“I wish I was someone else. Then I could stay with you here, forever.”
Radiation poisoning. That’s what Blonde Venus’s Herbert Marshall catches while submerged in work, hunched over beakers and microscopes and boiling cauldrons of early 1930s chemicals, toiling to manage a respectable middle class to poor life six years after he contracted that other near-incurable illness: love. Since marriage and scientific occupation, he’s grown increasingly toxic, so much that he’s going to die. Those in his life must make sacrifices to ensure his survival, specifically his radiant, loving wife who will also toil and suffer and risk infection. But she will be punished. He will be cured, medically speaking. Mentally, he’s a disaster.
Radiation poisoning isn’t discussed in detail in Josef von Sternberg’s picture, just that Marshall knows he has it and that treatment is lengthy and expensive; requiring an overseas trip and time away from his family. But when researching the effects, I learned that if left untreated, extreme doses are fatal, leading to neurovascular symptoms in the brain. One such symptom is an altered level of consciousness with disturbances sounding almost pleasant – levels of arousal are rendered abnormal and sufferers often find themselves in a stuporous state; the afflicted can fall into a coma. I also learned that extreme levels of beta particles cause higher levels of radiation. Extreme levels of beta particles? Oh, no, men don’t want that. Beta. That could lead to … cuckolding. Nothing is presented so literally in the picture, beta particles and obtundation and ionizing and such, but a patriarchal pollutant spreads all over this fever dream, shoving its heroine (and that heroine, an iridescent Marlene Dietrich) towards punishment, heartbreak and squalor. Radiation poisoning is one thing, but cheating is quite another, no matter if it saves Herbert Marshall’s life. Society agrees. And, so, in Dietrich’s Blonde Venus world, most men now seem radioactive. She must run and hide; go underground, go undercover so it doesn’t catch up with her.
Blonde Venus was the fifth picture out of the seven Dietrich made with her artistic partner, the besotted/bullying genius von Sternberg and it’s largely considered inferior to others (some masterpieces) like The Blue Angel, Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, The Scarlett Empress and The Devil is a Woman. I’ve read descriptions like “dreary,” “maudlin,” “melodramatic,” “slack,” and while I understand some issues (chiefly, that the original script was altered three times to satisfy the censoring MPPDA – in previous drafts Dietrich embraced her affair and prostitution, in another she loved both her husband and her lover), I revere the picture, regardless. But even Sternberg didn’t like it, not surprising given the finger-wagging headache attached to the production (the film was co-written by Jules Furthman and S. K. Lauren). In fact, he claims he barely remembered the “opus” though, considering how reportedly personal the film’s subject matter is (even if modified), I don’t believe him for one second. Perhaps he wanted to forget it. Nevertheless, this is how he described the dreamy picture in his autobiography, “Fun In A Chinese Laundry”:
“I became more and more partial to fancy as I proceeded to make a fifth film with my fair lady in another vehicle deemed unworthy of her superb talents. One writer stated it thus: ‘It is as if the Delphic Oracle had stepped down from her pedestal to give her opinion of the weather.’ This film was Blonde Venus, also based on a story of mine written swiftly to provide something other than the sob stories that were being submitted. There is little to be said of this film, except that I tried to leave the company before making it. But Miss Dietrich also left, refusing to work with anyone else, but I was forced to return, as we were both under contract. I remember this opus very vaguely, but recalled some of it years later while driving through France with a charming companion, who, in a moment of confidence, after we had stopped in Rouen for goose and Beaujolais, leaned toward me to say, ‘You know, it took me five years to understand what you said to me when I worked in your film.’ This was Cary Grant, whom I had rescued from the status as one of Mae West’s foils to launch him on his stellar career. After all, five years is not too long a time to understand what someone else is trying to impart.”
