Helen Faraday (Marlene Dietrich) is a former showgirl married to chemist Ned (Herbert Marshall) and mother to Johnny (Dickie Moore). She gave up her stage career to become a wife and mother, but when Ned gets Radium poisoning and needs to go to Germany for treatment, Helen goes back to performing to get the money. After her first performance, she meets the young and wealthy Nick Townsend (Cary Grant). He’s quite smitten with her and she uses him to get all the money she needs to pay for her husband’s treatment. While Ned is in Germany, Helen carries on her affair with Nick. The two of them have a swell time living in luxury, but since Helen wasn’t living in her apartment during this time, she misses a telegram from Ned saying he’d be returning two weeks earlier than expected. Of course, Ned is absolutely livid and Helen takes Johnny and leaves before Ned can take Johnny from her. Ned reports them as missing and the two of them travel from town to town, Helen taking any job she can get. Sometimes she can get a job in a nightclub, sometimes she works on a farm, but eventually, she has to turn to prostitution.
When the law finally catches up with her, she hands Johnny over to Ned. Without Johnny around, Helen hits rock bottom and is stuck living in a flophouse. But eventually, she manages to pull herself up and go over to Paris. Under the name Helen Jones, she becomes a nightclub sensation and even runs into Nick again. They become engaged, but Nick realizes the only thing that truly makes Helen happy is Johnny. Nick arranges for Helen to see Johnny one more time. But when Ned sees Helen with Johnny again, it makes him question whether or not he wants her to stay.
Blonde Venus is one of my favorite Marlene Dietrich movies, I rank it right up there with The Blue Angel and Witness for the Prosecution. The story might not be perfect, but I like it anyway. For example, I don’t really understand why she carries on an affair with Nick. Does she not want to be alone? Does she want the lifestyle he can offer? I’m not really sure. This is one of her famous collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg, but I think this one is rather different from his other collaborations with her. Usually, von Sternberg bent over backwards to make Dietrich’s character into the most outrageously glamorous person you’ll ever see. Think of the lavish costumes and sets of The Scarlett Empress and Shanghai Lily’s extravagant wardrobe in Shanghai Express. But here, we don’t see that quite as much. Oh sure, Helen has some glamorous stage costumes and some scenes where she wears some nice things Nick has clearly paid for. But we also see her giving Johnny a bath and wearing tattered dresses, things Shanghai Lily wouldn’t be caught dead wearing.
I’m quite fond of Dietrich’s performance here because even though we get to see the glamorous side of Dietrich that we know quite well, but I also liked getting to see Dietrich the mother. Dickie Moore was just adorable and I really enjoyed his scenes with Marlene. Blonde Venus came very early in Cary Grant’s career, and even though there are hints at just how suave and charming he could be, he hadn’t quite found his niche yet. And it didn’t help that, according to Cary, von Sternberg didn’t really direct him all that much. I would have really liked to see Cary and Marlene do another movie together after Cary had become a more developed actor. There was definitely some chemistry there, I think they could have done something great.