For some reason, I’m watching a lot of old movies lately. Really old movies.
Last night’s selection was Blonde Venus starring Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant from 1932. In the movie, Dietrich plays a German night club singer who meets an American chemist named Ned, played by Herbert Marshall. They marry, have a son, and then Ned discovers he has been poisoned by radium. He’ll die within the year unless he can find enough money to travel to Germany and get treated by the only doctor who has success treating radium poisoning. The only problem is Ned doesn’t have $1,500 to cover the cost of the trip and the treatment. Yes, let that one sink in for a moment — in 1932 $1,500 bought you a round-trip ticket between the U.S. and Germany and medical treatment for a deadly disease.
In any event, Dietrich’s character Helen returns to the nightclubs against Ned’s wishes to raise the money. There she meets Nick, a millionaire played by Cary Grant. Nick is smitten with Helen and writes her a check that allows Ned to leave for Germany.
The story takes off from there. Helen falls in love with Nick. Ned arrives home early from Germany to discover his wife is cheating on him with Nick. Ned asks Helen to bring his son Johnny to him since Johnny is, “all I have left.” Instead Helen kidnaps Johnny and takes off, moving from town to town to evade Ned and the people Ned hired to find her. Finally, Helen realizes that life on the run is no life for Johnny and agrees to give him to Ned, who asks her to never see Johnny again.
Eventually, Helen decides she does want to see Johnny again and returns home. When she asks Ned to let her see her son he refuses. Helen asks Ned if Johnny remembers her and Ned replies, “I hope not. I’ve been doing everything I can to help him forget you.” Finally, Ned caves in to Helen’s request. Johnny does remember his Mom and asks both his parents to tell him how they met; the bedtime story Helen and Ned used to tell Johnny in happier days. Ned pretends not to remember the story but with a little prompting from Helen and Johnny he overcomes his anger. The movie ends with Helen and Ned back in each other’s arms.
Watching this 80-year old movie just reminded me how much parental kidnapping and alienation are ingrained in our culture — especially our storytelling, cinema and television shows. While these issues are more fairly represented in entertainment today than in the past, a movie like Blonde Venus is just one small reminder of how long parental kidnapping and alienation have been used as plot lines with producers giving little, if any, thought to the messages they were sending to their audiences.
I heard once that it takes three generations within a family to create a negative pattern of behavior and three more generations to undo the damage. Let’s hope for everyone’s sake that within the family of Hollywood writers and producers the same timeline doesn’t apply to stories about parental kidnapping and alienation.