Five years is about the same length of time Helen Faraday (Dietrich) has been married to physicist Edward ‘Ned’ (Marshall), whom she met in a most pre-code scintillating way – skinny-dipping. The picture opens in Germany with the hallucinatory image (shot by the brilliant Bert Glennon) of Dietrich swimming in the raw with a bevy of water beauties while science-minded Ned and students tramp through nature, stumbling across this lovely tableau, not so science-minded anymore. Ned and company peep, Helen tells them to go away, he asks her out, and then he soon learns she’s a cabaret singer. Naturally, he’s smitten. She’s Marlene Dietrich. But things change over those years, a fact underscored in an almost humorous transition shot from past lovely legs swaying in a pond, to hausfrau Helen bathing her beloved child, Johnny (Dickie Moore), splashing in the bathtub. She’s now a regular mom (as regular as she could ever look), tending to domestic child rearing while her husband is informing a doctor about his dreaded overdose of radium. She married for love, clearly. Ned’s not a wealthy man and he can’t afford his $1,500 cure, necessitating his wife return to the stage to earn money for him. He’s torn-up about it and hates seeing his strong, stunning wife out there working. He also feels diminished as a man. At this point you feel sorry for Ned (as elegantly-voiced as Herbert Marshall is, he seems rather dull next to his luminous wife) but you still want to reach into the movie and shake him – she loves you for heaven’s sake! And her powerful allure is why he fell in love with her in the first place. But that Helen seems forever ago and once made his, Helen must (in many a man’s eyes), be tamed. And this is 1932. Married women of physicists generally did not return to cabaret singing.
She’s given the once over with an agent and a club owner: “Let me see your legs.” She pulls up her skirt and asks, “Is that enough?” His answer: “For the time being.” The burly owner (Robert Emmett O’Connor) anoints her as Blonde Venus. But this Venus does not emerge from the half shell. Not to be trite or expected or surpassed in surrealistic stylishness, Marlene Venus emerges from a… gorilla costume. It’s the movie’s most gorgeously strange moment of highly suggestive erotic exoticism – Marlene removing her gorilla head, her blonde-haloed face glowing (perfectly) in von Sternberg’s baroque frames (and her knowledge of lighting as well), she then grabs a golden Afro wig, places it on her head and sings “Hot Voodoo.” Describing this moment requires two words you don’t often see together often enough but should: blonde genius.
I’d follow a cave man right into his cave.
That beat gives me a wicked sensation
My conscious wants to take a vacation!
Got voodoo, head to toes,
Hot voodoo, burn my clothes…
I want to start dancing, just wearing a smile.
Hot voodoo, I’m aflame,
I’m really not to blame,
That African tempo is meaner than mean.
Hot voodoo make me brave!
I want to misbehave
I’m beginning to feel like an African queen
Those drums bring up the heaven inside me
I need some great big angel to guide me
Hot voodoo, makes me wild
Oh, fireman, save this child
I going to blazes
I want to be bad!
Does she want to be bad? The movie does not think she is bad, but that she is human. And so when the absurdly handsome, wealthy playboy Nick Townsend (Cary Grant… Cary Grant, for emphasis), falls for her and writes her a check for $300, she takes it. That is enough money for Ned to leave for treatment, but while he’s out of the country, successfully sucking the radium out of his body (however they do it), she moves in with Nick (with a happy Johnny in tow). She becomes a kept woman able to pay for her husband’s medical expenses while genuinely enjoying herself with a benefactor who does not look like Charles Coburn – he looks like Cary Grant. We forgive her. And she might be in love with him. He’s in love with her, but since her husband’s returning, she must do the right thing and stay with Ned. Nick leaves the country to properly forget about her. A lot happens to her after he leaves. Of course he won’t forget about her.
