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Art and the Politics of Censorship Essay

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Updated: Dec 16th, 2021

Censorship of the Film “Blonde Venus”

Blonde Venus is a film that was directed by Josef von Sternberg and released by Paramount in 1932. The plot of the film is simple. Helen Faraday (played by Marlene Dietrich) decides to return to show business when her husband Ned (Herbert Marshall) requires money for a rare medical cure to save his life. The return of Helen to her career enables Ned to travel to Europe for his cure. However, the money for Ned’s cure comes not only from Helen’s work but also from a man named Nick Townsend (Cary Grant) who has an affair with Helen. Ned returns home and learns of the affair of his wife and Nick and demands custody of their only son. Helen refuses and flees with the boy and sometimes resorts to prostitution to make a living for her and her son. Ned hires a detective who manages to track Helen and the son down and returns the son to his father. Meanwhile, Helen’s success soars and while in Paris, she meets with Nick again who takes her back to the United States. It is while at the U.S. and visiting her son that Helen finally reconciles with her husband (Staiger 2000).

The self-censorship of this film was problematic due to a conflict between “Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich on the one hand and the production officials on the other side (Jacobs 1997). As a result of the conflict, three drafts of the film were written. The first draft was prepared by Sternberg, the second by B. P. Schulberg, the film’s producer at Paramount, and the last by Sternberg and Schulberg after their reconciliation. In the second draft, the ending of the screenplay was significantly changed whereas the third draft was similar to the original one including the final act of the film (Couvares 2006).

Lamar Trotti, the censor who was responsible for the film, viewed the first draft, prepared by Sternberg, as absolutely impractical, but failed to comment on it because the producer was already arranging to request for far-reaching adjustments (Bermstein 2000). The second draft was considered by Trotti to be better then the first draft but the censor was still very worried about the representation of the two-timing love affair as well as the studio’s account of the final scene. Censors believed Sternberg’s third draft was better than the studio’s version and gave it an approval after some minor adjustments were made (Staiger 2000).

The final act of the film is the most vital of all the scenes because the subject of the dispute elucidates the disparities between the director, producer, and censors. In Sternberg’s edition of the film, “Helen gives up a thrilling career on the stage in Paris, and also her engagement to a millionaire, Nick, so as to go back to her comparatively poor husband, Ned, and son, Johnny” (Jacobs 1988, p. 25). Modern remarks on the film usually take up the issue of the stressed quality of this putatively happy ending. Some commentaries like Ann Kaplan, for instance, assert that Ned is a chiefly ruthless and insensitive personality and express the reconciliation as hard to believe (Robertson 1985).

The studio’s version of the ending is quite different because it pairs off Helen and Nick instead of Helen and Ned. When Helen returns from Paris, Nick informs her that Ned has been involved in an affair with his housekeeper. Nick makes threats to reveal this illicit affair during the trial for the custody of Johnny. Ned leaves the boy with his mother, and Helen and Nick make plans of getting married. Even though the studio’s version is more complicated than the original screenplay, it appears to be inspired in a more persuasive manner by the characters. The studio perceived Ned’s cruelty toward his wife as insensitive and, thus, opted to reorganize the couple around the more pleasant romantic tale. Another outcome of the adjustment to the film’s final act is that Helen ends up being a successful career woman as well as the wife of a millionaire. The film is therefore made to adhere to a universal trajectory of class rise that was conventionalized and exceptionally trendy during this era (Jacobs 1997).

Censors from the film industry nevertheless oppose stridently the studio’s version of the final act. Lamar Trotti writes “It does not seem proper to have Helen’s affair justified in the minds of the audience by tearing down the character of the husband, who, up to this point, has been a decent man who was deceived by his wife” (Jacobs 1988, p. 25) Trotti complains that the version of the studio undermines Ned, a character who is representative of a moral stand or point of view. This type of interpretation is somewhat characteristic of industry censors, who regularly tried to rationalize what they believe to be unpleasant content within a script based on a moral that could be accredited with the ending. According to the rule of “compensating moral values,” censors by and large supported the ultimate retribution and anguish of “evil” characters or their rebirth (Black 1996).

The challenge inherent in the studio’s version of the ending of Blonde Venus, therefore, is that the compensatory judgment has gone out of line. One deed of infidelity is balanced by a worse act. This implies that Helen’s affair, which is inspired from the beginning of the film by a financial need, as a sacrifice to save her sick husband, is made to appear a good act as compared to her husband Ned’s illicit affair. The correspondence showed that censors from the film industry liked Sternberg’s third draft of the screenplay because, according to them, it was consistent with the rule of compensating moral values. This conclusion is made based on two letters written by a correspondent, Jason Joy (Bowman 1992).

