As many classic film fans know, the pre-code era produced some of the raciest movies in Hollywood’s early years. Censorship on movies made between the late 1920s and the early 1930s wasn’t rigorously enforced, so sex, drugs, and violence were often exploited in these films. The year 1932 was a prime year for pre-code films, producing a range of classics such as Scarface, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Red Dust, Grand Hotel, Trouble in Paradise, and Shanghai Express to name a few. The stars of the latter two films (Herbert Marshall and Marlene Dietrich respectively) made another provocative film that same year, Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus.
The film follows Helen (Marlene Dietrich), a German nightclub singer who marries American chemist Ned Faraday (Herbert Marshall). A few years later, the two live blissfully in New York with their son Johnny (Dickie Moore), and Helen has given up her career to take care of her family at home. But when it’s discovered that Ned has been poisoned with radium from his experiments, Helen resumes her old job as an entertainer to pay for her husband’s treatment. While she becomes popular as the Blonde Venus, it’s not enough to get all the money she needs to support her family, so she soon prostitutes herself playboy millionaire Nick Townsend (Cary Grant).
Blonde Venus is filled with many sexual innuendos, some more overt than others. The film even begins with a group of men stumbling upon some women skinny-dipping in a lake, and while most of them are wearing flesh-colored underwear, there are a few that don’t seem to be. Much of the film’s titillating nature comes from the nightclub numbers performed by the alluring Marlene Dietrich as the title character. The film’s most famous scene is her musical number “Hot Voodoo”, in which she’s first dragged on stage in a gorilla costume (by a chorus of girls in blackface), and then reveals herself from underneath to the attentive audience. Paired with the bewitching Blonde Venus are some equally enticing lyrics:
Did you ever happen to hear of voodoo?
Hear it and you won’t give a damn what you do.
Tom-tom’s put me under a sort of voodoo,
And the whole night long
I don’t know the right from wrong…
Hot voodoo, black as mud.
Hot voodoo, in my blood.
That African tempo, has made a slave.
Hot voodoo, dance of sin,
Hot voodoo, worse than gin.
I’d follow a cave man right into his cave.
That beat gives me a wicked sensation,
My conscious 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
I’m beginning to feel like an African queen
Those drums bring up the heaven inside me
I need some great big angel to guide me
Hot voodoo, makes me wild
Oh, fireman, save this child
I going to blazes
I want to be bad!
It’s with this number that Helen first grabs the attention of the suave millionaire Nick Townsend, and it’s their initial meeting that takes Helen’s life on many twists and turns that separate her from her family. While Helen’s main interest in Nick is his money, he’s quite a catch in the looks department as well. He’s of course played by Cary Grant, who just oozes charm in every scene he’s in despite being a bit of a cad. And speaking of Grant, 1932 was the year he started his film career, and that year alone featured several film debuts from great stars, such as Katherine Hepburn, Shirley Temple, Ingrid Bergman, and David Niven. Grant was featured in a total of eight films released that year, usually playing the role of “the other man” like he does in Blonde Venus.
While the men of Blonde Venus are pretty easy on the eyes, it’s Marlene Dietrich who continues to captivate us. Though Dietrich often played a sultry woman throughout her film career, in Blonde Venus she does a balancing act between that role and that of a devoted wife and mother. On the surface, it seems her biggest ambition is to be a famous stage star, but her true desire is to do good for the sake of her family, even though her intentions lead her down a troubled path. And while many pre-code films follow this formula, Blonde Venus portrays the protagonist’s struggle in the most stylishly composed way, making it one of the most fascinating films of 1932.
I wrote this as a part of the Hot & Bothered Blogathon, where bloggers are writing about the films of 1932. Click the banner below to read more posts on steamy pre-code movies!