Among the most influential and potent of all director/actor collaborations is that of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. They made seven films together, beginning with 1930’s infamous The Blue Angel. (For this film, each scene was shot twice, once with the actors speaking in German, then in English. If you haven’t seen it, go for the German version. It’s grimier.)
Blonde Venus (1932) is the least discussed and revisited of their work together. Apart from an embarrassing, but expressionistic, musical number, it’s something of a train wreck. Von Sternberg can’t be blamed. Paramount forced the dreadful script on him, and the director rightfully disowned it. There’s little originality in the story, and what enthusiasm von Sternberg finds is, predictably, in the lensing.
Of course, he gives considerable attention to his discovery (and off-screen mistress) Dietrich. She’s a German cabaret singer here (imagine that), and Venus is occasionally a fatigued rehash of elements from Blue Angel. Its worst error is in in deviating from Dietrich’s femme fatale persona, miscasting her here in an empathetic role as a sacrificial wife/mother who becomes a cabaret singer and beds a New York club owner (Cary Grant) to finance treatment for her ill husband (Herbert Marshall). Hubby finds out. Hubby blows his top. She runs. He chases. She falls into ruin, literally becomes a prostitute, and gives up custody of their child. It limps along melodramatically, with the fallen penitential woman reaping what she has sown. Dietrich is better suited to getting away with her sins.
Frank about sexual mores (there’s also a brief skinny-dipping scene) it’s definitely pre-code, but that can’t save this from static dullness. Dietrich is statuesque and has a picture-perfect son in Dickie Moore (he was briefly one of the Little Rascals). Dietrich was a limited actress, but one who shrewdly utilized her limitations (and smokey voice) to perfection. However, cast as a pre-June Cleaver housewife, she is out of her range and falls flat. She’s best when she is exotic. Among the musical numbers, she steals everything but the camera in “Hot Voodoo.” In spite of the blatant racism (black-faced chorus girls), which which will have contemporary viewers squinting, it’s a startling sequence, with Dietrich glamming it up in a gorilla suit and blonde afro wig (hence the title Blonde Venus). There’s also the hackneyed Freudian symbology of the duality in the Venus figure (sinner/saint, mother/whore). As with all of von Sternberg, it’s worth watching for his blatant photographic obsession with Dietrich, and for what he can milk out of the sin/virtue script.
Despite its flaws, Blonde Venus was a box office hit that paved the way for their penultimate collaboration, The Scarlet Empress (1934), which proved to be both their masterpiece, and an epic box office flop. Yes, 1934 American audiences reacted to something original and unexpected the same way audiences do today: they stayed the hell away, unaccustomed to any spice in their diet.
To say that Josef von Sternberg was one of the great visionaries of 1930s cinemas should be blatantly obvious to first year film school students everywhere. With the poor box office of Scarlet Empress and the final collaboration with Dietrich, The Devil Is a Woman (1935), von Sternberg’s independence and his reign as a director to contend with were history. He did go on to make Crime and Punishment (1935 ; one of the few films that knew how to use Peter Lorre) and Shanghi Gesture (1941) but the failure of unfinished projects like I, Claudius (1937) and Jet Pilot (1957) overshadowed his post-Dietrich oeuvre. For an artist with such an ego—he never gave an inch of credit to anyone other than himself, and arrived on set as extravagantly costumed as the actors—such a fall from grace was inevitable.
Allegedly based (loosely) on the diaries of Catherine the Great, The Scarlet Empress is one of the most bizarre big budget studio productions of early cinema. By the director’s own assessment, it was a “relentless excursion into style.” Dietrich is more of a decorative nymph than a human being; but in that, von Sternberg was true to the spirit of the gossip about Catherine’s sexual appetites (legend has it that she died while engaging with a stallion. Actually, she died of a stroke in bed, but why bother with history when myth has so much more color?) How von Sternberg got all this past the Breen office (the recently-enacted production code was already accelerating) may be one of life’s eternal mysteries.
The Scarlet Empress is off and running into its own decadence when young Catherine, then known as Frederica (played by Dietrich’s daughter Maria Seber) is put to bed by Edward van Sloan (!) with heterodox bedtime stories to lull her to comfy sleep that—naturally, this being von Sternberg—are presented in a montage of naked nymphs being tortured.
That’s a segue into a film characterized entirely by exaggeration. The art direction includes doors so massive that it takes a small crowd to open them. Wooden sculptures of saints populate the court, but they’re made and photographed to look like gargoyle pedophiles in the guise of holy men, peering ominously around every corner (cue closeups of gnarled, wooden hands, twisted mouths, and hollow eyes leading to blackened souls). The set design is weirdly cluttered with expressionistic decor: thrones of mammoth birds of prey, chairs in the form of threatening demons, an army of candle-holding gargoyles ascending a staircase, icons galore, a grotesque dinner table that any sane person would run from, crucifixes, and homoerotic martyred saints (impaled, of course).
As the adult Catherine, Dietrich is filmed through veils, adorned in sparkly jewels, rendered as a gossamer orgasm. When she inspects her troops, the Empress assesses them based solely on the size of their packages; even by contemporary standards, it’s outlandishly blatant. Everything revolves around Dietrich (she’s frequently filmed alone, and the rest of the cast are clearly there just to serve her). It’s doubtful that any other actress ever had an entire production— down to every minute detail, set design, camera angle, and lighting—created solely to support and revere her. It’s an exercise in obsession; so apparent that one can see why the inevitable breakup sent von Sternberg spiraling into a form of madness..
One can empathize with that poor dumb stud John Lodge, delivering his lines through clenched teeth from under a mountain of fur. Even Dietrich seems in awe of the all-consuming outlandishness, which includes my candidate for weirdest cinematic wedding, to Sam Jaffe, looking a bit like Conrad Veidt with his frozen smile, wearing a Harpo Marx-like wig. (My only childhood memory of Scarlet Empress on TV was the wedding, which sacred the hell out of me). It’s an entire film of mise-en-scène. You won’t mind that it’s dramatically thin—which is not to say it’s lacking in either entertainment, or in peppery commentary that is certainly unfavorable to Russian history.
Occasionally, it delves into slapstick humor (e.g. what Catherine does to a straw), which makes it even weirder. Among all the court intrigue, the Empress finds power in amorous escapades (she even gets in drag and gives new meaning to roll in the hay). One of the climaxes has her knocked up by a palace guard (we think—he’s one of countless candidates) which, by gosh, by golly, regardless of the baby daddy, produces a potential heir to the throne. Of course, who are we kidding? In an ambiguously happy (?) ending, Dietrich sums it up in a smoky exhale: “There is no Emperor. There’s only an Empress.”
Scarlett Empress is a fantastically poetic pre-code for the books.