Tag Archives: Marlene Dietrich

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)

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 1)Sans Trumptards of course—but then I’m referring to human audiences., 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 Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)

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1. Sans Trumptards of course—but then I’m referring to human audiences.

ORSON WELLES’ TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)

Only could produce a masterpiece out of a film starring as a Mexican. Of course, the story of Welles’ rise and fall is practically legendary. At 26, he made that greatest of American films, Citizen Kane (1941), which took on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in a thinly disguised biopic. Welles’ was already at work on his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) when the backlash from Kane sent RKO into a panicFearing another flop, studio executives took Ambersons away from the young filmmaker, gave it a happy ending, and recut it. The result was a truncated masterpiece, which should have been the equal of Welles’ first film. Welles’ was practically backlisted and spent the rest of his career primarily in Europe, acting in almost anything to scrape up enough money to produce his own films.

Welles had already been cast for the role of Captain Quinlan in Touch of Evil when co-star Charlton Heston dared to suggest that the man who made Citizen Kane could also direct. According to Heston’s “Actor’s Journals” memoirs, the producers initially thought his advice was ludicrous, but realized that they would essentially be getting a “two for the price of one” (actor and director) bargain. Welles was signed on to direct, and immediately re-wrote the screenplay for Whit Masteron’s 1)A pseudonym for authors Bob Wade and H. Bill Miller. novel “Badge of Evil.” The result was another repeating chapter in Welles’ ongoing story: the film was a commercial flop until later audiences discovered it.

Of course, there is a very small body of hopelessly predictable, wannabe filmmakers and critics who erroneously fancy themselves as “going against the establishment consensus” by denying the artistic merits of Welles, Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, or The Trial (1962). Such an attitude is like that of the equally small minority in contemporary pop music who feebly attempt to deny or protest the artistry of t, simply because that band set the bar too high. However, as an art professor once told me: “If you want to be a great painter, then you have to know great painting.”  Those who are too uninformed to know the difference between elitism and discernment can be dismissed. Failure to recognize the aesthetic eminence of Welles’ or his greatest works renders one superfluous.

Still from Touch of Evil (1958)Touch of Evil does not merely stand with Welles’ best work, it also stands among the greatest achievements of American cinema. On the surface, it shouldn’t. After all, it’s garish, grotesque, and pure sleaze; indeed starring Charlton Heston and Marlene Dietrich both in Mexican makeup, which almost amounts to black face, an obscenely obese 2)Welles was actually not as obese as portrayed here (or as he was in later life). Low camera angles and makeup assist Welles the director in making Welles the actor look his worst. The result is his greatest role since Falstaff., dissipated Welles in padded nose, Za Za Gabor (in a small part), and some of the most laughable dialogue writing ever committed to celluloid… until you recognize it as the baroque, pulp parody it is.

Janet Leigh, Akim Tamiroff, Joseph Calleia, Gabor, and Dennis Weaver are delightful. Under Welles’ direction Heston shines in his most emotionally complex role as Mike Vargas, making one wish the actor/director team had worked together more often (Heston, worshipful of Welles, attempted to commission the director for both 1970’s Julius Caeasar and 1972’s Antony and Cleopatra). Dietrich, as the Mexican fortune telling Gypsy whore Tana, delivers jaw dropping zingers with characteristic aplomb: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?” and “You should lay off the candy bars, honey. You’re a mess. Your future is all used up.” She could have been making epitaphs for Welles himself, whose last American film this was. Despite being hailed, even in its botched studio cut, by luminaries such as , François Truffaut, and , and highly praised throughout Europe, Touch of Evil was relegated to playing on double “B” movie bills in artless America. Naturally, Welles was blamed, and considered finished by the studio systems.

Volumes have been written about the twelve minute opening shot, Welles’ choreography, and the virtuoso black and white camerawork of cinematographer Russell Metty. Part of the film’s initial stateside rejection was undoubtedly due to the meddling of Universal executives who recut the film, attempting to make the roaming, overlapping, unorthodox narrative into something linear (it didn’t work). A disgusted Welles disowned the cut. Just as he stuck by Sam Peckinpah when the studio interfered with Major Dundee, Heston condemned Universal for mutilating Welles’ work. Seven years after Welles’ death, editor Walter Murch, following the original script and volumes of memos, restored Touch of Evil to the director’s intent. In its mid-90s theatrical re-release, American critics loudly echoed their European counterparts, making it a belated success, which is only fitting. It’s terrific entertainment. Watch it first for its aesthetics, then again for its narrative.

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1. A pseudonym for authors Bob Wade and H. Bill Miller.
2. Welles was actually not as obese as portrayed here (or as he was in later life). Low camera angles and makeup assist Welles the director in making Welles the actor look his worst. The result is his greatest role since Falstaff.