Issue 4

The “Utterly Impossible” Story of ‘Blonde Venus’

“As soon as you stopped singing and started luring men into the bedroom, that’s when the moral outrage would kick in.”[1] This quote sums it up best when referring to the 1932 pre-Code film, Blonde Venus[2]. Starring Marlene Dietrich, and directed by one of Dietrich’s biggest collaborators, Josef von Sternberg[3], Blonde Venus was set to be another hit. While production was scheduled to start on April 4, 1932, Paramount Pictures and the censors had many difficulties coming to agreements on the film, so production was pushed way back, with the film not being released until September 16, 1932. Being the pre-Code era, censors were not enforcing their rules quite as strictly as they did after 1934, but that did not stop them from trying hard to change this film, or not have it made at all.

Looking into the Production Code Administration files[4] for Blonde Venus, there was much back and forth between Paramount Pictures, the censors, etc. In a letter addressed to Mr. Will H. Hays, the head of the Code, Jason S. Joy, one of the censors looking into the film, told him that “Paramount had a story in preparation for Marlene Dietrich which was exceedingly questionable in its moral aspects.” In another letter addressed to Mr. Will H. Hays, this time from Lamar Trotti, another censor, who oversaw the project, the film was described as “utterly impossible”. The censors’ main concerns with the film were the representation of the family, as well as views on female sexuality. Because of these concerns, Blonde Venus went through three different versions of the script. The producers and censors finally came to an agreement on the third draft after compromising on a few details, regarding the character of Helen. The censors seem as though they wanted to separate Helen and Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich is the glamorous Blonde Venus performing songs, such as “Hot Voodoo”, and Helen is the sad mother who has lost her way. This seems to be how the censors compensate their moral values. By not allowing the character of Helen to coexist with the Blonde Venus, who seems to strictly be viewed as Marlene Dietrich performing, the censors create a divide in the “fundamentals of the story” of Blonde Venus, leading the film to lose its own moral compass, which does not seem to follow their rules on compensating moral values.

In order to fully understand the morality argument surrounding Blonde Venus, one must consider the historical context of the pre-Code era. The intent of the Production Code was to call attention to moments that may be considered offensive, morally “wrong”, or even viewed as politically dangerous. Censors during the pre-Code era focused mostly on the more sexual aspects of films, where it would be easier for them to target “immoral” actions or implications, before the Code was more strictly enforced. An example of this sex-focused censorship is in another letter written by Lamar Trotti to Will H. Hays, where he writes, “There seems to me a very real and distressing tendency at Paramount to go for the sex-stuff on a heavy scale.” This “sex-stuff” also concerns the music in films, such as the few musical numbers performed by Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus. The lyrics cannot imply too much about sex or adulterous tendencies. Part of the Production Code Administration files for Blonde Venus consisted of letters containing lyrics and whether or not they could get away with what was written. Jesse Lasky Jr., a writer involved with the film, wrote to Lamar Trotti, hoping to convince him that the lyrics for a certain number in the film were moral, stating, “I certainly hope that you will consider them O.K., as they are not only swell lyrics, but also quite moral – as see finish.”

In the book Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty[5], the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 can be read. Looking through the Code, one can see many sex-related rules. One portion, written under “Plot Material”, is specifically relevant to Blonde Venus in terms of adulterous actions, tendencies, and implications. It states that, “Sometimes adultery must be counted on as material occurring in serious drama. In this case: 1) It should not appear to be justified; 2) It should not be used to weaken respect for marriage; 3) It should not be presented as attractive or alluring.” While the different drafts of the Blonde Venus script were being discussed, censors believed that the implications from prostitution and Helen’s affair with Nick (Cary Grant’s character) “twist the values in the story thereby seeming to justify the adultery committed by the wife.”

These early concerns that were “questionable” come from the second draft of the script where Helen runs off with Nick for two weeks, and Ned is put in the “wrong” and Helen in the “right”, as it is revealed that Ned had been having an affair while Helen was out of town. This draft was not accepted, and a third and final draft was written. This third draft held onto the original ending, as seen in the film, where just the emotions were changed, having Helen and Ned re-tell the story of how they met in a much more somber, undecided, way. Lea Jacobs wrote it best in her article, “The Censorship of Blonde Venus: Textual Analysis and Historical Method”[6], when she exclaimed, “And building upon this logic, censors sought to superimpose a moral upon the moment of resolution-the couple formed must be the ‘legitimate’ one, purged of the taint of adultery through the narrative logic of punishment and redemption.” The fact that Helen is unhappy seems to make the actions in the film “moral” and true.

Lea Jacobs also writes about how the ending is the most important, as it was among the most concern between the director, producers, and censors. Throughout the three different drafts, the ending was always left with the most disagreement. How should Helen feel in the end? How should Ned feel in the end? What about their son and his feelings, as the film repeatedly shows the love Helen has for him? Should Nick stay in the picture? So many questions were left up for discussion between the filmmakers and the censors. The story gets caught between what is “moral” and what is an honest story. In the end, after much debate, the censors chose Josef von Sternberg’s third draft of the script, as, in their eyes, it seemed to follow their rule about compensating moral values. Helen remains a loyal mother throughout the entirety of the film, with her child’s safety and well-being at the front of all her choices; she only enters prostitution to provide for her son, and then even goes on to give him back to Ned when she realizes that she can no longer keep caring for him in her state. She gives up her own “happiness” of having her son for her son’s own good.