Here’s the first start of her journey into blonde-dishonor: Ned comes home before Helen is back, cured, worried, wondering where his wife is. She’s honest and admits the affair. She’s honest. He doesn’t take it well and, at this point, Ned becomes a dark figure of rage. He’s even constantly shot with a shadow over his face, the brim of his hat low, his visage so menacing that his cuckolded anger has turned to a physical manifestation of black bile. (Even Steve McQueen took it better after Ali MacGraw slept with Ben Johnson to help him out, her husband, in Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway – he smacked her a few times but he stayed with her) He brands her a whore and threatens to take Johnny from her. So she runs away with Johnny. And in a series of lovely to sad sequences, Helen and Johnny survive on the lam, Helen eventually resorting to tricks. In one especially potent scene, a sleazy, cigar-chomping restaurant owner works out a deal with Helen who has no money to pay for dinner (she offers to do dishes). He says, lasciviously: “You gonna wash my dishes? Go back and see the cook.” We know what happens next.
Time and emotional exhaustion run out for Helen when a detective (Sidney Toler) catches up with her and Johnny, living in an artfully created dump with chickens roaming around (a shot of Marlene with a chicken on her shoulder is so beautiful you almost can’t believe how beautiful it is). She can’t stand Johnny to live this life anymore and agrees to return him to Ned, which is heartbreaking in its sensibility. Why must life be like this? Why must her husband torture her so? In an ardently acted scene, Helen sits silent, head down as Ned picks up Johnny. We think for a moment, perhaps Ned will be kind to Helen. No. He gives her another piece of his mind, and pays her back the $1,500. He considers it filthy. Helen later gets drunk, stumbling around in degradation, and hands that $1,500 to a broken down suicidal woman in a flophouse. It’s the act of a generous woman and the act of a masochistic woman. Helen knows that old woman can’t make as much on her back, but Helen can. And will. And as she does, she scratches her way back up, becoming the toast of Paris. Through gritty determination and a hardening of her heart, she’s a sensation, singing in white tux and top hat, the transformation complete. She is in control of her life, finally. Dressed androgynously, she saunters around her dressing room in charge. No man will rule her life again. And love? Never. She’s not catching that illness again. Not even for her son.
Well, no not so fast. She can’t cure her love for her son. There’s no radiation-like treatment that can ever scrub out the pain in one’s heart – forget her toxic husband. It’s her son. She agrees to marry millionaire Nick who takes her back to New York to see Johnny one more time. A surly Ned finally allows her visit after Nick insults his pride with money. But that’s why – he shamed him. And then … that ending. In which once radioactive, beta-afflicted Ned softens to the bonding of his wife and son. Is this where the movie becomes silly? That she gives it all up to live happily ever after with a man who has been a tyrant ever since her one indiscretion? I don’t think so. But this is what many don’t buy, as if one needs to “buy” such complex emotions. But here are the questions: Why would she stay with Ned? Why should we be happy she stays with Ned when she has Cary Grant? Why does Ned change his mind? My answer in the form of a question: Has anyone been in a complicated, guilt-ridden, toxic relationship? Because not only do I find the ending touching (for the love of her son, and Dickie Moore is fantastic, never cloying or cutesy or affected), I find it sad and not at all unrealistic (whatever realism means). Who knows if Ned and Helen will be happy? Ned has taken everyone down with his sickness, extreme beta to extreme alpha – he’s toxic beyond radiation, but he, too, is human. Perhaps there is hope for him? Perhaps not. The future could be grim.
To me, the picture works poetically, an allegory, an exquisite, concentrated reverie of suffering womanhood – what one must endure to remain free and sexual, artistic and loving, and a loving mother. But also a tough woman with no child, a woman who dons a top hat and playfully caresses chorines. Dietrich and von Sternberg’s Helen represents all types of woman in one woman – women do live with such various sides to themselves. And society doesn’t want this full woman (and yet, so many truly do, they’re just to afraid to accept her). This is a woman who, at one point said, “I wish I could be someone else.” And then she became, not someone else, but different versions of female representation: Vixen, wife, mother, whore, self-destructor, self-reliant. She’s also an artist, which her husband will likely never understand (Sternberg did). But perhaps, with all of this history, this full-fledged woman with a profound past, with talent and maternal love, it will take Ned and Helen another five to six years of marriage to sort through this. And either stay or go. As Sternberg said: “Five years is not too long a time to understand what someone else is trying to impart.”