blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

One Touch of Venus (1948, William A. Seiter)

While One Touch of Venus only runs eighty-two minutes, it manages to do three sets of romantic arcs. It’s able to fit them all because lukewarm towel and ostensible lead Robert Walker disappears for long stretches of the movie. Sometimes Walker goes so Dick Haymes can serenade Olga San Juan; sometimes he goes so the actual A plot involving department store owner Tim Conway can take precedence. But he’s gone enough Venus shows it functions better without him, specifically when it’s focused on Ava Gardner. It takes Gardner a while to show some agency in the film—and she’s only really utilizing it to save (or seduce) Walker—but once she gets the chance, she doesn’t stop until the ship has righted for everyone involved.

Well, righted well enough for her and Walker, and San Juan disappears, which isn’t great, but Conway and Arden finish superbly.

The film begins with department store window dresser Walker setting up a Roman ruins diorama. It’s unclear it’s a diorama during the titles, which works out really well. It’s a good start. Then the film immediately sputters, introducing San Juan. She’s Walker’s girlfriend. She wants to get married. Isn’t she the absolute worst? You know who doesn’t think she’s the worst, though? Haymes. He thinks she’s great. But Walker thinks she’s the worst, but he’s on his way up to see department store owner Conway for a special assignment, so he doesn’t have time to dawdle.

Walker asks Haymes to babysit San Juan. It eventually includes San Juan and Haymes making soup in Walker’s apartment because the film—if it addressed the living situation—wasn’t forceful enough about Haymes and Walker being roommates. Also, everyone lives within two blocks of the department store.

I’m getting distracted with the more interesting second act, sorry.

Walker goes up to the boss’s, only to discover Conway just needs him to fix a pulley to smoothly reveal his latest purchase—a statue of Venus. The movie mentions some backstory to the statue, but it’s never important. It’s just to give Conway and Eve Arden something to talk about besides bickering about him being a womanizer and her being unappreciated for doing all the actual work of running his business. It’s the forties, after all. Conway and Arden are great together. They start with Conway relying on Arden, then the bickering, so it’s clear when it counts, Conway shuts up and listens.

After some middling physical comedy work, Walker kisses a statue, turning it into Gardner. She’s the actual Venus, somehow freed from the statue by her father, Jupiter. If the curse is only lifted when some guy gets too frisky with her saucy statue, I feel like it’d have been a franchise. Walker ostensibly has had a glass of champagne, and it’s gone to his head, but he and Haymes are lushes, so, no. We never find out the rules of Gardner’s human form. Walker can’t do the scenes with her. He’s initially freaked out by the transformation, then Conway sics the cops on Walker for stealing the statue, so there’s an additional layer to everything. Suffering detective James Flavin investigates.

The first act is trying to be screwball, except Walker’s an ass. It’s also a musical. Haymes and San Juan frequently go from musical interlude to musical interlude, and Gardner’s (dubbed) singing affects the libidos of all the lovers in the city. Sounds like it’d make a great montage, except we only find out about it in a dialogue aside. The film’s entirely focused on the department store and the handful of people involved, even though they have the perfect opportunity to mention it when there’s a mass making out in the park scene. The movie doesn’t establish it’s not the norm.

It’s also where director Seiter shows off his proficiency at directing the musical number. Venus is always fine. Walker’s not good at the slapstick and cruel in the screwball, but he’s not bad. He’s a twerp. And then he’s a twerp with Gardner, except she loves him unconditionally for smooching the marble. And he’s not interested in Gardner because he’s got a girl already—San Juan, who he doesn’t want anything to do with when they’re in scenes together. Until—about halfway through the second act—he just falls for Gardner, even though she’s been super seductive, even though Conway’s met her for a minute and is also pursuing her. Walker’s characterization—script and performance—fizzle their potential—and necessary–chemistry.

So it’s a good thing once Gardner gets going on her own, everyone gets along beautifully. It even works in musical numbers (where Gardner’s not actually singing). She has one with San Juan and Arden—it’s a trio number about looking good for your man or something while making him dinner—and (again, thanks to the musical staging) it kind of just works. There ought to be a bunch of subtexts, except the movie can’t get too into the details of San Juan and Walker’s relationship (or he and Gardner’s).

Everyone, even Walker, to some degree, is appealing. By the end of the picture, his pursuit of Gardner in their romantic comedy is enthusiastic enough—and there’s enough distance between them—it’s compelling. But Gardner’s best with Conway and Arden. Arden gets fourth billing (presumably below Haymes because he’s singing more), but she walks off with the movie in the first act. In the second act, she makes a bunch of jokes at the expense of her own appearance (what with a goddess like Gardner around), and it’s not great, but the film then gives Arden a great third act. Based on her girl powering with Gardner. So it all works out.

Much of the tepid romantic subplot elements could be a result of the Code; Venus is a Broadway adaptation; they could get away with more on stage than they could on screen.

Conway’s awesome. He’s sixth billed, but since Walker disappears, Conway’s the de facto main love interest for the third act. It’s a brisk, assured transition; once Gardner’s in charge, Venus finds the confidence it’d been missing from the start.

Lovely photography from Franz Planer, okay enough songs—the singing’s better than the songs but okay enough—competent, assured, meat and potatoes direction from Seiter. Fabulous gowns for Gardner by Orry-Kelly—it’s glamorous without being too glamorous, with a bit of Code-acceptable and barely problematic cheesecake thrown in. Arden image-shaming herself is much worse stuff.

Gardner saves Venus from a mediocre start. Conway and Arden make a big difference too, but it’s all about Gardner.

This post is part of the Sixth Broadway Bound Blogathon hosted by Rebecca of Taking Up Room.

2 responses to “One Touch of Venus (1948, William A. Seiter)”

  1. I was glad to have read your review before seeing this film. It seems to have an interesting premise, but I’ve never been motivated to track it down, despite the fab things folks say about Ava Gardner’s performance. However, your review has prompted me to finally get motivated, and I suspect I’ll like it very much.

  2. I always feel sorry for Walker in his later movies–you probably heard about how he would also disappear during “The Clock,” too, and Judy would have to bring him back. Poor guy. Good thing Ava Gardner was able to salvage the movie. Thanks again for joining the blogathon, Andrew–this was a great review. 🙂

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