For 81 years, the Akron Council of Negro Women have been helping bridge the racial gap in education. Starting from helping white teachers get along with black students in the early 1930s, to purchasing a house on Wooster Avenue so that African American women could work and go to school easier in 1941, to setting up an educational endowment to the University of Akron in the 1970s, and to providing a $82,000 scholarship that has been in place since 1982 for students going to the University of Akron, the council has done a lot for the community. Their theme, of which they have been operating under for the past several years, is “lifting as we climb.”
If you don’t count the films from the 60s and 70s in which films relating to race reflected that message, and if you want to do some digging, you will find that message in films predating the Production Code of 1934. These films were controversial, subversive, and downright considered “immoral.” But, these films did speak to the best of what the art form could provide in challenging conceptions of social topics, and explore them. A film that carries the council’s message is in one of these films, 1932’s Blonde Venus.
The film stars Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, Cary Grant, Dickie Moore, and Hattie McDaniel. The story is about Helen Faraday (Dietrich), who is married to an American chemist, Ned (Marshall) who gets poisoned with radium and they can’t afford for him to go to Germany for treatment, since they also have to care for their son, Johnny (Moore). Helen suggests that she return back to performing for clubs, like she used to do. Ned forbids it. But, Helen can’t bare to see her husband suffer and possibly die within the year, so she finds a job at a nightclub singing. During her premier with her singing “Hot Voodoo,” she catches the eye of Nick Townsend (Grant), who wants to meet her backstage. Once backstage, Helen can’t bare to act the part anymore, and breaks down about her family troubles. Nick gives her $300 dollars to get Ned to Germany. When Helen and Johnny see him off at the port, Nick comes along and offers to pay for Ned’s treatments so Helen doesn’t have to work anymore, so long as she comes home with him. She does that and Nick and Helen have an affair. Ned, completely cured, returns home early to find Helen not there, and looks around to find clues she has been unfaithful. When she arrives home after seeing Nick off to Europe, he confronts her and asks for Johnny. She refuses him that, and her and Johnny go on the run. When she is in New Orleans, she encounters and hires Cora (McDaniel).
Here is where it gets controversial- Cora helps Helen out to make sure that her and Johnny remain safe. Now, we can easily attribute this to the social stereotypes fitting at the time, but what makes it is the look Cora gives Helen that says “I’ve been here, I know, and I will help you.” You will have to see the film to figure out how it ends, but it is really good.