Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus, released in 1932, was decidedly of the pre-code sensibility. Starring the incomparable, irrepressible, incandescent Marlene Dietrich, a sex goddess of elusive and earthly beauty and sensuality, the film, already compromising in its family-upholding ending, would have been impossible to make only a year later. The title refers to main character Helen Faraday, a strong, independent, sexual and sexualized woman torn between her family and her career. The use of her stage name suggests the importance of her image, her façade, beneath which lies an enigma. Helen’s transformation throughout the movie is effortlessly expressed through the visuals; the shot selection, editing, lighting, costuming, and the position of the actors within the frame help reflect as well as create the changes in her role and identity. Helen’s choice is not between the two men in her life, but between her child and her independence, two sides of herself that stand in opposition, manifestations of her fundamental natures as mother and professional woman.
***This is an analysis, not a review, and it contains spoilers
As Helen tells the boy it’s his bedtime, he asks his father if he can stay up longer, a simple act that enforces the idea of the patriarchal family. The two parents put Johnny to sleep, and Helen kneels down next to his bed while Ned stands, towering over the two. It is only in a later scene, when Helen tells her husband she has decided to go back to work, that she is positioned above him in the frame. He protests, forcefully telling Helen he “won’t have you go back to the stage,” but through Sternberg’s careful mise-en-scene, we already know how that argument will end. Her first performance as the Blonde Venus, Helen Jones (because it’s “easy to say and hard to forget”) makes for a scene of dazzling spectacle and fetishization. The “Hot Voodoo” number features women as nothing more than parts in the lush décor, as shots capture an endless progression of showgirls’ legs, later their torsos, and, even when filmed in full, the dancers are stripped of any defining characteristics; they all look the same, and some cover their faces with masks. The girls form nothing more than a backdrop against which a performer in a gorilla outfit emerges. When the disguise comes off—to be replaced by another one, represented by the wig—we realize the monkey is Helen herself, in a sparkling, satin, sequined gown complete with plumes of feathers that screams strength, femininity and glamorous eroticism. It is this dichotomy that defines Helen (and Dietrich): she is both beauty and beast, feminine, attractive and sensual, but also powerful and threatening.
As she captures all the eyes in the audience, both male and female, we begin to understand her power as sexual object turned subject. A spiritual precursor to the femme fatale, Helen uses her body as spectacle, seducing and manipulating, using men for her own purposes, never being used by them. Nick falls in love with her and needs her more than she does him (“A little of you is worth a lifetime with other women,” he tells her), but they are not equals. She is complete unto herself, an imposing presence that hardly leaves room on the screen for male counterparts, not to mention any members of the female sex. She is the strongest and smartest character of the movie, and Sternberg always wants us to identify and sympathize with her. Basking in the glow she gives off through Sternberg’s expressionistic lighting, soft-focused and always the center of the frame and of her universe, the Blonde Venus convinces us of her androgynous independence. When she says goodbye to Nick in order to return to her husband she is wearing riding clothes, the boots and pants traditionally viewed as male attire.
It is because she has broken the rules—those of the institution of marriage as well as socially accepted femininity—that she must fall. As a fallen woman, she must give up her child, “not because [Ned] hounded me, but because I’m no good… no good at all, no good for anything.” After his father takes Johnny away, she looks hardly better at the station that Anna Karenina after her encounter with a train. At her lowest point, she descends the steps to a lodging house, literally submerging herself beneath the ground; drunk and desperate, she gives all her money away, and only so is she allowed to climb back, on her own, reaching the stages of Paris with no help or support from anyone. In her last performance, dressed in a stunning, iridescent tuxedo and top hat, she is seductive, confident, and cold as ice. Her performance transcends artifice and becomes art. Lit to the point of enveloping herself in and projecting luminous beams onto the room, Helen seems deliberately surrealist. “What have I got to lose?” the lyrics of the song ask; “Do you think I’d care?” Helen croons, and we don’t believe she would. “I’m not in love with anybody and I’m completely happy,” she tells Nick. She has “not a care in the world”; still in love with her, he thinks that’s “tragic.”
I think the ending is tragic. Helen obviously loves her son, but, had it not been for 1930s’ Hollywood moral conventions, she would have been allowed to love him without loving her husband. The last scene captures her kneeling next to Johnny’s bed, a perfect replica of the first family scene of the film, only this time she is wearing a black, tight-fitting satin gown with a plunging neckline and high heels. She is not the same person she was in that first scene and disbelief can only be suspended so long before we begin to wonder how long the typical, ideal Hollywood family charade will last. As the movie closes on the tiny music box, I can’t imagine her giving up singing in a less domesticated environment the same way she gave up the pond for the bathtub.