Marlene Dietrich

Pre-Code Essentials: Blonde Venus (1932)

 Blonde Venus Marlene Dietrich Cary Grant

Plot

Helen Faraday (Marlene Dietrich) gives up being a showgirl to marry American scientist Ned (Herbert Marshall) and become a housewife and mother to their son Johnny (Dickie Moore). But when Ned comes down with radiation poisoning and needs to get treatment in Germany, she goes back to the stage to get the money they need. She performs under the name “The Blonde Venus” and during her first night as a performer, she gets the attention of millionaire Nick Townsend (Cary Grant), who comes backstage to see her. He gives Helen the money for Ned’s treatment and she keeps Ned in the dark about how she got the money.  While Ned is away, Nick continues to woo Helen.

When Ned returns earlier than expected from Germany, Helen is off gallivanting with Nick, but it doesn’t take long for Ned to figure out what’s been going on. He wants Helen out of his life and threatens to take her to court to get custody of Johnny. She loves Johnny too much to let that happen, so she grabs him and goes on the run. She makes her way from town to town, resorting to prostitution to get by, with the police hot on her trail all along the way. Eventually, Helen turns herself in and lets Johnny go back to Ned. A

fter sinking to an even lower depth, Helen pulls herself up and becomes a hugely successful nightclub performer. Her new career reunites her with Nick and it isn’t long before they’re engaged. But Nick knows how much Helen misses Johnny and he wants Helen to be able to see her son again, even if it means reuniting her with Ned.


My Thoughts

Blonde Venus is one of my favorite Marlene Dietrich movies and my favorite of the Dietrich/Josef von Sternberg collaborations. I love how Dietrich gets to be the impeccably glamorous character we all know as, but as much as I love glamorous Dietrich, I also love seeing her in her drab housewife clothes. Dickie Moore was an adorable addition to the movie and I’m always up for seeing Cary Grant. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly entertaining.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

The movie opens with women swimming in the nude.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Yesterday, I talked a bit about why Midnight Mary was a great example of a “fallen woman” type of movie and Blonde Venus is another excellent fallen woman tale. But unlike Mary from Midnight Mary, who is consistently a sympathetic and likable character, Helen isn’t nearly as innocent. She’s a married woman who starts spending all her time cavorting with a wealthy playboy while her husband is away getting medical treatment. But like Mary, Helen also ends up with an optimistic ending and Helen is the type of character a lot of censors didn’t want to have a happy ending.

Morocco (1930)

Morocco 1930When nightclub singer Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich) arrives in Morocco, she’s already lived and loved a lot and it’s left her exhausted.  The last thing she wants is to fall in love and be hurt yet again.  But when she spots Legionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) in the audience during one of her performances, she can’t resist him.  She gives him a key to her place and he comes to visit her.  As they get to know each other, Amy really takes a liking to Tom, but is still hesitant to get too involved.

Before meeting Amy, Tom had a reputation for being quite the ladies man.  He had even been carrying on an affair with his superior officer Caesare’s (Ullrich Haupt) wife, but broke things off with her to be with Amy.  However, Caesare knew what had been going on and sends Tom on a mission that could very well cost him his life.

Before Tom leaves on his mission, he overhears Amy rejecting a proposal from Kennington La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou).  Kennington is a rich man and can offer Amy so many things that Tom simply cannot.  Even though he loves Amy, he believes she would be better off with Kennington and decides to take himself out of the picture.  While he is gone, Amy agrees to marry Kennington. But when she finds out Tom is back in town, reportedly injured, she can’t help but rush to be with him.  Recognizing who Amy really loves and wanting her to be happy, Kennington even gives her a ride to see him.

The critical consensus for Morocco seems to be that it’s one of the best movies Josef von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich.  Although I do like Morocco, it’s not one of my personal favorite Dietrich movies.  As far as the von Sternberg collaborations go, I prefer The Blue Angel and Blonde VenusMorocco just leaves me a little bit cold.  Dietrich herself is divine; she has such a commanding screen presence and she can work a tuxedo like nobody else.  The exotic locale is perfect for von Sternberg’s style.  The story just doesn’t pull me all the way in, though.

Fashion in Film: Berets

If you’re like me, you often find yourself watching films and seeing tons of fashion styles you would love to wear in real life.  I watch movies from so many decades and from so many different genres, if I actually did copy all the styles I like, I’d have one diverse wardrobe.  But if there’s one accessory you could easily get a lot of mileage out of, it’s a beret.  Berets have been a popular hat style for decades, so if you want to go for a Norma Shearer inspired look one day and a Faye Dunaway inspired look the next, a beret could easily work for both styles.

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Dishonored (1931)

After the death of her husband, Amy Kolverer (Marlene Dietrich) turns to walking the streets to support herself.  One night, she encounters a man who gives her the chance to become a spy on behalf of Vienna. The government is looking to get some information on Colonel von Hindau (Warner Oland), who they believe has been feeding information to the Russian Colonel Kranau (Victor McLaglen).  They know a woman would be much more likely to get the information they need than a male agent.  Amy accepts the offer and becomes known simply as X27.

Amy manages to find both von Hindau and Kranau at a masquerade ball and that night, she not only gets the information she needs from von Hidnau, she corners him so well that he would rather commit suicide than surrender to her.  She immediately goes to work on Kranau, but Kranau isn’t about to go down as easily as von Hindau.  First, he escapes from her when she approaches him in a nightclub.  Then he sneaks into her apartment and finds her spy orders.

