant (although Mae West would argue this point for years, saying she discovered and placed him in his first role). Grant walks a fine line between sensitive seducer and total cad, and for a pre-Code film like this it’d be easy for him to slip into the former. As Nick Townsend Grant doesn’t have much screentime, but you can believe the man is destined for greatness. Grant’s swagger and charm have never been more sexually potent (for early Grant, at least) than they are here. Upon meeting, it’s apparent Nick expects Helen to date him because they’re two shining stars of the cabaret circuit; he is the wealthy man willing to spend money and she is the star attraction. The script never enters into dark territory as in other films of the genre. Nick may be a seducer who understands Helen has a husband, but he remains charming and genuinely attracted to her regardless. (He certainly knows how to get Helen’s kid to like him; he travels with a dog!)
The similarities to Morocco can’t be coincidental considering director Josef von Sternberg returns behind the camera. The basic beats seen in Morocco are also here with Helen being torn between the right man (Ned) and the wrong man (Nick); Nick also acts a copy of La Bessiere, with a similar view of seeing Helen in terms of her worth despite his pure intentions. The script is the screenwriting début of S.K. Lauren who would write many pre-Codes and be an uncredited writer on several scripts throughout the ’30s and ’40s. Lauren’s script is the fly in the ointment as it outlines a weepy custody story nee cautionary tale warning women about the wrong men and returning to work; a far cry from the opening of the film (pure von Sternberg) featuring naked women bathing. The script is at odds with the pre-Code sensibilities of the time, and isn’t nearly as shocking or scandalous as other domestic dramas of the time such as The Divorcee. With a title like Blonde Venus it’s believed that this is some type of wry, noirish sexual drama, not a weepy love story. Sporadic moments in the script hope to be cheeky, such as Dietrich asking a fellow chorus girl with the name of Taxi whether men “charge you for the first mile.” Unfortunately, this is tempered by the third act becoming a custody drama with Helen turning destitute (although never trading on her sexuality…surprising) in order to keep her son from Ned. Speaking of Ned, radiation poisoning apparently is easy to cure…just saying.
It’s understandable why Dietrich would attempt to take on other roles in order to remove herself from the vamp persona, but Dietrich is far too beautiful and exotic to be a house frau. She has a sweet disposition and adoration of the little boy playing her son (child star Dickie Moore), but the maudlin plotline wallows in sentimental schmaltz by the end. The story never becomes outright unwatchable thanks to Dietrich and Grant, but it’s been done better in films like Stella Dallas. Dietrich’s natural vivaciousness and mystery feels weighted by the script’s desire to keep her bubbly (almost as if it was meant for a different actress). When Dietrich plays little kid games with Moore she looks scary, like a snake telling a bedtime story; it’s through no fault of Dietrich’s, but the script isn’t particularly playing to her strengths. It’s lucky that Dietrich has the ability to keep things light and frivolous, and there’s even a moment with her in the indelible top hat and tails from her US début to remind you of why you were drawn to her in the first place.
Blonde Venus is anchored by the continued indulgence that is Marlene Dietrich; Cary Grant also fleshes out a one-note character in a sensitive portrayal of a man in love. The script wears its heart on its sleeve and sinks into the upper echelons of cornball by the end, but it’s never less than engaging.
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