Blond Venus – Josef Von Sternberg – A sublimely ridiculous narrative, in which radiation poisoning and a fugitive showgirl catapult the film through a spiralling tale of infidelity, family and questionable gorilla suits. Marlene Dietrich plays Helen (the eponymous ‘Blond Venus’) an entertainer who begins work at a nightclub to fund treatment for her husband. The absurdly blatant visual indications of the husband’s vocation, as a chemist, arrive in the form of lingering shots of him hunched over an expansive array of cartoon laboratory equipment, cue: husband hunched over pad, scrawling away furiously, while canonical vessels, tubes and beakers clutter the desk with proud ‘look, he is a scientist’ authenticity. Brilliant. Either way, something has gone disturbingly wrong and Mr ‘Ned’ Faraday (played by Herbert Marshall) manages to get Radium poisoning – about which he seems bizarrely rational – explaining confidently to the doctor that, due to his scientific credentials, he knew the symptoms. So…here doth lay the inauguration of Blond Venus…times be tough, so Helen gets her self down to the nearest cabaret-esque bar and becomes an immediate hit. As soon as she dons a blond-afro wig (with nestled arrows/thunderbolts of silver, evoking a foxy cupid or a strutting, ovary sequinned inversion of Zeus) and loses the mundane ‘Helen’ …a reckless star is born.
The first song we see her perform is the lurid jungle swagger: ‘Hot Voodoo’. Out of the synthetic tropical display come cavorting tribal shields and feathered legs, jostling spears and more Afros, all bouncing to the sleazy trumpet and drums. The dancers circle, all of them connected by a held rope, simultaneously evoking a slave chain gang and ritualised hunt. It is not exactly a nuanced portrayal of race. Flapping white hands and knowing eyes, beaming from under manicured brows (all in black tie) applaud the lurid performance, happily drinking in the comically horrific, or horrifically comic, spectacle of sexualised jungle primitives. Oh, and they are also dragging a large, lolloping gorilla.
Now, before we get to the gorilla, it is pertinent to note that, interspersing this imperialist racist showcase, we are shown a black bartender in stuttering conversation with a ‘dame’ at the bar. Plentiful analysis could be carried out here: the stuttering compounding racial humiliation, or, through stuttering, enacting the strangled voice of black Americans in early cinema? Anywho, with more time and analytical sophistication, the scene could clearly yield a lot of interesting discussion. So…to return to the gorilla, pulled along like some monstrous carnival attraction, it drags its monkey knuckles around the crowded bar to finally climb the stage. After much gorilla gurning, it removes both hairy gloves – to reveal feminine hands, and of course, after removing the head: out pops a smiling Dietrich. She places her fuzzy fro- crown upon her head and smiles with effortless glamour. Nick (Carry Grant), her soon to be lover, looks on approvingly.
‘Hot Voodoo, dance of sin
Hot Voodoo, worse than gin
I’d follow a caveman right into his cave’
Having joined the nightclub to originally help her husband, it is there she falls in love with the inevitably dashing Carry Grant. Poor ‘Ned’ didn’t have a chance. It is also suggested that rather than an actual swooning of love, this is in fact a virtuous prostitution to drain Nick of his money (as he is a millionaire). While this may be the plot’s suggestion, or in fact conversely opposite to the plot’s suggestion, or both, becomes an enticing encapsulation of Helen’s crazy spiralling agency. This is an erratic, unpredictable and delirious character – is she joyously free in her promiscuous independence, or maddeningly trapped between various men and male structures?
Before long Ned has found out and Blond Venus is on the run! One of the endearing features of this film is its bounding leaps in narrative, furthering a feverish momentum that dispenses with subtle character development or interaction – one minute Helen is a drunken wreck in poverty, the next a starlit success in Paris…but with Dietrich smiling her beguiling, fated glamour, smile, I became fairly content to join the dizzying dots together.
Perhaps one of the most moving scenes is when, on realising the fugitive life just aint right for Johnny (classic ye olde American movie boy, brandishing ‘gee whizz’ and ‘that’d be swell’ with cheesy abandon) Ned successfully intervenes and Johnny is forced to say goodbye. They leave Helen sitting on a lonely bench at the railway station. After the train leaves she wanders on to the tracks, lonely, lost and unravelling. Amidst the robustly silly and gloriously ridiculous, Dietrich’s face, on knowing her family are leaving her, manages to convey a startling depth of feeling. A silent communication of emotion that is neither readily discernible nor easily forgotten – somewhere between stoic acceptance and complete inner collapse.
The ending to the film, at least superficially, undoes the tragedy of this moment. In a moment of compassion, the persistently handsome Nick takes Helen to visit Johnny. On finally being reunited with her child she recognizes the family should be together and ends up telling the bedtime story that begins the film, thus bringing her and Ned back together again (the bedtime story narrates the first meeting of Helen and Ned). The boy falls asleep, Ned and Helen are back together, the rampaging showgirl is tamed and family is restored. And yet, the last lingering shot of the boy’s fingers -lazily playing with a toy carousel, seems to tip this saccharine perfection into something more cryptic, almost ominous. Perhaps it is as resolved as the viewer wants it to be, one could take the cloying ending in literal terms, or maybe there is something more, something as strange and chaotic as Helen’s transformation – the boy’s fingers in close up, grazing the little toy…drifting into a comforting dream. 7.5/10