Marlene Dietrich
Herbert Marshall
Cary Grant
Dickie Moore
Gene Morgan
Rita La Roy
Robert Emmett O'Connor

Josef von Sternberg



Time: 92 mins.
Not Rated
Genre: Romance/Drama

Though I'm a big fan of classic cinema, I have to admit that this was the first film of Marlene Dietrich's I have ever seen all the way through. After watching BLONDE VENUS, I'm sorry I denied myself the joy of her immense charisma and talent all these years. The story is a typical romantic melodrama, yet she is heartbreaking and captivating as a woman trapped by circumstances to give up her family and self-respect in order to save them. Dietrich's sadness is palpable as she is forced to face the consequences of her choices. She is deeply desired by both her husband, played by Herbert Marshall, and her benefactor, played by Cary Grant, but neither of them truly understands her. Only when she's alone with her son, played by Dickie Moore, is she truly happy, allowing herself to smile and laugh. She gives a varied and tremendous performance, carrying off the mothering aspects and sexy cabaret numbers with equal aplomb. Unlike most of today's roles, Dietrich's is a multi-faceted character with depth and backbone. She raises what could have been a forgettable story into an endearing and memorable one.

The film opens with a sequence of beautiful young chorus girls taking a skinny dip on a hot day only to be discovered by a group of young male students walking along. Dietrich, looking amazingly fresh and sexy begs the men to have some decency and go away. Their leader, a medical student, refuses to leave unless she promises to meet him later that night after their performance. Cut to 6 years later where this couple is now married with a young son. They are clearly in love, but their relationship is about to put through the ringer. Edward is dying of some rare disease and has little hope for long-term survival. He's close to finishing his experiments, which will make the family rich once they're complete and his work is patented. Unfortunately, that is still months away and though the couple has found someone who may be able to cure him, they don't have the money. So, Helen returns to the only job she knows, as a singer and dancer, to try to make the $1500 necessary to save her husbands life. Edward is extremely displeased, but he has little choice. Helen loves her life with Edward and Johnny, but it's clear once she's on the stage how much she also enjoys being an entertainer.

The theater manager bills her as the "Blonde Venus," which packs the house. After performing her jungle strip routine, where she begins as a gorilla and turns into a singing sensation, she catches the eye of the local millionaire Nick Townsend (Grant). Swayed by his good looks, suave manor and bulging checkbook, she soon has the money to send Edward to Germany. Of course, she doesn't tell him how she really acquired so much cash in so little time. The cure takes 3-4 months and once he's out of town, Helen and Johnny embark on a nicer kind of life with Nick. Helen's not entirely happy with the arrangement, but she can't say no to Nick either. They plan on going their own separate ways once Edward returns, but he comes back sooner than expected to find his family missing. His disgust with her is palpable when he finally realizes what she had to do to save his life. He refuses to believe that she did it out of love for him and demands that she bring Johnny to him and leave forever.

Losing a limb would be easier than giving up her son, so Helen kidnaps Johnny and disappears into the back roads of America, followed by Edward and the law. He's lost his marriage, he's not about to lose his son as well. Life on the lamb quickly turns desperate as Helen is unable to find enough work to even buy food. Realizing she's doing her son more harm than good, she returns him to his father. As the train pulls away, one can see her pain and desolation and wonder how she's ever going to break out of her current situation of loss and poverty. Well, Helen is incredibly resilient and the next time we see her, she's the darling of the Paris music scene. No longer the frumpy, destitute mother, she has been returned to her former goddess perfection. Who should she run into, but Nick, who had run away to Europe to try to forget her. She's much colder than he remembers her, tossing off her love for her son like he barely existed. However, he sees through her facade and offers her the chance to return to America to see Johnny again. In the end, she winds up with the man who truly loves her and the life in which she belongs.

The BLONDE VENUS is a tour-de-force for Dietrich who carries the film and convincing portrays this conflicted women. There aren't many scenes without her, which is good, because the film just lags without her presence. I just can't explain it. Josef von Sternberg was her director of choice and it's clear that he was completely enamored with her and her talent. No one has ever been so lovingly and beautifully lit in all of filmdom. Personally, I found her more beautiful in the family scenes than in the theatrical costumes and makeup. The musical numbers were interesting and different, but not really my cup of tea. She's a powerful performer, but I found her accent a little hard to understand when she was singing. Both leading men played their parts admirable, but even Grant can't compete with her radiance. The films other great role is that of Johnny. Dickie Moore may have come to hate acting as he got older, but he was a wonderfully honest and engaging child actor. You look into those big eyes and you never want to let him go. He and Dietrich had the most clear connection of any of the film's relationships.

Dietrich made many more films after this one, but you have no doubt after this early picture that she's a star to be reckoned with who's not going away anytime soon. If you're never seen any of her films, I would recommend starting with this one. She plays a woman in every stage of success and failure and it gives her a real chance to shine. I was so impressed I look forward to catching some of her other work. If you're not a fan of old movies you probably won't care for this picture, but it's films like this that show you why people became such huge celebrities. You don't see people like Dietrich every day and that makes them all the more special.

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