Sunday, October 28, 2012

173. BLONDE VENUS (1932)

Josef von Sternberg's follow-up to SHANGHAI EXPRESS casts his raven-plumed Shanghai Lil (Marlene Dietrich) in a much homier setting, eschewing exotic pulp in favor of melodrama as he chronicles the perils of domesticating a rare bird. Playing the fĂȘted stage entertainer Helen Jones (!), Dietrich falls in love with chemist Ned Faraday (Herbert Marshall, one of the most compelling voices of the early sound era) and retires from performing to become a wife and mother. Domestic bliss takes a turn for tragedy when poor but hard-working Ned is diagnosed with radium poisoning, caught on the job, which can only be treated in Germany and at great cost. To raise the money, Helen returns to work and agrees to a paid fling with millionaire admirer Nick Townsend (a young, not fully polished Cary Grant). During Ned's long absence, Helen continues to work and cohabitates with Townsend to provide for her son Johnny (Dickie Moore); when Ned finally returns, he learns of the sacrifice that paid for his health and, feeling betrayed and kept, determines to separate his son from his "unfit" mother --  the only stability he's ever known.

Though perhaps not as consistently impressive a confection as its predecessor, BLONDE VENUS is nevertheless a warmer and more poignant experience, despite a script that feels like the grandmother of Sirkian melodrama, with Dietrich literally withering and growing threadbare as she is uprooted from and deprived of the nurturing love of her family. It is also buoyed by passages of audacity (the celebrated "Hot Voodoo" number, in which renowned ape impersonator Charlie Gemora strips down from his gorilla costume to reveal Dietrich underneath) and moments of breathtaking visual beauty, courtesy of DP Bert Glennon (STAGECOACH, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, HOUSE OF WAX). All this, plus the songs are great, performed live by Dietrich over prerecorded music -- a technical flaw in this early stage of motion picture sound recording that sometimes renders the wit of the lyrics a little unclear.

Viewed via Universal Vault Series DVD-R.

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