Blonde Venus (1932): Von Sternberg Directs Dietrich and Cary Grant

This 1932 Pre-Code feature unfolds as a romantic triangle, starring Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, and the very young Cary Grant, before he became a major star.

The movie was produced and directed by German-American Josef Von Sternberg (“The Blue Angel”) from a script by Jules Furthman and S. K. Lauren, based on a story by Furthman and von Sternberg.

This movie predates  She Done Him Wrong by a year, although its star and producer Mae West always claimed to have discovered Cary Grant for that film.

Like other Dietrich films, Blonde Venus concerns a fall woman in need of redemption, with Dietrich playing a cabaret singer and mother.

In the first reel, American students traveling in Germany, stop at a pond where they see six girls bathing. One girl, Helen (Dietrich), asks them to leave, but Ned (Marshall), refuses.

Cut to years later, when Helen is seen bathing a young boy, Johnny, her and Ned’s son.  As Ned, an American chemist poisoned with Radium, is to die soon, his doctor recommends a travel to for treatment by a famous doctor, though the trip is too expensive for him.

Johnny asks his mother and Ned to tell him the “Germany story,” which unfolds as a dialogue between the mother and Ned. Ned tells his boy about his travel in Germany as a student and his encounter of six beautiful princesses at a pond,” one of whom told Ned that she will grant him a wish if he leaves.  That night, Ned goes to the theater, where he spots Helen on stage. Johnny then asks his mother what the princess thought of Ned, and she confirms that she wanted to see him again.

To cover the expense of Ned’s travel, Helen suggests to go back to the stage. Although Ned is against that idea, Helen finds work at a night club and befriends a cabaret girl of the working class, “Taxi.”  Taxi tells Helen about Nick Townsend, (Cary Grant) a famous millionaire who is a regular at the club, showering her with expensive jewelry for “favors.”

Helen makes a strong impression in her first performance, in which she is required to don an ape suit and take the head-part off dramatically, shaking her blonde curls. Nick, who is in the audience, is intrigued, to say the least. Backstage, Nick, learning about her family troubles, writes a check for $300.  Helen saves enough money to fund Ned’s treatment, but lies to him about the source of her income.

Johnny and Helen see Ned off to Germany at the ship docks.  Nick then offers an apartment in which she and Johnny can stay, thereby sparing her from working again. To escape her producer, Helen begins to live at “his friend’s apartment,” and develops feelings for Nick. When she finds out Ned is returning she realizes how much she is attracted to Nick. Yet, she tells Nick that she must go back to Ned, since he isn’t “as strong” as Nick is, and therefore needs her more than Nick does.

Before Ned’s return, Helen vacations with Nick, while both believe that it would be their final time together. When Ned returns, he finds his home empty–neighbors inform him that they haven’t seen Helen or for two weeks. Ned ultimately finding out that his wife has quit her job and been seen with Nick.

Helen comes back from her trip and bids farewell to Nick, who informs her about his plan to travel to Europe to forget her. Helen confides in Ned her infidelity, saying that she has been “untrue” to him

Angry, Ned promises to pay her back, calling her a “rotten mother.” Ned demands that she bring Johnny into the room, but she grabs the Johnny and escapes. Ned reports their disappearance to the police, who begin to track her. However, realizes that life on the run is not right for Johnny, she agrees to give him to Ned. After a dramatic separation, Helen begins to sing in cabarets, including Paris, and she runs into Nick, who professes love for her.  Knowing that Helen wishes to see Johnny again, Nick takes her back to the U.S.

Johnny, unaware of his mother’s engagement to Nick, asks his mother to tell him the “Germany story” again. Nd refused, claiming he has “forgotten it,” and Johnny proceeds to tell the story himself, asking his parents to verify “the facts.”  Ned and Helen realize that their Johnny still lives in a world in which his parents are together.

Helen sings to Johnny the song that she used to sing to him nightly; the lyrics are by German poet Heinrich Heine. Von Sternberg ends the film with the image of a music-playing carousel, a ceramic music box merry go round, which appeared at the film’s beginning, during the first bedtime story.  Helen and Ned embrace, knowing that they belong together.

The music score was by W. Franke Harling, John Leipold, Paul Marquardt and Oscar Potoker, and the cinematography by Bert Glennon.

Dietrich performs three musical numbers, including the “You Little So-and-So,” music and lyrics by Sam Coslow and Leo Robin, and “I Couldn’t Be Annoyed,” music and lyrics by Leo Robin and Richard A. Whiting.

The musical highlight is “Hot Voodoo,” with score by Ralph Rainger and lyrics by Sam Coslow, which is 7 minute long and mostly instrumental, featuring jazz trumpet and drums.

Initially, the reception of the film was mixed.  Mordaunt Hall wrote in the N.Y. Times: “Blond Venus, over which Schulberg, until recently head of Paramound, and Von Sternberg, the director, clashed last spring, is a muddled, unimaginative and generally hapless piece of work, relieved somewhat by the talent and charm of the German actress and Herbert Marshall’s valiant work in a thankless role.”

Credits

Paramount

Running time: 85 Minutes.

Released: September 16, 1932.

 

Cast

Marlene Dietrich as Helen Faraday/Helen Jones

Herbert Marshall as Edward ‘Ned’ Faraday

Cary Grant as Nick Townsend

Dickie Moore as Johnny Faraday

Gene Morgan as Ben Smith

Rita La Roy as Taxi Belle Hooper

Robert Emmett O’ Connor as Dan O’Connor

Sidney Toler as Detective Wilson

Morgan Wallace as Dr. Pierce