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.
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.