One Touch of Venus (1948) is a combination of myth and the classic Pygmalion tale: What if a window dresser kissed a statue of the love goddess, and instead of getting institutionalized, became an object of the suddenly warm-bodied immortal’s affection?
The execution of the film is as silly as the premise; the movie (a musical in its previous version) can’t decide what it wants to be, and a rom-com with a few singing interludes doesn’t quite cut it, nor can its star (Ava Gardner) figure out what form her acting should take (statue-like? goddess-like? human like?) (I suspect this is the film Beckinsale watched before The Aviator.)
But in spite of its unevenness, there’s something strangely fascinating about the film, something very meta in its casting, for example. Just a few years later Gardner would pose for a strikingly similar statue by a different artist in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), as if to confirm just how otherworldly her beauty was.
Her gorgeousness is contrasted to Eddie’s (Robert Walker’s) awkwardness. His character (unlike the versatile actor himself) has very little charisma, wit, wealth, or personality to recommend him.
She’s attainable, boys, the casting director might as well have called out. Even this geeky window dresser can get her.
What’s odd is how frequently this statue story gets played out in film, and how similar the casting is in each case. The closest versions in terms of character dynamics came out in the 80s, Mannequin (1987) and Weird Science (1985). In each version, the unattainable beauty is not only attracted to an awkward, boyish goof, but pursues him: Venus chases Eddie when he flees, just as the mannequin-come-to-life Emmy (Kim Cattrall) seduces awkward store employee Andrew McCarthy in Mannequin (1987).
Lisa (supermodel Kelly LeBrock) pouts at the abandonment of her creators, socially awkward Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith), in Weird Science (1985).
It is, in other words, a very transparent stick-it-to-the-cheerleader-who-snubbed-me schoolboy fantasy, and its pervasiveness in film culture is a testament to the power of denial.
What elevates One Touch of Venus beyond unintentional camp is the presence of Eve Arden as the smart-talking secretary of the store owner (Tom Conway) who bought the statue. Her responses to the absurdity of Venus’s (and by extension, Gardner’s) beauty are hilarious: her reaction to the siren’s tiny shoes, to the impact of her presence on the male body, to the inevitable comparisons a gal must draw to her own form after encountering the goddess’s.
I also enjoyed the occasional winks to the audience, as when Eddie tries to make sense of Venus’s presence, and Gardner coos, “Now don’t ask a lot of questions, you’ll only get confused.” Or when he asks about former lovers Venus has converted to animal or inanimate form, then decides he doesn’t care: “You can turn me into a fire hydrant or a mountain goat if you want to, it’s worth it.” Such moments point to the funny parody this film could have been, with just a touch more consistency of style–and a lot less romance.