As was the case in which he expected challenges from external (state) censorship boards, Joy wrote a statement for studio personnel detailing the reasons why he perceived the film to be intolerable. The letters cover every detail in the screenplay that could reasonably be found offensive. This content is supported on the basis of the moral reasoning that Joy attributes to the tale in general. Helen is a devoted mother; she suffers for her two-timing extramarital affair and goes through a moral rebirth. Therefore, even though she appears to enter into prostitution, it is because of the need to earn a living for her son and herself. Moreover, she gave up custody of her son once she recognized that she cannot take care of him adequately. In the process, she gave up her own happiness for the sake of her son. In addition, even though she becomes wealthy when in Paris, she does not find happiness there and sacrifices her affluent lifestyle and goes back to her impoverished husband and son (Jacobs 1988)

The director’s choice for the final act of the screenplay thus supports the establishment of a pattern of repetition. It is generally argued that within the classical text reduces vagueness and enhances finality (Bernstein 2000). In this case, however, repetition weakens the creation of the couple and makes the ending extremely vague. This impact is as a result of the contrast between the initial and the final scenes. There is a remarkable difference between Ned’s attitude in the opening sequence in which he lives out his attraction for Helen, as it were, and the final sequence in which he appears disenchanted with his wife and must be persuaded to play his part in a story for Johnny. The contrast between these scenes is heightened through the motif of performance. The very fact that the reiteration of the story of falling in love is presented as a fairy tale for Johnny underscores, precisely, its status as fiction. Thus, although the repetition establishes a parallel between the beginning and ending, the differences between the scenes are so marked that the final reconciliation has a hollow and rather dissonant quality, and the expectation of closure is not entirely fulfilled. By comparing the different editions of the ending of Blonde Venus, something can be inferred about the intricate network of barriers which were put on representation under the studio system. Not only did industry self-regulation impose explicit, dictatorial rules, such as the rule of compensating moral values, but also, unreservedly, it served to reinforce a number of narrative conventions (Jacobs 1997). Therefore, the studio supported the formation of the romantic couple, a greatly conventionalized way of attaining narrative closure within the classical cinema. Based on this logic, censors tried 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” (Jacobs 1988, p. 26). The use of repetition by Sternberg as well as his insistence on performance strengthens these types of closure, and by this means the rules that restricted the symbol of adultery.

Besides the film’s ending, the censor’s scrutiny of Blonde Venus also relies on a particular outset of character, his understanding of Helen’s actual feelings and inner states. The film is however somewhat tricky to deduce at this level. For instance, in Paris, Helen informs Nick of her unwillingness to go back to New York. She proclaims that she is done with men, and even talks disapprovingly about mother love. This position is changed quickly in the next scene, in which a newspaper article writes about the engagement of Helen and Nick and their journey to New York. This crack in permanence and the impersonality of the newspaper tale fails to emphasize on the Helen’s inner state just when the story centers on the issue of the heroine’s feelings. It is easy to assume that Helen returns to her family due to her longing for them, but also, that she loves Nick. Therefore, the utilization of ellipsis renders it difficult to identify Helen’s feelings towards her husband and son. This ambiguity opposes the goal of censorship by making it hard for the censors to identify an unwavering motivation for Helen’s actions (Jacobs 1988).

Referencing List

Bernstein, M 2000, Controlling Hollywood: censorship and regulation in the studio era, The Athlone Press, London.

Black, G 1996, Hollywood Censored: Morality codes, Catholics and the movies, The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, Cambridge.

Bowman, B 1992, Master space: film images of Capra, Lubitsch, Stemberg, and Wyler, Greenwood Press, Westport.

Couvares, F 2006, Movie censorship and American culture, University of Massachusetts Press, Massachusetts.

Jacobs, L 1988, ‘The censorship of “Blonde Venus”: A Textual Analysis and Historical Method’, Cinema Journal, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 21-31.

Jacobs, L 1997, The wages of sin: censorship and the fallen woman film, University of California Press, California.

Robertson, J 1985, The British Board of Film Censors: film censorship in Britain, 1896-1950, Croom Helm Australia, Australia.

Staiger, J 2000, Perverse spectators: the practices of film reception, New York University Press, New York.

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