Dickie Moore

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.

Advertisements

So Big! (1932)

As a young girl, it looks like Selina Peake (Barbara Stawnyck) has got the life.  Her father is well off and he sends her to one of the best finishing schools in Chicago.  That all changes when her father suddenly dies and leaves her with no money to support herself.  With some help from her friends’ father, she gets a job as a school teacher in a small farming community outside of Chicago.  She moves in with the Pooles, a family of farmers.  Their son Roelf Pool (Dick Winslow as a child, George Brent as an adult) is too busy working on the farm to attend school, so Selina tutors him when he has time.  Roelf develops a bit of a crush on Selina and becomes very jealous when she falls in love with Pervus De Jong, another farmer, and marries him.

Selina and Pervus soon have a son, Dirk (Dickie Moore as a child, George Brent as an adult).  Selina wants Dirk to grow up to be able to do all the things she wasn’t able to.  When her husband dies, she continues to work hard on the farm to make that happen and she does it all alone.  Death also pays a visit to the Pool family and Roelf’s mother also dies, prompting him to leave home.  The years fly by and Roelf has become the talk of the art world as a sculptor in Europe and Dirk has recently graduated from college with a degree in architecture.  But Dirk isn’t especially fond of being an architect, and when he begins seeing a married woman who offers to get him a job as a bond salesman for her husband’s company, he takes her up on the offer.

Even though Dirk quickly works his way up to assistant manager and is making much more money than he was as an architect, Selina can’t help but be a little disappointed that her son doesn’t have the job she always dreamed he would have.  One day, he meets artist Dallas O’Mara (Bette Davis) and instantly falls in love with her.  Although Dallas also likes Dirk, but she won’t marry him because she prefers people who look rugged, like they’ve really lived and worked and suffered.  Eventually, Roelf makes a triumphant return to America and to Dirk’s surprise, finds out that Roelf and Dallas know each other and that she is planning to bring him to see his mother.  A big reason Roelf wanted to come home was to thank Selina for helping him become the person he now is.

So Big! isn’t one of my favorites.  A lot of the shifts in time were pretty abrupt and jarring, but I liked it well enough and it’s quite interesting in some respects.  Considering that Stella Dallas went on to become one of Barbara Stanwyck’s most definitive movies, it’s interesting to look at this as something of an early precursor to Stella Dallas.  Only it’s kind of like Stella Dallas in reverse.  Instead of a lower class girl aspiring to be part of the upper class and sacrifices everything for her child, it’s an upper class girl who becomes a farmer’s wife and works hard to give her child everything.  It’s also interesting to see a young Barbara Stanwyck crossing paths with a young Bette Davis.  Unfortunately, their characters don’t actually interact with each other, which is too bad, but it’s exciting just to get to see the two of them in the same movie together.

Blonde Venus (1931)

Blond Venus 1931 Marlene Dietrich

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.