Written by Jules Furthman and S.K. Lauren from a story by Furthman and the director, Josef von Sternberg’s engrossing, heartrending Blonde Venus depicts a trenchant human odyssey brilliantly enacted by Marlene Dietrich in perhaps her finest performance. Among actresses, perhaps only Garbo’s Marguerite Gautier surpasses it and perhaps only Baranovskaya’s Pelageya Vlasova, Falconetti’s Joan and Moreau’s Catherine in Jules et Jim match it. We are addressing here the pinnacle indeed of film acting.
Moreover, Dietrich’s delicate, deeply affecting Helen Faraday contains some of the most potent and fabulous images of sexual ambiguity—in the “Hot Voodoo” number, even masquerading as species ambiguity!—in all of cinema.
Ned Faraday (Herbert Marshall, also brilliant) meets Helen, a German entertainer, in an enchanted forest—well, it’s the Black Forest—when she is one of a half-dozen “princesses” who are skinny-dipping in a “magic pool.” (Sternberg’s film is Hollywood B.C., before the production code’s restrictions, although one doesn’t see much through a theatrical curtain of lush, leafy trees.) Cut to New York City, where the Faradays have a little son, Johnny (Dickie Moore’s finest hour), who happily goes to sleep, in their small apartment, hearing for the umpteenth time the family fairy tale based on his parents’ courtship, capped by his mother’s singing for him, in German, a poignant, nostalgic lullaby. Unhappily, chemist Ned is dying of radium-poisoning. To raise the money necessary for him to travel to Germany for life-saving treatment, Helen returns to the stage, initially against Ned’s wishes, and has an affair with millionaire playboy Nick Townsend (Cary Grant, excellent), who after all is as darned good-looking as Cary Grant. Returning home from Germany recovered and discovering how his wife financed his return from the dead, Ned balks; when Helen steals away with Johnny, Ned pursues her, intent on separating them forever. Rather than face the immensity of the loving sacrifice she has made for him, Ned has bitterly projected onto Helen his own sexual self-doubts, replacing her tender reality with a misogynistic image of her. The fairy tale has turned into a nightmare of his own making. (Men!) Now that his mother has become the Toast of Paris on her own, will Johnny be able to reconcile his parents? Can Ned learn to accept the depth of his wife’s undying love?
Only Bert Glennon’s mediocre black-and-white cinematography and a somewhat sluggish narrative pace detract from Sternberg’s most emotionally overwhelming achievement—a film that is inexhaustible in its capacity to touch the heart it exposes.
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