Archive for the ‘ACTING STYLE: Hollywood Extravaganza’ Category

Blond Venus

30 Mar

Blond Venus—directed by Josef von Sternberg. Hollywood Extravaganza. 93 minutes Black and White 1932.
The Story: An inventor’s life’s work falls into jeopardy when a terminal illness strikes him, but his wife goes to work to speed him to a cure, and while he is away a man who looks like Cary Grant turns up at her place of business.
Taking Marlene Dietrich’s movies over-all, one thing remains constant: her business sense triumphs over the lust she inspires.

In this she is a statue in the park for the Me-Too limb of the women’s movement. For her triumph exalts her above prostitution which it also boldly includes.

Her films are set up to spotlight the gleam of drool on men’s lapels. This is not to say men are entirely at fault, for she has inspired this eructation herself, with a lowering of her meaningful eyelids, and a toss of the head to dismiss men as so much dandruff. This is because for her lust is a business.

In reviewing the Dietrich-von Sternberg films, what’s wrong about them is what’s right about them—meaning that every single thing is right about them. There is no point in calling them names, any more than there is a point in calling bonobo apes immoral. For his films neither redress nor replace morality. Morality is not their business. Their business is to pose. They are tableaux vivants of lust.

It is foolish to say what a thing should be or should not be, since at every point von Sternberg’s films with Dietrich are what they should or should not be. For Josef von Sternberg presents Marlene Dietrich as an object of desire so obvious, so uncontradictable, no word can be said against the fact that a film of his not merely represents but expresses in concrete form the lust in him for her that he felt and put on screen as natural as water. When you see The Scarlet Empress, you see the Hellish side of his lust for her pronounced as a gargoyle. But this hell is present in all seven films

In Blond Venus this hell takes the form of “the law of virtue”. This law stands in direct opposition to her nightclub stardom, an eminence which no true mother, of course, should occupy. She is advertised as blond, which Dietrich may have been, who cares? But no woman more unlike Venus could be conjectured. Venus is open, voluptuous, welcoming. Being with her, I found Marlene Dietrich to be cold as a statistic. And, while she is called Helen here and Helen was blond, it is also true that her smirk causes disasters in anyone near enough to witness it.

Herbert Marshall had the bad habit of English actors of speaking his lines faster than meaning can catch up with them. But he has a scene where he pleas for her and he has a scene where he is angry with her, and meaning is present. He plays the ailing husband, and off he goes to Europe for a cure. However, his introduction to Dietrich takes place in an extended nude bathing scene in which he sees her, watches her, talks to her, and steals all her clothes.

That is to say, lust launches the story. Shockingly, we next see Marshall with Dietrich as his wife and the mother of a four year-old son, Dickie Moore, in a setting which is domesticity itself. Dickie Moore went on to give Shirley Temple her first kiss, then rape Julie Harris in A Member Of The Wedding, then appear (with me) in Siobhan McKenna’s performance of Shaw’s Saint Joan on Broadway, then found an agency for child actors, write Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, about child actors, and marry Jane Powell. He is the best actor in this film.

He represents a recess from lust. For during Marshall’s cure in Europe, Marlene takes up with Cary Grant, a playboy with patent leather hair, who has given Marlene the money to send Marshall abroad.

Yes, Grant’s lust picks up where Marshall’s left off. For Grant she leaves stardom as a nightclub singer. For him she leaves her little apartment. For Grant, Dietrich goes into a trance on his lust. Nonetheless, when Marshall comes back, Dietrich would return to him, but Marshall will have none of her.

She escapes with her little son and resumes her path as a nightclub star. But here lies the crux. Lust now wears the pants. And we see Dietrich once again in them, flirting with the nightlife both male and female, her business to drive humans mad.

That is to say lust has achieved its natural and original state of having no gender. In this case—at the near end of its career—lust has no gender because it is all played out.

The law chases her. That is to say her humdrum husband has her chased from state to state, job to job, to reclaim his child. His child is that state of being which denotes the elimination of lust.

That is to say, lust in its most extreme form.

I say no more save that you never believe Cary Grant’s line readings, but you do believe the skepticism in his glance as he sees her sing for the first time. No wonder. It was the heart of the Depression, and the one entertainment everyone could afford was lust. No one wanted to be told that that too would be drying up and blowing away. But von Sternberg doesn’t care. Nor, obviously, does Dietrich. For she too had a child to support and a Paramount contract to be responsible to to do it.

