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3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg (DVD Review)

13 Sep, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$79.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars George Bancroft, Evelyn Brent, Emil Jannings, Betty Compson, William Powell.

Aside from 1930’s made-in-Germany The Blue Angel, the seven deservedly revered Josef von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich early talkies have been at least semi-regular broadcast staples since their sale to TV in 1958 — and even more (this time, with Angel included) since national cable movie stations commenced in the 1980s. Thus, anyone who deserves to be voicing an opinion on the movies hasn’t much of an excuse not to know that Sternberg’s too-short early ’30s heyday established his mastery with lighting, decor and costumes while   cementing his image as a “woman’s director.”

But wait! Criterion’s magnificent new box of three late-’20s Sternberg silents — definitely a candidate for DVD of the year — opens the vaults to a trio of titles mostly relegated to museum showings in a handful of lucky cities (though the last two from 1928, The Last Command and The Docks of New York, got a VHS release in the ’80s). And here you will see that at least until he met up with Dietrich, the Vienna-born but New York-raised Sternberg was more of a “guy” director — often via the personage of burly George Bancroft, with whom he made four films (two of them here). They will also learn that the three here are as magical as the best of what he did with Dietrich (Angel, 1932’s Shanghai Express and 1934’s The Scarlet Empress).
Though he fabricated the “von” and could be a royal pain in the behind, Sternberg was one of the greatest directors ever at plunking the viewer into a specialized universe (usually, if not always, in collaboration with Paramount’s top-of-the-line house art director Hans Dreier). He didn’t like the outdoors, at least in terms of his art, and shot everything on a soundstage. He didn’t know much or anything about gangsters when filming the movie that kicks off this collection — 1927’s Underworld — or of the then-relatively recent Russian turmoil in Command or waterfront life of Docks. But in movie terms, all three remain vital and convincing, and it’s not surprising to hear Sternberg claim (on this set’s 1968 Swedish television interview conducted a year before his death) that a prominent Moroccan told the director that he recognized certain key streets when he saw 1930’s Dietrich-Gary Cooper pairing Morocco. But Sternberg had never been there.
A domineering personal style coupled with the critical and commercial underachievement of his later projects severely limited Sternberg’s output in the last three decades of his life. His last completed film was 1953’s odd — and some think oddly beautiful — Japanese/English-language hybrid Anatahan (aka Ana-ta-han and also The Saga of Anatahan). But because then RKO studio chief Howard Hughes kept 1950’s Jet Pilot on the shelf until 1957, that ludicrous (though sometimes delightfully so) John Wayne-Janet Leigh Cold War romance was the last of his films released. It was Sternberg’s only color movie, and in my opinion, the greatest that Leigh (the first movie crush of my childhood) ever looked on screen.   
The three silents here are just as luminous — with, for starters, remarkably fine prints despite their age as the prelude to new high-definition transfers. That all three exist is something of a miracle; even by normal historical standards of nitrate stock decomposition, Paramount’s silent library took a huge hit before the preservation movement got totally underway decades ago. But to this, Criterion has provided two musical scores for each film; the Swedish TV interview (where the interviewer speaks excellent English); another of writer/scholar Tag Gallagher’s visual essays (he did the great one on John Ford for Criterion’s Stagecoach release); UCLA film Prof. Janet Bergstrom’s own visual essay on Underworld; plus a 96-page booklet of written critical essays, screenwriter Ben Hecht’s original story for Underworld; and an excerpt (dealing with actor Emil Jannings) from Sternberg’s somewhat controversial (due to self-aggrandizement and charges of being fast-and-loose with facts) 1965 autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry.
My own preferences here? I like each succeeding film a little more than the one that preceded it, but if I didn’t have more pressing viewing demands snapping at my heels, I’d watch all three of them again — immediately — for pure pleasure. The longest of the trio (Command) runs just 88 minutes, so there’s never any danger of the films wearing out their welcome. The chronological breakdown — and watching them in order is a great way to go — is:

Underworld (1927): It was Ben Hecht, not Jules Furthman, who wrote this granddaddy of modern-day gangster movies, but both traveled the same circles and are strongly associated with Sternberg plus director Howard Hawks as well. Thus, when you watch Hawks’s Rio Bravo (whose top-billed writer was Furthman), it is impossible to ignore that both movies have heroines named “Feathers” and both have a key saloon scene in which some thug tries to humiliate the alcoholic employee/sidekick of the main protagonist by making him stick his hand into a spittoon.
But there are differences. The boozy sidekick played here by Clive Brook (the only actor for whom I ever heard my maternal grandmother express “hots”) is urbane and well read — a quality that Rio Bravo’s Dean Martin doesn’t exactly project. And Brook is much more of a subordinate to chief hood George Bancroft — which makes the latter all the more angry and wounded when he begins to suspect that his moll Evelyn Brent (cast as Feathers) and Brook are fooling around.
The gang wars here synched nicely with what was going on in other Prohibition-motivated skirmishes at the time, and a film that no one expected very much from kicked off a long screen cycle and rescued Sternberg from commercial limbo (or less) after several career bumps in his early career. Hecht got the first Oscar ever awarded for original story (it beat The Last Command), and, as Bergstrom notes in her audio essay and Sternberg confirms later in an interview, theaters had to stay open all night to accommodate crowds. For a short while (though the earliest Dietrich pictures), Sternberg was the commercial success he would never be again.

The Last Command (1928): Essential viewing as a movie about historical upheaval, ironic role reversal and, of all things, silent-era Hollywood, this is the film that got future Blue Angel star Emil Jannings the first Oscar ever awarded for best actor (shared with the actor’s same-year performance in The Way of All Flesh, a lost film).
There’s a structurally daring but ultimately captivating frame around the story. A hotshot Hollywood director (future superstar William Powell, more solemn than we’re used to seeing) is making an epic about the Russian Revolution, a subject he knows a lot about because he was once a young Revolutionary himself. Desperate to find the right actor to play a onetime Czarist general who once gave him some trouble (to say nothing of a fat lip or something close) in the bad old days, he finds the literal real deal in a pile of photos showcasing the studio’s stable of movie extras. The guy is working right on the lot for dollars a day, or at least this is his hope.
The movie’s long middle section switches back to Russia, where Jannings’ general, despite a few other historical things going on at the time, develops a thing for Powell’s femme cohort (Evelyn Brent, more fiery than she is in Underworld, though I still have a tough time accepting her as an object of allure). Anticipating Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, some of the most powerful scenes here take place on a train, which leads me to an admission. I can watch an old MGM or Fox historical movie – even one I one I like and admire a lot on most levels — and never believe I’m in the picture or the era it portrays. But this is almost never true of a film from Paramount, so dominant was it as a studio of mood, lighting, décor and (compared to MGM, at least) directors of real stature. This is all compounded in the case of Sternberg, who was the strongest director Paramount had until Ernst Lubitsch showed up. And though 1965’s Doctor Zhivago comes from a movie era much later than the one I’m talking of here, it’s worth noting that most of director David Lean’s crowd scenes aren’t as adept as the ones here.
Command’s Russian chapter ends tragically, whereupon the story seamlessly turns lighter (for a while) once it returns to Hollywood — the kind of mood switch that’s extremely difficult to pull off. It all ends with a p.o.v. shot that’s among my favorites ever, one to remind us that, through revolution and human mortality, we’ve only been watching a movie.
The Docks of New York (1928): If I don’t “get” Evelyn Brent as an object of allure in Underworld and The Last Command, I do get Betty Compson, who is all luminosity in my personal favorite of this trio. In terms of both Compson and the scenery, Sternberg makes the shabby and rundown look beautiful here, even though the realist in any viewer will sense that if someone turned on bright lights, everything here would turn into a pumpkin.
A ship’s stoker (Bancroft again) literally comes out of the depths to spend some shore leave at the local shoreline honky-tonk, interrupted on his hop-skip walk there to rescue an attempted suicide (Compson) from the water. The story is delicate — he marries her on a dare, then falls in love with her, all in less than a day — but at only 75 minutes, Sternberg can keep the story on track without any pitfalls, and by the time the movie ends, we’ve happily bought it.
Anyone who can’t get giddy over how Sternberg glides his Astaire-like camera through a claustrophobic setting (the main barroom) probably doesn’t have much of a feeling for the movies. There’s also a very strong supporting performance by Olga Baclanova (later the unforgettable villainess of Freaks, the one who eventually “gets hers”) as a likable barfly who admits that she was a better person before she got married. If someone were to put me in a corner and demand that I name my three favorite dramatic Hollywood silents, it would be some mix of (depending on my mood that day) Sunrise, The Crowd and this extraordinary hour-and-a-quarter of screen perfection.

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