One Touch of Venus (1948): Awakening the Goddess

Ava Gardner breathing her first breath as Venus, the goddess of love and beauty.

I am always drawn to stories where a character is a fish out of water and must adjust to their new surroundings. This usually leads to many memorable and enlightening moments for both the stranger and those who accompany them. One Touch of Venus is one of those stories.

A department store worker’s world is unexpectedly turned upside down when his kiss brings a statue of Venus to life, setting a series of madcap adventures in motion.

on broadway

Kurt Weill; The Tinted Venus by Guthrie; Cheryl Crawford

The Broadway play One Touch of Venus came to life when costume designer Irene Sharaff presented the novella The Tinted Venus by Thomas Anstey Guthrie to composer Kurt Weill saying that the story would make a great musical.

Kurt Weill, intrigued with the material, brought producer Cheryl Crawford on board and as Crawford wrote in her autobiography, “It could involve the the world as we see it and as the goddess sees it and allow us to compare the two views, which would of course be quite different. I thought it could have social bearing and also be quite amusing.” Cheryl Crawford hired humorist S. J. Perelman and poet Ogden Nash to write the book, with Kurt Weill writing the music and Nash providing the lyrics.

After a share of turn-downs from European stars (including Marlene Dietrich), all-American Mary Martin was chosen to fill the shoes of the goddess Venus. In 1938, Martin made a noticeable splash in a Cole Porter musical singing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” but her debut as a leading-lady in Venus forever cemented her status as a Broadway star. Martin would go on to originate iconic roles such as the leads in Peter Pan, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music, and win four Tony awards during her lengthy career.

Kenny Baker, a singer who gained fame during the 1930’s on radio’s The Jack Benny Program then appeared in film musicals, was cast as Rodney Hatch. John Boles, a singer and actor of both stage and screen, was cast as Whitelaw Savory.

It seemed that the production was destined to succeed. With direction by Elia Kazan and choreography by Agnes de Mille, who had turned heads earlier that year with her groundbreaking work on Oklahoma!, Venus was a hit. The play ran for nearly two years beginning in 1943. Time magazine concurred that the show left behind “ready made formulas, but where Oklahoma! took the smooth, pleasant low road of picturesque folklore, Venus takes the high road of sophisticated fantasy.”

“Forty Minutes for Lunch” ballet
“Venus In Ozone Heights” ballet
Rodney Hatch & Venus Jones’s meet cute

On film

In 1945, Mary Pickford bought the rights to the play intending to film in Technicolor starring the original Broadway cast. This was abandoned due to Martin’s pregnancy and the property was sold to Universal in 1947. Director Irving Reis was assigned to the picture but dropped out suddenly and was replaced by William Seiter, a director with a touch for musicals (Roberta) and comedy (Sons of the Desert).

As often happened in Hollywood adaptations for the screen, many of the original songs were dropped and in this case, lyrics were re-written. Ann Ronell, most notable for the Disney hit “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” and “Willow Weep for Me,” wrote new lyrics replacing Nash’s “Foolish Heart” with “Don’t Look Now but My Heart Is Showing.”

On to the casting, and boy is it excellent! For the title role, the lovely Ava Gardner was chosen. Ava made her breakthrough in 1946 playing the femme fatale in Universal’s The Killers and was known for her exquisite beauty, glamour, and appeal. Her home studio, MGM, was not quite confident yet in adding her to their galaxy of top stars and often lent her to other studios. Just like her predecessor, Mary Martin, Venus played a significant role in Ava’s career.

Authors Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski elaborate in Ava: A Life in Movies: “Before Venus, Ava’s glamorous image was mainly derived from the studio publicity machine. Now she was finally being given a role that perfectly suited her emerging public persona.”

On December 31, 1947, Variety reported: One Touch of Venus comes to the screen as a pleasant comedy fantasy. Ava Gardner steps into the top ranks as the goddess, Venus. Hers is a sock impression, bountifully physical and alluring, delivered with a delightfully sly instinct for comedy.

After Venus, Ava replaced Rita Hayworth as the love goddess of the movies, and held that position until Marilyn Monroe’s rise in the mid-50’s.

Robert Walker was cast as Eddie Hatch, the object of Venus’s desire. At the time, Walker’s image (to his chagrin) was that of the shy, small-town boys in the war years. He would give the performance of his tragically short career a few years later in Strangers on A Train (1951).

Providing a foil to Hatch is Tom Conway, accompanied by his long-suffering secretary played by Eve Arden. Arden, as always, steals each scene she is in. Dick Haymes stands in as Hatch’s best friend, and Hatch’s fiance is played by Olga San Juan.

I enjoy this movie very much. I feel that Ava Gardner strikes the perfect chord of innocence and sensuality while Robert Walker has the shy, sweet awkwardness down to a tee. Tom Conway and Eve Arden are delightful additions, and it’s fun seeing the whole cast get into their parts and enjoying themselves.

Through my research for this post, I’ve found that Venus is still being brought to life by repertory companies today. It is my dream to catch one of these performances and be swept away by this charming tale once again…

I’ll leave you with a playlist of highlights performed by the original Broadway cast of One Touch of Venus. I would have loved it if more of these made it into the movie, they are SO lovely. Enjoy!

This post is my contribution to Taking Up Room’s Broadway Bound Blogathon. Thanks for letting me participate, Rebecca! I have enjoyed this immensely. Click here to read the rest of the entries celebrating the Great White Way.