Even pre-code movies don't usually begin with a group of beautiful women naked in a river. Fewer films would have Winnie the Pooh gleefully peeping on such a group. But that's exactly what 1932's Blonde Venus does.
Sterling Holloway, famous as the voice of Disney's Winnie the Pooh, only has a brief appearance at the beginning of the film as part of a group of young American men vacationing in Germany who come upon the women. It's one of the beautifully shot Josef von Sternberg movies starring Marlene Dietrich, from their period of fruitful collaboration in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the plots of these movies often seeming like merely excuses for Sternberg to compose gorgeous photographs of Dietrich.
This movie is perhaps the weakest of the Dietrich/Sternberg films, being a more or less typical example of the Suffering Mother melodramas that seemed to be so popular in the 1930s, like The Sin of Madelon Claudet or Stella Dallas. The group of Americans at the beginning is led by the inexplicably distinctly English sounding Herbert Marshall, who's so wonderfully wicked in Trouble in Paradise. Here he's perhaps the weakest part of the film.
He teases Dietrich, who plays Helen, a showgirl and leader of the troupe of girls in the water, and refuses to let her have her clothes. From this we disappointingly cut to years later when the two are a married couple living in New York with their young son.
It happens that Marshall's character, Ned, contracts a form of radiation poisoning that's fatal if left untreated. Unfortunately, the family lives meagrely on Ned's income as a chemist and he can't afford the trip to Germany or the treatment he requires once he gets there. So he reluctantly permits Helen to return to the stage.
In the movie's most famous scene, Dietrich enters the club wearing a gorilla costume, and it is indeed fascinating--Dietrich actually mimics the mannerisms of a gorilla so completely, in the costume we have a sense of the nervous, dismayed and frightened creature. Then she slowly emerges as the image of a poised, self-confident and beautiful woman.
In a way, it encapsulates the film's story, which plays almost like propaganda, as Ned embodies an extreme caricature of patriarchal social philosophy.
A very young Cary Grant is in the film as a rich politician who is willing to give Helen the money she needs in exchange for sexual favours. But it's not quite as morally clear cut as one might think--in fact, Grant plays a character of more moral ambiguity than could have existed in post-code films. He seems to have genuine affection for Helen and she seems to love him more than her husband, apparently interested in staying with Ned entirely for the sake of their son. Ultimately Grant's character seems willing to help her whether she chooses him over her husband or not.
Too much of the movie is spent focused on Dietrich on the run from her husband who, upon finding out how the money that paid for his cure was acquired, wants to make sure she never sees her child again. She's hunted all over the country and the publicity forces her to quit stage work to remain in hiding and, eventually, as in The Sin of Madelon Claudet, she's forced to take up prostitution to take care of her son. It's pretty broad, tug at the heart strings stuff, though the photography of Dietrich continues to be amazing and there is one fun scene where she nearly seduces a detective who's hunting for her and doesn't recognise her when she's right in front of him.
The movie ultimately seems to reaffirm the patriarchal dichotomy, though one wonders if it wasn't because Sternberg was forced to by the studio. It was a "pre-code" film, though the Hayes code had already existed for a few years at this point. "Pre-code" generally refers to the period before 1934 when the code became law--previously, it had been regarded as rough guidelines often ignored. Perhaps, like films noir would do later, Sternberg sought to show the hypocrisy with the absurdity of the film's ending, as the idea of Helen going back to the downright tyrannically stupid Ned seems grotesque.
The more I think about it, the more the movie seems to have a curious mythological subtext. The naked women in a German river reminded me of Rhinemaidens, and the concept of Ned possessing the power of one by stealing her clothes is reminiscent of shapeshifter myths. The impression becomes even stronger with the strange gorilla routine. When one considers that Marlene Dietrich is possibly the least maternal of all actresses, one could look at the movie as a supernatural creature bound by the spell of a stupid, brutal man.
Twitter Sonnet #478
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