In the film, Helen also seems to suffer through her adulterous love affair with Nick, then undergoes a “moral regeneration”, as Jacobs puts it. In a letter from Jason S. Joy to Paramount Studio, the censors’ reasons are listed. Among these, they state: “This is not the act of an abandoned woman who is finding pleasure and happiness in an unconventional life. It is the action of a mother and of a good woman.” and “Never is she glorified as an unfaithful wife or as a prostitute; and never are infidelity and prostitution in themselves made attractive.” He then goes on to explain that these are the reasons they can accept this draft, and the film can begin production, as it is in conformance with the Production Code, and is “really a moral story”.

It is of equal importance to understand Marlene Dietrich herself, and how fans, critics, etc. viewed her. Many people saw her as this sexy, glamorous performer; this corresponds directly to the divide formed by the censors of Blonde Venus, who viewed Helen separately from that of Marlene Dietrich and her performing as the Blonde Venus. While Helen is seen as a character, Marlene Dietrich is seen as a symbol. She does not receive recognition for her role as Helen; she only receives recognition for her performance as the Blonde Venus. While the Blonde Venus moments of the film are entertaining, that is not necessarily the important parts of the film. Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich both wanted to tell a serious drama, and tell it as truthfully as possible. This becomes rather difficult when the censors do not allow the character of Helen to coexist with the Blonde Venus persona. The Blonde Venus then somewhat inhibits the story they’re trying to tell, all because the censors would not allow them to share this truthful, “moral” space within the film.

This divide that the censors created affected the story in a visual and technical way, as well as in the script. Many critics and audience members found the film to be quite choppy in its sequences and, at times, quite difficult to follow. A Variety film review[7], from the film’s release in 1932, calls the final film “a disappointer”. They also go on, describing that, “The 93 minutes, despite their episodic and ofttimes ragged sequences, are much too much considering the triteness of the basic story, a theme of mother love […] is the sympathetic basis of it all. Otherwise there’s little sympathy for any of the characters; neither the hapless husband, the faithless wife nor the other man.” The Blonde Venus scenes and the Helen scenes seem to almost tell two separate stories, one of a glamorous performer, living it up in night clubs, and one of a struggling mother, desperate to provide the best possible life for her son, even if that means selling herself in a life of prostitution.

“Censorship is regarded as inflicting the moral or epistemological view of one group on another, and the outcome of censored representations is the containment of possibilities for some members of the social whole.” This quote comes from Janet Staiger, in “The Romances of ‘The Blonde Venus’; Movie Censors Versus Movie Fans”[8]. This furthers the argument of the divide created by the censors in charge of looking into Josef von Sternberg’s 1932 film, Blonde Venus. They say they understand the story that Sternberg wants to tell, yet don’t allow his main character, Helen, to coexist with her night club, Blonde Venus, persona. Through this, the story becomes a somewhat sloppy mix of sequences, trying to showcase a mother helping her husband and child, while also doing something she once loved: performing. The “fundamentals of the story” of Blonde Venus, that the censors seem to care about, become lost, as the film loses its moral compass while trying to maintain and compensate the moral values that the Code upholds.

[1] Danny, “Blonde Venus (1932) Review, with Marlene Dietrich,” Pre-Code.Com: Celebrating Pre-Code Hollywood Cinema, 1930 to 34, September 15, 2014, , accessed April 26, 2017, http://pre-code.com/blonde-venus-1932-review-marlene-dietrich/.

[2] Blonde Venus, dir. Josef Von Sternberg, perf. Marlene Dietrich (U.S.A.: Paramount Pictures, 1932), DVD.

[3] James Bell, “Blonde Venus,” CIN 252 – Methods of Cinema Studies, March 25, 2017, , accessed April 26, 2017, http://methods.brendankredell.com/index.php?title=Blonde_Venus.

[4] Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Primary Source Microfilm (Firm), “Blonde Venus.” In History of cinema. Selected files from the Motion Picture Association of America Production Code Administration collection. Series 1, reel 4. Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Microfilm, 2006.

[5] Thomas Patrick. Doherty, Pre-code Hollywood: sex, immorality, and insurrection in American cinema, 1930-1934 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

[6] Lea Jacobs, “The Censorship of “Blonde Venus”: Textual Analysis and Historical Method,” Cinema Journal 27, no. 3 (Spring 1988): , accessed April 2017, doi:10.2307/1225289.

[7] Variety Staff, “Review: ‘Blonde Venus’,” Variety, January 1, 1932, accessed April 26, 2017, http://variety.com/1931/film/reviews/blonde-venus-1200410627/.

[8] Janet Staiger, “The romances of ‘The Blonde Venus’; movie censors versus movie fans,” Canadian journal of film studies 6, no. 2 (Fall 1997), accessed April 26, 2017.

Filed under: Issue 4

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Rachel Sarasin is currently a Cinema Studies student at Oakland University. Rachel hopes to pursue a career in production management in the film industry. Her friends love to take advantage of her passion for planning and organizing, but she doesn’t mind. If you’re one of the lucky people that receives the OUTV channel, you may spot her as the host of “OUt and AbOUt,” a monthly series documenting events happening around Oakland University. She’s also a Yooper, so if you see her around, feel free to ask her about the many mysteries and histories of the Upper Peninsula.