In her films as in life, Marlene Dietrich was a business-woman. That her business in her films was prostitution is no mark against her. In films or out, she lives exalted above reputation. She is a triumph, not of Women’s Liberation but of Women’s Power. She broke the glass ceiling by not even acknowledging it. As a professional allumeuse, she put on her trousers and made her mark, just as she had to to meet the rent, as any other human has to, rent or no rent.

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Posted in ACTING STYLE: Hollywood Extravaganza, Marlene Dietrich


The Scarlet Empress

29 Mar

The Scarlet Empress—directed by Josef von Sternberg. Biopic. 104 minutes 1934.
The Story: A young German princess hastens to Russia to marry the to-be Tsar and her disappointment is sweetened with many consolations including her extirpation of him.

On screen, Marlene Dietrich has two expressions. The first is long before she commits adultery and the second is just before she commits adultery. In Dietrich films, adultery is always to be committed. As in her real life.

Here, the first expression consists of her opening her mouth in innocent stupefaction at everything and every one. The second expression consists of her closing her mouth. The first accompanies her opening her eyes wide as daisies to project unblinking virginity. The second expression co-ordinates with her lowering her lids to half-mast and ticking off her 10,000 previous sexual triumphs with her smirk. In the first her false eyelashes are smaller than in the second. In the second her lashes are so long she can lash people to death with them.

Think of Marlene Dietrich playing the innocent princess! The imagination is wrestled to earth at the proposition. But that is what she is called on to do by her puppet-master, von Sternberg for most of this film. Yes, she must be a virgin. After all the princess is only 15 and Marlene Dietrich is only 33.

How wonderful is this film! How complete an act of self-indulgence! How consummate a production and a presentation! Everything that can be overdone is overdone and then laughed at right then and there. The royals sit in immense gargoyle chairs and couches, and these gargoyles travel through every scene, nightmares of wood, ogres of plaster, tortures in marble. Through it all Dietrich is impervious to guilt, remorse, and thought.

We follow Dietrich from one costume change through a thousand others and are never bored, never refuse the offering of so much grotesquerie. Master Overdone, von Sternberg her director never asked her to overdo a thing. Au contraire, Dietrich as an actor is scarcely moved and scarcely moves. Her face is a mask of her very own face.

In her films, everyone behaves as though Marlene Dietrich were beautiful, but she is no more beautiful than a robot. She is a contraption of sexual experience. Except who the heck would ever risk their nuts by getting near her. Of course, she had many liaisons, from Jean Gabin to Jimmy Stewart to Yul Brynner. She bestowed herself upon various front line generals in World War II and upon many soldiers too—and good for her! She raised the War morale, and all received benefit by the training.

Here, we can only watch her, without love, without admiration even, but with unanswerable befuddlement, as she mocks the moralities which forgive everything because, in their permanence, they are simply immune to mockery. She herself rises to a higher plain of corruption. From promiscuity she dons snow white military trousers and rides a white stallion up the stairs of The Winter Palace and leaps over the murder of her lunatic husband the Tsar right onto the throne.

What’s so peculiar is that she also loves the handsomest man in all Russia, who pursues her and whom she crushes. The man is played by the lusciously handsome hyper-masculine John Lodge in a valiant wig. A scrumptious male whose like is not seen again until Marlon Brando, the lubricity of this attraction sears through the claptrap of the film’s history and the hysteria of its presentation, as Lodge supplies the only acting reality in the picture. which is to leave out Louise Dresser, wonderful as the Iowa-voiced fishwife Empress Of All The Russias and Sam Jaffe as the idiot dauphin Peter III. Dietrich herself, as she knew, was not an actress. She was a presentation.

And never more so than in this delirious picture, which is beautifully written, splendidly produced and directed, magnificently mounted, shot with genius.

Don’t deprive yourself of such pleasure as seeing a picture which resembles none other—until, of course, we reach the heyday of Maria Montez. Remember:there never was an actress like Maria Montez!

And also remember: there never was a non-actress like Marlene Dietrich.

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Posted in ACTING STYLE: Hollywood Extravaganza

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