You can watch this film to see naughty Marlene Dietrich and you can also watch it to see how the studio tried—and failed—to rein her in. The cabaret singer we met in The Blue Angel, the cold-hearted seductress who wears a man’s top hat, reappears here in a glittering white tuxedo. Marlene swings both ways in Blonde Venus (as the actress did in real life). Sauntering onstage in the Paris nightclub where she’s become the star attraction, she frankly admires another showgirl, giving her a fleeting caress in passing, as if to say, I’ll catch you later, sweetie. And yet she also manages to convey an aloofness. It’s part of her allure. Nobody steals her heart, but she dares you to try. (According to her biographer, Donald Spoto, French actor Jean Gabin was the only one to succeed.)
Admiring Dietrich’s performance is the millionaire playboy (a very young Cary Grant) with whom she’d had a brief liaison a couple of years earlier. He fell for her opening number, “Hot Voodoo,” you know, the one where Dietrich comes out in a gorilla suit?
I probably should have included a warning: some viewers may find the staging of this number disturbing. And get a load of those lyrics!
That beat gives me a wicked sensation. My conscience wants to take a vacation. Got voodoo, head to toes. Hot voodoo, burn my clothes. I want to start dancing, just wearing a smile. Hot voodoo, I’m aflame. I’m really not to blame. That African tempo, is meaner than mean. Hot voodoo, make me brave. I want to misbehave.
So, there they are, in the Paris nightclub, the seductress and the millionaire. He’s still smitten. Dietrich blows smoke in his face and, the next thing you know, they’re engaged. Yep, he’s a decent guy. So decent that he brings her back to New York so she can reunite with her husband (Herbert Marshall) and young son (Dickie Moore). We’re supposed to believe that beneath the sultry exterior, Dietrich is a devoted mother (as the actress was not, in real life).
Blonde Venus was pre-code, but Dietrich was problematic. Married and the mother of a young daughter, she’d been sexually entangled with her director, Josef von Sternberg, during the filming of the three previous films they’d made together, and was romantically linked to various actors and actresses, carrying on with two or three lovers at a time. With the proceeds from her Hollywood career, she supported her husband and his mistress back in Berlin; the three of them traveled together in the summers, with the daughter in tow. All this was known, and disapproved of, and von Sternberg may have been trying to rehabilitate his protégé’s image with this film, but nobody was buying it. They wanted the seductress. Just look at the poster. Dickie Moore is nowhere in sight. Then there’s the tagline: From the lips of one man to the arms of another.
You know what I love most about Marlene Dietrich? She got away with it.