JOSEF VON STERNBERG: EROS AND ABSTRACTION—BLONDE VENUS (1932)

Blonde Venus (1932)—Josef von Sternberg's preposterously mesmerizing tale of mother love—runs the gamut from the glamorous heights of fame and success to the dilapidated depths of despair and ruin. Yet another melodramatic narrative of what Juliet Clark calls "the woman's way" of upholding honor through dishonor, Magdalenian inferences still apply. This would be a great double bill with Emilio Fernández's Víctimas del pecado (1951). What a mother won't do for her child, including another john. Again, I have to wonder how influenced "El Indio" was by Sternberg's melodramatics?

As Judy Bloch nails it in her capsule for PFA's ongoing Sternberg retrospective: "It's not surprising that the French Surrealists gave themselves over to Sternberg's films with Marlene Dietrich, who for them embodied the disruptive force. Marlene singing 'Hot Voodoo' in a gorilla suit brings the exotic home in Sternberg's only Dietrich film set in America. And when she peels off her gorilla hands (not to mention her head), she is Gilda gilded with a delicious element of the absurd. Strip off the animal, and what's underneath? More animal. Dietrich plays a cabaret performer with an ill husband (Herbert Marshall) and a very healthy protector (Cary Grant). She sets out with her son on a journey across Sternbergian America, leading an increasingly tattered existence as they move south to the Mexican border. Sternberg's picture of family life is one of looming depression, even while his forests, bordellos, and flophouses have an uncanny incandescence."

Uncanny is the film's far-fetched redemption. I mean, c'mon. Why in even God's good Heaven should Helen Faraday aka Helen Jones aka "Blonde Venus" (Dietrich) give up millionaire Nick Townsend (the dashing and dapper Cary Grant) for sulking down-and-out husband Ed aka Ned Faraday (Herbert Marshall)? Marshall's Faraday, along with Clive Brook's Doc in Shanghai Express, should team up as 1932's sourpuss team. Don't they recognize the beauty of a diva's sacrifice when they see it? Would they set aside their dignity to put on a gorilla suit for the one they love? Would they give up overnight Parisian success to settle for a five-floor walk-up? Unlikely. But, as Bloch observes, Dietrich can make even the domestic and plebian seem downright incandescent.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.

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