Blonde Venus

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Blonde Venus
Blonde Venus (1932) poster.jpg
Original theatrical release poster
Directed byJosef von Sternberg
Written byJules Furthman
S. K. Lauren
Josef von Sternberg (uncredited)
Produced byJosef von Sternberg
StarringMarlene Dietrich
Herbert Marshall
Cary Grant
Dickie Moore
CinematographyBert Glennon
Music byW. Franke Harling
John Leipold
Paul Marquardt
Richard A. Whiting
Sam Coslow
Ralph Rainger
Leo Robin
Oscar Potoker
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • September 16, 1932 (1932-09-16) (US)
Running time
93 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguagesEnglish, German

Blonde Venus is a 1932 American pre-Code drama film starring Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, and Cary Grant. It was produced and directed by Josef von Sternberg from a screenplay by Jules Furthman and S. K. Lauren, adapted from a story by Furthman and von Sternberg. The original story "Mother Love" was written by Dietrich herself. The musical score was by W. Franke Harling, John Leipold, Paul Marquardt, and Oscar Potoker, with cinematography by Bert Glennon.

Dietrich performs three musical numbers in the film, including the now-obscure "You Little So-and-So" (music and lyrics by Sam Coslow and Leo Robin) and "I Couldn't Be Annoyed" (music and lyrics by Leo Robin and Richard A. Whiting). The highlight is the infamous "Hot Voodoo" (music by Ralph Rainger, lyrics by Sam Coslow), which is nearly 8 minutes in length and mostly instrumental, featuring jazz trumpet and drums. Dietrich sings the lyrics toward the end of the sequence, which takes place in a nightclub.


Ned Faraday, an American chemist, has been inadvertently poisoned by radium and expects to die within a year, until he learns that Professor Holzapfel, a famous physician in Dresden, has developed a treatment that may be able to heal him. The night after he hears this good news, while putting his son Johnny to bed, Ned and his wife Helen recite the story of the day they met: While traveling in Germany as a young man, Ned encountered Helen swimming in a pond with several other girls. She coyly told him she would grant him a wish if he left, and Ned wished to see her again. He watched her perform onstage at a local theater and then they went for a walk and had their first kiss.

Blond Venus ad from The Film Daily, 1932

After Johnny falls asleep, Ned discusses with Helen the possibility of his traveling to see Professor Holzapfel. In an effort to help pay for the trip, Helen decides to return to the stage and finds employment at a local nightclub. She befriends fellow cabaret girl Taxi, who tells her about Nick Townsend, a wealthy politician and frequent patron of the club who gave Taxi an expensive bracelet in exchange for a "favor".

Helen, billed as "Blonde Venus", has a successful debut performance, singing "Hot Voodoo" after emerging from a gorilla suit, and is noticed by Nick. Enamored of Helen, he approaches her after the show, and the two begin to talk. Upon learning of Ned's medical condition, Nick gives Helen $300 as a down payment for Ned's treatment.

After Ned's departure for Germany, Nick offers to house Helen and Johnny in a nice apartment and support her so she does not have to work. She and Nick develop a romance, but, after learning of Ned's impending return, she tells him she must end the relationship. The two take a two-week vacation together just prior to Ned's scheduled return date; however, Ned arrives ahead of schedule, and finds his home empty.

When Helen gets back to her old apartment after her vacation with Nick and discovers Ned is already there, she confesses she has been unfaithful. Ned sarcastically thanks her for saving his life and tells her to bring Johnny to him and then leave their home, assuring her the law will be on his side if she decides to fight for custody. Helen instead flees with Johnny, and Ned reports them missing.

While on the run, Helen initially supports herself and Johnny by performing in nightclubs. This makes her too easy to find, however, so she resorts to doing whatever she can to quietly get by, such as washing dishes in exchange for meals. She is arrested for vagrancy in New Orleans and almost locked up because she cannot afford the fine, but the judge lets her go, providing she leave town, when he learns she has a child to care for. Eventually realizing such a lifestyle is unstable for Johnny, Helen voluntarily turns herself in to a detective in Galveston, Texas. Ned comes to pick up his son and gives Helen enough money to repay what Nick had provided for his treatment.

Following an emotional breakdown, Helen begins to work relentlessly, singing and performing in cabarets. She makes her way to Paris, where she reunites with Nick when he comes to one of her shows. He does not believe her when she says it is better now that she is on her own, so he invites her to come back to New York with him to see Johnny, an offer she first declines, but ultimately accepts.

At Ned's apartment, Nick arranges for Helen to visit Johnny and then leaves the family alone. Before Helen goes to be with Nick, who she plans to marry, Johnny requests that his mother relate the story of how she met his father. She tells him to ask his father, who says he has forgotten, so Johnny begins to tell the story himself, encouraging Ned and Helen to join in. This moves both Helen and Ned, who realize how their separation has affected Johnny. To help Johnny go to sleep, Helen sings a Heinrich Heine poem she used to sing to him before bed each night. Reminded of their feelings for each other, Helen and Ned agree to reconcile.



Marlene Dietrich in the film trailer

At the time Blonde Venus was made, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), formed by the film industry in 1922, regulated the content of films by reviewing scripts using the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code (MPC) which, while banning forced prostitution (i.e., white slavery), allowed a character to engage in voluntary solicitation, but required the subject be handled with care. During negotiations between director Sternberg and the MPPDA regarding scenes where Helen is found by Detective Wilson in New Orleans, any direct solicitation was removed from the script, such that, in the finished film, the interaction between Helen and the private detective becomes ambiguous.[1] Other aspects of the plot, such as adultery, remain inconsistent with the MPC, which was not strictly enforced until 1934.[2] This enforcement of the MPC prevented Paramount from reissuing Blonde Venus after 1934.[3]

To promote the film, the September 1932 film magazine Screenland published the story "The Blonde Venus" by Mortimer Franklin. This was based upon the second version of the script and not the final filmed version, perhaps as this version was more similar to the romances that appealed to the magazine's female readers.[4]


Blonde Venus received a mixed reception upon release. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times called it a "muddled, unimaginative and generally hapless piece of work, relieved somewhat by the talent and charm of the German actress [Dietrich] and Herbert Marshall's valiant work in a thankless role". Jose Rodriguez of Script remarked that the theme is as "old as life, and almost as interesting", praising the "force" and "instinctive cunning" of the director. Forsythe Hardy of Cinema Quarterly gave the film a gushing review, calling the picture "more brilliantly polished than any other America has sent us this year". He particularly praised the cinematography, writing: "For an hour the screen is filled with a succession of lovely images—finely assembled detail and imaginatively composed settings, photographed with a camera unusually sensitive".[5]

Blonde Venus is considered a cult film.[6]


  1. ^ Campbell, Russell (1997). "Prostitution and Film Censorship in the USA". Screening the Past (2): C/6. Retrieved July 5, 2020.
  2. ^ Sarasin, Rachel (2018). "The "Utterly Impossible" Story of Blonde Venus". Screen Culture Journal. Rochester Hills, Michigan: Oakland University (4). Retrieved August 22, 2020.
  3. ^ Jacobs 1997, p. 106.
  4. ^ Staiger 2000, p. 86.
  5. ^ Deschner 1973, pp. 42–44.
  6. ^ Jobling, Paul (March 13, 2014). "Advertising Menswear: Masculinity and Fashion in the British Media since 1945". A&C Black – via Google Books.


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