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Totally Absurd - and Totally Watchable
on September 30, 2009
BLONDE VENUS is a major Hollywood production masquerading as a loony "cult" movie. This jaw-dropping mix of mother love, sex melodrama, and androgynous musical numbers looks more like a Von Stroheim film than a Von Sternberg. Marlene Dietrich stars as a German showgirl who marries cultivated peeping tom Herbert Marshall and moves to America to becomes the most glamorous housewife in the tenants of New York. Years into the marriage, scientist Marshall becomes contaminated with a potentially fatal poisoning through exposure at work and needs $1,500 to go off to Germany for experimental treatments so Marlene decides to return to work in nightclubs and without as much as raising a exquisitely plucked eyebrow bewitches both a agent and a nightclub owner into immediately pushing her to singing stardom at top dollar, neither of whom bother to ask her to sing as much as a note to audition. At the nightclub, Ms. Marlene wows one and all with her Harvey Fierstein-like vocals, none more than multi-millionaire glamour boy Cary Grant who within hours has written Dietrich a check for the full $1,500 without her having to as much unbutton one button on her costume (imagine what she could have gotten had she been friendlier!) Marshall is on the next boat out to Germany and it doesn't take long for Cary to get something for his money. Herbert's potentially fatal illness is almost instantly cured and he shows up back in town earlier than the Mrs. expected - who when confronted, confesses all and wants to resume their old storybook marriage. Marshall however refuses and demands sole custody of their son which sees Lili Marlene fleeing with kid in tow as they hop it to one low dive after another across America with Marshall in pursuit.
To catalog the absurdity in this melodrama would take a few pages from Dietrich's full makeup job after some time skinny-dipping to her apartment in Texas which appears to be a boarding room/chicken coop with Marlene essaying a Garboesque detachment at all times from her split-second transformation from loving wife to predatory mistress to flophouse femme fatale. She's every bit as absurd as the movie - and like the film, she's amazingly effective. Herbert Marshall in the male lead has little more to do than be academic and anemic while Cary Grant as second choice comes off better in one of his major film roles as the too-good-to-be-true sugar daddy, young, handsome, and generous although he does have one of the least believable knockout punches in screen history.
The usually appealing child actor Dickie Moore alas is a disaster as the Marshall spawn - his slangy speech delivery makes him a most incredible child of Marshall and Dietrich - and at almost seven seems several years too old for this part which has him sleeping in a crib (!!) in an early scene and being coddled throughout the film by Dietrich as if he were three or four. Cary Grant has stated von Sternberg gave him no help with his performance and apparently he didn't help Dickie either, who baby talks his way through the film in worst precious-movie-kid fashion.
The film score is so loud and dramatic during Dietrch and Marshall's final confrontation at the old apartment, you expect to find Ann Savage strangled with a phone cord in the next room. You may be dumbstruck watching BLONDE VENUS - but you won't be bored.