Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Josef von Sternberg | Blonde Venus

an american ring
by Douglas Messerli

Jules Furthman, S. K. Lauren and Josef von Sternberg (screenplay, adapted from a story by Furthman and von Sternberg, based on a story by Marlene Dietrich), Josef von Sternberg (director) Blonde Venus / 1932

Directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1932, in the pre-code days of Hollywood, Blonde Venus contains several elements that might not be suitable for film even today.

    It begins, for example, with a group of young male tourists hiking through Germany who suddenly encounter a group of six beautiful women all swimming in a river naked. Five of these Rhein maidens quickly retreat when they discover the existence of the unintentional voyeurs, while the sixth, Helen (Marlene Dietrich) swims toward the intruders, telling one of them, Edward “Ned” Faraday (Herbert Marshall) to go away and mind his own business. While the other men also retreat, he stands his ground, refusing to leave.
     Attending the theater later that evening, Faraday discovers the beautiful blonde he has encountered in the river now on stage, singing. A walk through the park after begins a romance, and the couple are soon after married, perhaps with the bride already being pregnant.
      Marshall, who later played rather uptight husbands and villains, appears an odd choice to pair with this obviously more “experienced” singer. But I suppose van Sternberg wanted to convey the idea that Helen loved him precisely because of his loyalty and devotion to their young son Johnny (Dickie Moore), whom in the second scene, we now see his mother bathing.
      Faraday, we soon discover is now a chemist who has suffered—in a sort of ridiculous twist of the plot—radiation poisoning, now willing to sell his body to science. Perhaps like Alberich, also of Wagner’s The Ring Cycle, Faraday (whose name, after-all, calls up the British scientist Michael Faraday, who, experimenting on how to transform magnetism into electricity, created in 1831 the “ring-coil” apparatus, the first electric transformer) has been doing a little forging of gold on the side.
     Told by a doctor that a German physician has had success in treating radiation poisoning, Ned is now faced with having to raise $1500 for the travel and stay in Germany.
     To help raise the money, Helen is determined to return to work, and quickly finds herself a job where she dances with a chorus of pretty acolytes, posing as a gorilla in “Hot Voodoo,” at a dramatic moment pealing the head of the gorilla suit away to reveal her blonde hair and lovely face before singing the finale.

     Certainly, this clearly racist dance would be highly damned today, but in 1932 it excited the millionaire playboy/politician Nick Townsend (Cary Grant) enough that he almost storms off to backstage to encounter the “blonde venus.” Moreover, as another performer, Taxi Belle Hooper (Rita La Roy), has already revealed to Helen, he is willing to award rings and jewels of a far more lustrous kind to those who are willing do “favors.”
      Helen, evidently, is willing—for her irradiated husband’s sake—and soon, through Townsend’s checks raises enough money to lovingly send her husband off for his recuperation.
      Although the small family, Helen, Johnny, and Faraday seem seriously sad to temporarily break-up, we all know what will happen. Helen falls in love with her “god,” Townsend, and a few weeks before her emotionally “dwarfed” husband returns, takes one last delicious two-week outing with the Cary Grant figure. Who wouldn’t, given the alternative of the all-too-proper Faraday?
      Returning from his recuperation a few days early, Faraday discovers that his wife has been long unemployed and has been basically living with Townsend. Their son Johnny is in the care of a nanny. Again, as in Wagner, vengeance has no end, as Faraday banishes his wife from his life and threatens to take away her son (again, and I don’t want to make much of this, but it is in the plot, reminding us of Wotan’s banishment of Brunhilde and his relationship with his son Siegfried). She, in turn, escapes with the boy, playing increasingly cheap nightclubs across the country, with the police one step behind.
      When she is finally tracked down by a detective who lures her into sex to discover where she and the child live, she realizes she must give up Johnny, freeing her, finally, to create herself a new career, from New Orleans (with the wonderful Hattie McDaniel playing her maid Cora) and leading eventually to Paris—where she sings “I Couldn’t Be Annoyed”— and meets up again with Townsend, who asks her to marry him. Realizing, nonetheless, that she is still vitally attached to her son, he arranges a return to the US and a reunification, if even temporary, with Johnny.
      The last scenes of the film are tragic in several senses. The child, unaware that she may soon be completely out of his life, asks her to retell what he describes as the “German” story, that tale she and Faraday have often told him throughout his childhood about how they met and fell in love. When both parents refuse, he tells it, in front of them, to himself, a myth he has created out of their own myths.
      Only von Sternberg could end a movie with a wind-up carousel to which Helen sings a song by Henrich Heine to put the child  to sleep, suggesting that the best thing for the now symbolically “dead” boy would be the couple’s return to marriage—another kind of death surely to both of them as well. All we really need is “Siegfried's Death and Funeral March.” Toy trumpets and drums (symbolic of the early tympani of the orchestral work) seem to be lurking behind the child’s beloved carousel.
     Blonde Venus is, thank heaven, not Wagner. It’s a story about a singer her gives up her family in order to enjoy her life, a simple melodrama. But von Sternberg, along with US screenwriters Jules Furthman and S. K. Lauren, clearly knew how to interweave their cultural backgrounds into this Hollywood flick.

Los Angeles, October 29, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2019).

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