When Amy goes to Poland to carry out her next mission, she gets the information she needs by posing as a maid and coding her findings as a music composition.  But then Kranau finds her, destroys the music she’s written, and threatens to have her executed.  For her last request, Amy asks to spend the night with Kranau, and he agrees to it. But then Amy drugs his wine, escapes, and reveals all of her findings to the Austrian government, which leads to several Russian officials being arrested, including Kranau.  Amy gets permission to interrogate Kranau privately and allows him to escape.  This is the end of the line for Amy and she is executed for treason.

Of all the Dietrich/von Sternberg collaborations, I feel like Dishonored is the most under-appreciated of the bunch.  Perhaps the fact that it was only recently released on DVD for the first time has something to do with that. But now that it’s more available, hopefully more people will rediscover it because it’s really worth a look.  It’s not the best of their teamings, but it’s very interesting. I prefer Dishonored over Garbo’s Mata Hari.

I was not a fan of Victor McLaglen at all in this, but the teaming of Dietrich and von Sternberg absolutely can’t be beat.  First of all, you have got to see Dishonored if only to see Dietrich meowing like a cat.  No, seriously. There is a scene in this movie of Marlene Dietrich meowing and it is hilarious.  Marlene seemed to enjoy playing Amy and it’s a lot of fun to just watch her work.

Marlene Dietrich’s image, especially when she was working with Josef von Sternberg, was always extremely polished.  She was always lit to perfection, quick witted, and exceptionally glamorous, never a strand of hair out of place. So I was very fascinated by the fact that in Dishonored, there are moments when von Sternberg let her not be seen as supernaturally perfect. Early in the movie, there’s a scene where Marie walks into her apartment and takes off her elaborate hat and veil to reveal her very mussed hair underneath. I absolutely loved that moment, it was just so not how we typically picture Dietrich.  Later in the movie, when Marie is posing as a maid, not only does she wear very minimal make-up and an unflattering hairstyle, she acts pretty silly, too. Before seeing Dishonored, if you had told me that there was a Marlene Dietrich movie that involved a scene of her wearing little make-up and meowing, I probably would have laughed. But, believe it or not, it actually does happen here.

Paramount in the 1930′s

Times were tough for just about everyone during the 1930′s, including Paramount Studios.  In the early 1930′s, Paramount was on the brink of financial disaster and with the Great Depression, audiences needed darn good reasons to spend what money they had on movie tickets.  Paramount was facing some pretty tough competition, too.  MGM had Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, and Joan Crawford;  Warner Brothers had their gangster flicks and Busby Berkley musicals.  But Paramount rose to the challenge and created some of the most definitive movies of the decade with some of the best talent in town.

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What’s on TCM: December 2011

We’re down to the last month of 2011 already!  TCM will be closing out the year in top form.  December’s star of the month is William Powell, which I am very excited about since I’m a big fan of his.  It also means we get two nights of movies featuring him with Myrna Loy, one night being the entire Thin Man series and another night featuring their other collaborations.  His movies will be showcased every Thursday night this month.  TCM will also be celebrating the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens a little early (his birthday isn’t actually until February) by devoting Monday nights to showing various film adaptations of his work.  And of course there are Christmas classics galore to look forward to!

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Shanghai Express (1932)

Nobody causes a bigger commotion by getting on a train than Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich).  Shanghai Lily is one of the most notoriously loose women in China, so when she gets on a train from Beiping to Shanghai, all the men are excited to be on the same train as her.  Well, everyone except for Captain “Doc” Harvey (Clive Brook).  He’s apparently the one man who has never heard of Shanghai Lily.  After the train leaves the station, is surprised to run into his former girlfriend, Magdalen.  They hadn’t seen each other in five years and things have changed quite a bit in those five years.  Specifically, Magdalen has changed her name to Shanghai Lily.  Lily never stopped loving Doc, but he has a hard time accepting the girl he once loved now has such a reputation.

But as the trip goes on, Doc and Lily spend more time together and it becomes clear that Doc still loves her.  He even still carries the watch that she bought for him.  One night, while the passengers are having dinner, the train is suddenly stopped by Chinese Army soldiers and the passengers are questioned.  After a spy is arrested, Henry Chang (Warner Oland), a passenger on the train, immediately sends out a mysterious telegram.  The train takes off again and the passengers get ready for bed.  But later that night, they are stopped again, this time by rebel troops.  Unbeknownst to them, fellow passenger Chang is a rebel leader who had ordered his troops to stop the train.

Chang isn’t happy about one of his spies being arrested and now is looking for a passenger powerful enough to hold hostage to get his spy released.  When they question Lily, Chang asks her to spend the night with him, but she turns him down and he has other passenger Hui Fei (Anna May Wong) brought to him for companionship instead. But since Doc is traveling to perform an operation on an important government official, he’s the unlucky one to become Chang’s hostage.  Desperate to get Doc out safely, Lily offers to go with Chang if Doc is released unharmed.  He agrees, and Doc is set free.  But Doc doesn’t realize why he’s been set free and is devastated that Lily would even consider going off with Chang.  Luckily, Lily is able to escape with a little help from Hui Fei and they get back on the train and leave again.  Doc wants nothing to do with Lily and won’t listen when a fellow passenger tries to convince him she was doing the right thing.  He struggles with his feelings about Lily all the way to Shanghai.

Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg made several movies together, but Shanghai Express is probably their signature collaboration.  It’s a wonderful movie and is the ultimate example of what an expert von Sternberg was at making Marlene look utterly fabulous.  The cinematography is exquisite and Shanghai Lily is easily the most spectacularly dressed traveler I have ever seen.  Marlene has some great line deliveries in this, I especially love the way she says, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily,” and, “There’s only one thing I wouldn’t have done, Doc. I wouldn’t have bobbed my hair.”  I liked the chemistry between Marlene and Clive Brook, the only thing I wish the movie had more of is the wonderful Anna May Wong.