No, Blonde Venus (1932) isn’t the best of the series of movies that Josef von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich between 1930 and 1935. That would probably be Shanghai Express (also 1932). Blonde Venus, however, is probably the most iconic. It’s the one where Dietrich dresses up in a gorilla suit, strips off the suit, puts on a blonde Afro and sings “Hot Voodoo.” It’s where she puts on blindingly white (or platinum blonde perhaps) white-tie-and-tails and warbles “You Little So and So.” It’s the movie Bernardo Bertolucci used a clip from in The Dreamers (2003) as a symbol of the kind of cinema obsessions found among young cineastes in the late 1960s. Blonde Venus is classic Hollywood and classic Sternberg at their most preposterously outageous—and at their most glorious.
The story—thrown together by Sternberg because he liked nothing the studio had—is a ridiculous mishmash of elements from Sternberg’s childhood wrapped around a drama of self-sacrifice, mother-love, sin, guilt and redemption. Following an opening (set to Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream) in the Black Forest where Dietrich—as a skinny-dipping actress—is wooed and won by Herbert Marshall, the movie goes all domestic with the pair getting married and living with their little boy (Dickie Moore) in a crummy apartment (well, Hollywood crummy anyway). Tragedy strikes when research chemist Marshall contracts radium poisoning, causing Dietrich to go back onstage and then make the ultimate sacrifice of becoming Cary Grant’s mistress (yes, as sacrifices go, this doesn’t seem like much) to pay for curing her husband. Naturally, Marshall takes this the wrong way. Much engaging melodrama ensues—as does a lot of amazing filmmaking of the obsessive kind.