Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post is the latest addition in our series of Pre-Code Essentials. Here’s the updated list.
42. Blonde Venus (1932)
“Chemist Ned Faraday marries German cabaret singer Helen and the couple settles in the United States, where they have a son, Johnny. Years later, Ned develops radium poisoning and must travel to Europe to receive treatment, but cannot afford the trip. Helen, therefore, goes to work for nightclub manager Dan O’Connor, who gives her the name ‘Blonde Venus’ and features her in his act. At Helen’s debut, she enchants politician and millionaire Nick Townsend, who gives her the three-hundred dollars Ned needs. Helen tells Ned the money was an advance from O’Connor, and the next day Ned sails for Europe for six months. Nick convinces Helen to quit the club and let him support her for the summer. When Ned arrives home early, cured, Helen is on vacation with Nick. After Helen confesses her infidelity, Ned demands custody of Johnny. Helen runs away with Johnny, moving from town to town trying to get work in cabarets, while the Bureau of Missing Persons tracks her. In New Orleans, when Helen can no longer work because the authorities have circulated her picture, she gives Johnny up to Ned.
“Within a year after being reduced to staying in a women’s flophouse, Helen has become a sensation in Paris nightclubs under the name Helen Jones. There she meets Nick again, who has heard rumors that Helen used men as a stepping stone to stardom. He swears his love to her, but she is cold to him. The next day, the couple sails for America as newspaper headlines announce that Helen is forfeiting Parisian success to marry a New York millionaire. Before they can marry, however, Nick insists that Helen see Johnny again, knowing that the boy is her only true happiness. When they arrive at the Faraday home, Ned refuses to let Helen inside until Nick offers to “buy” Helen a visit with Johnny. Ned refuses the bribe, but allows her in. Helen puts Johnny to bed, and he asks for the story of how his parents met. Reluctantly Ned and Helen tell it, but without the usual happy ending. When Helen sings Johnny to sleep, she asks Ned if she may stay with them both, and he says it is where she belongs.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Almost any Dietrich film during the Pre-Code era could be considered an essential as a result of her heavily sensualized onscreen persona, but with Blonde Venus, like Shanghai Express, which was released earlier in 1932 and covered here back in June, there’s a specific seminality to the picture as a result of its iconoclastic, but fundamentally Pre-Code premise. At the core of the film is an evergreen story for this era: married mother becomes some form of a prostitute in order to earn quick cash for a noble cause (usually her husband and/or child). We’ve seen variations of this plot in many of the films covered on this blog, and as Pre-Code fans, we’re always drawn to the concept because it’s a genuine distillation of what the pictures in this all-too-brief era aimed to illustrate — that morality in the modern era cannot be applied without situational knowledge. In other words, there’s a “graying” of the black-and-white notion of right and wrong, especially when the most pure of us are forced (sometimes it’s presented as a choice, sometimes it’s presented as the ONLY choice) to do things that are “unpure.” Through it all, we begin to question our own notions of goodness… and badness.
The key to the success of Blonde Venus comes from what distinguishes its presentation of this idea from the others’, and much of this comes precisely from Dietrich herself, an actress who, like many of the spotlighted stars on the blog, commands her pictures in a way in which she not only becomes the work’s “image ambassador,” but also has her possessing (seemingly) the power to influence its course and direction: setting its tone and bending it to her will. For instance, while Dietrich was often compared to Garbo because they were both aloof Europeans with a sexual on-screen persona, they bring such different qualities to their films, such that there could be no mistaking a Garbo flick for a Dietrich flick. Garbo is often victimized; Dietrich isn’t. In Blonde Venus, Dietrich doesn’t wear her emotions on her figurative sleeve, the way Garbo does; instead, she tries her hardest to stoically keep those pesky feelings bottled inside. She’s in control. This is incredibly effective when her containment proves unsuccessful — like in the moment where Ned takes her child away and she cries as their train departs. Wow — how human.
Additionally, Dietrich seems much more self-aware than many of her contemporaries, particularly Garbo. Dietrich knows she’s a Pre-Code heroine and she knows that a sense of humor is an essential part of her composition. (Can you picture any other starlet from this era dressing up in a gorilla suit and doing a dance before stripping it off, putting on a frizzy blonde wig and singing a song called “Hot Voodoo”?) Mae West always had a tongue-in-cheek, but her image was vainer than Dietrich’s, who appreciated the zaniness, anew derived her femininity from the regular rejection of traditional definitions. And as a result of Dietrich’s total commitment and projection of these elements, Blonde Venus takes on many of the qualities of its heroine — it’s kookier than the average fair, but unlike many say about its star, there’s really no inherent camp: just a desire to eschew pretenses and keep its audience entertained. Blonde Venus is the Pre-Code era personified, and it’s an essential — because Dietrich herself is a Pre-Code Essential.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!