The ratio of Sublime to Inane swings noticeably in the six Hollywood collaborations of Marlene Dietrich & mentor/helmer Josef von Sternberg. Skeptics to the legend lean toward the earlier films (where Marlene has cheeks as well as cheek bones) while true believers opt for the delirious excess of the final two. So, where does that leave this mid-point entry?* Here, Marlene plays the loyal & loving wife of radium-poisoned Herbert Marshall. To save him, she stoops to conquer, chantuesing in a nightclub where she promptly falls for Cary Grant’s ‘swellegant’ racketeer. Sternberg usually had the older suitor (or husband) as masochist/reject, but VENUS adds button-cute Dickie Moore as a wild card; he’s Dietrich & Marshall’s son, and that changes the equation. The film holds its place in popular culture because of ‘Hot Voodoo,’ the song where Marlene emerges from a gorilla suit, but it’s sacrificial MotherLove that drives the narrative. (Alas, none of the songs are memorable.) With Sternberg, it’s never quite clear how much of this is supposed to be taken seriously. (Dietrich sacrifices, sins, gives up her son, sinks to the depths, rises to stardom, then gets it all back. 'Is that all there is?') But with Jules Furthman on script, the swift transitions move the outrageous story ahead like a graphic novel for the soap opera set, and his kidding-on-the-square dialogue perfectly characterizes while getting healthy laughs. And not only for Dietrich & Grant. Just see what he does for the amazingly assured Hattie McDaniel in an early appearance.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: * With seven films, why is #5 midpoint? Well, THE BLUE ANGEL, made in Germany, is sui generis. DISHONORED/’31 was #3, but gets dropped as their sole misfire. (But keep the great execution finale.) Here’s the full line-up: BLUE ANGEL/’30; MOROCCO/’30; DISHONORED/’31; SHANGHAI EXPRESS/’32; BLONDE VENUS/’32; THE SCARLET EMPRESS/’34; THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN/’35. (Though in America, BLUE ANGEL got released second, after MOROCCO . . . but in an inferior English-language edition.) Note the missing year of 1933 when Paramount untied the Gordian Knot and gave Dietrich to Rouben Mamoulian for the ill-considered SONGS OF SONGS. Then, back to Sternberg for the last two films. Confused yet?