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« HMWYBS: Marlene Dietrich Double Feature | Main | Beauty vs Beast: Franchise First Class »

Dietrich, you little so and so!

For this week's Best Shot Episode: Marlene Dietrich. I asked participants to choose either Morocco (1930) or Blonde Venus (1932).

Her most fascinating scene in Blonde Venus: the confession.

Is Marlene Dietrich a good actress? This question haunted me while watching Blonde Venus, the fascinating Pre-Code movie in which Dietrich plays dozens of archetypes within a brisk 93 minutes: loving mother, drunk floozy, hot temptress, frigid lover, forest nymph, martyred saint, gold digger, confident androgyne, isolated immigrant, jaded bitch, dazzling entertainer. It's enough to give you whiplash if you're trying to get a bead on Helen Jones, her cabaret singer / struggling mother in Blonde Venus (1932).

On the one hand she does everything "wrong." She rarely modulates her voice. Her characterizations aren't especially cohesive -- an impression she gives you in one moment she might take back with force in the very next...

Her infamous "Hot Voodoo" performance. Neither woman, nor animal, only a star.

Her face, when it's not singing, settles into such an enigmatic mask that however Josef Von Sternberg and his cinematographer (in this case Bert Glennon) shoot it, she'll remain unknowable; all the light in the world won't reveal her secrets and inky black shadows don't know what they're concealing.

The melodrama-protonoir? story of Blonde Venus tracks the cabaret entertainer Helen Farraday also known as Helen Jones and also known as Blonde Venus (one identity is not enough for Dietrich's face) as she's torn between three men: There's her sick poor husband Ned (Herbert Marshall) who looks amazingly anguished in shadows so he's perfect for a noir; slick millionaire Nick who looks amazingly... amazing since he's played by Cary Grant; And Helen's only child, a little boy named Johnnie (child star Dickie Moore), the only character about which her feelings are (mostly) clear.

Herbert, Helen, and Nick in the climax. The blocking is so perfect.

Since Dietrich's face was made for movie screens, any close-up could make a case for itself as the "Best" Shot. So in an act as perverse as Helen Jones' own fluidity from scene-to-scene, I'm opting for camera work further away and how it tells the story for the choice of Best Shot.

In the middle of the picture, which finds Helen on the run avoiding both men, she's still got her little man to watch over. She leaves him alone when she's performing, much to her husband's fury and the law's disgust. In one amusing scene just before locking him in and going on stage to sing "You Little So and So," they discuss a photo of her in the newspaper which he likes but she rips up. It's a sweet scene in all respects but for the underlying truth that's never discussed: she's a wanted woman, this photo exposes her, and this kid is slowing her down (later in the picture she has scrawled on her dressing room mirror "he who travels alone, travels fastest". In a brilliant bit of business, in terms of composition, lighting, performance and set design, they walk behind this sheer curtain to say their goodbyes. The lighting perfectly shadows little Johnny's actual face while illuminating hers. Meanwhile staring back at us is this distorted mask of a man's face. Wherever Helen goes, there's always a man complicating the picture.

best shot

It isn't often that I want a man
But when I do it's just too bad
I know you're acting hard to get, and yet
I've got the feeling you can be had
You so and so, you little so and so
Look what you've done to me.

The question of Dietrich's skill may continue to haunt me but it's a welcome ghost. It can rattle its chains in syncopated "voodoo" rhythms (my god that number) or "oooooooo" at me with a suddenly melodic contralto at any time in the dark. 

So the answer doesn't matter. Whether or not Marlene Dietrich is a great actress, she's indisputably among the greatest of stars. 

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Reader Comments (10)

May 31, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAR

LOVE THIS. I'm so mad I missed Blonde Venus during FIlm Forum's recent revival.

May 31, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

I had the same question the whole time I watched it too! "Hot Voodoo" is the perfect capsule of her magnetism and limitations too: the number is one of the high points of the film, but her vocals are "HUH?!" I'm not sure she even knew how to play to the camera, even though she's shot to her best angles.

But yes, you can't deny how compelling she is

May 31, 2016 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

Is Marlene Dietrich a good actress ?

Marlene Dietrich is unique.

May 31, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKimberly S

Great pick for best shot and really interesting write-up! Thanks!

May 31, 2016 | Unregistered Commentershawshank

shawshank -- thanks. i had a good time writing it.

May 31, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Great article! This film deserves more attention. Saw it recently at Film Forum with Shanghai Express. A woman remarked after, "Do you think the director was in love with Marlene Dietrich?" Girl, who isn't?

May 31, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

Good actress or not, the camera obviously ADORES her!!! She was Paramount's ans to MGM's Garbo. They were both exotic European actress, brought to Hollywood by their Svengali directors, but looking back now, they were quite distinctive personality. Garbo alws have this tragic melodramatic air, while Dietrich is all sleek & seductive...They both have this mystique quality that were lacking in Hollywood actresses then & both were some what androgynous in their appeal

IMO, Shanghai Express released in the same year is a betta pic...her Shanghai Lily is sooooo memorable.....

June 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

While I adore her early stuff with von Sternberg and consider most of those performances absolutely essential (especially Scarlet Empress and Morocco) - and I love her in the Lubitsch films (Desire and Angel, both essential and unfairly neglected) - I think she became a much more agile actress in the late 30s/early 40s. She's fantastic in Destry Rides Again, but it was while watching some of her more minor films, e.g. The Lady Is Willing and The Spoilers from 1942, that I realised she had gradually become something of a master comedienne

June 1, 2016 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I've always said that she had acting eyes. She could do anything just with those peepers

June 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLuis

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