Josef von Sternberg returned Marlene Dietrich to the stage in Blonde Venus, both a glittering spectacle and a sweeping melodrama about motherly devotion. Unfolding episodically, the film tells the story of Helen (Dietrich), once a German chanteuse, now an American housewife, who resurrects her stage career after her husband (Herbert Marshall) falls ill; she then becomes the mistress of a millionaire (Cary Grant), in a slide from loving martyr to dishonored woman. Despite production difficulties courtesy of the Hays Office, the director’s baroque visual style shines, as do one of the most memorable musical numbers in all of cinema and a parade of visionary costumes by von Sternberg and Dietrich’s longtime collaborator Travis Banton.
The fourth dual-layer disc found in Criterion’s box set Dietrich and Von Sternberg in Hollywood presents Blonde Venus in its original aspect ratio 1.37:1. The new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a 4K restoration, which comes from a 35mm nitrate print.
All of the in the set deliver exceptional presentations and each one seems to look slightly better than the previous. Blonde Venus carries this on, yet again delivering a rather staggering looking film-like picture. The film is grainy but it’s rendered gorgeously, never looking blocky or noisy and this lends to extraordinary looking details, even if the soft focus gets employed generously throughout the film. Contrast looks exceptional as well, with excellent tonal shifts in the grays, delivering rich blacks in the process, all of which aids in the flawless delivery of shadows within the photography.
The restoration work goes above and beyond and very little remains: a handful of tram lines, some minor scratches, and bits of dirt here and there. There are also a few frames missing by the looks of it. All-in-all it is another exquisite looking presentation in the set.
Audio is limited by the source but even then the lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack manages to come exceed expectations. There is an audible background hiss, but the overall quality is strong, managing to provide a fair bit of range without getting overly edgy. I also didn’t notice any significant damage in the presentation.
Criterion’s six-disc set presents several supplements spread across each film, some specific to the disc’s respective film and others working as overviews of their work. This review will focus specifically on the supplements available on Blonde Venus’ disc.
This disc ends up presenting a fair sized collection of material, starting with The Marlene Dietrich Collection, a 15-minute presentation of the star’s own collection of memorabilia and hosted by curator Silke Ronneburg. While explaining the history of the collection she shows off and explains some of the material we’re seeing, the history behind it, and so on. She also uses this to show how Dietrich’s career morphed through the years and also shows how all of this is displayed now. Interestingly they are in the process of digitizing everything. It’s incredible a lot of the stuff Dietrich kept over the years and getting a taste of all this history makes for a rather wonderful little retrospective on her career.
Criterion then provides a couple of features around the film’s costumes, starting with a 15-minute interview with Deborah Naddolman Landis, here to talk about costume designer Travis Banton, offering a look at his designs and work, while also providing a fairly detailed history of his career. Following this is a 10-minute short film called The Fashion Side of Hollywood, which was a publicity short by Paramount showing off their wardrobe department, featuring a staged interview with Banton. There is also some footage from costume tests.
A thin collection for sure (only 40-minutes altogether) but I enjoyed the looking into the costume work and then Dietrich’s career through her collection of memorabilia.
Another great disc in the set, it features some fascinating supplementary material and then another gorgeous looking presentation.