“A false beard is always more real on the screen than a real beard, just as a wooden and cardboard set is always more real than a natural setting. But try telling that to your film directors, avid for beautiful locations and picturesque views; they won’t know what you are talking about, alas!”
Giorgio de Chirico, Hebdomeros, 1929.
“When they ask me what elements are necessary for a director, I propose some absolutely horrible qualifications. I tell them he must know all the languages, he must know the history of the theater from its beginnings, he must be an expert at psychoanalysis and must have had some psychiatric training. He must know every emotion. And they ask me, ‘Did you know all that?’ And I say, ‘No, but I never asked anyone how to become a director.’”
Josef Von Sternberg to Kevin Brownlow, 1964.
“I first met Jo when he was an assistant director on a picture in England. He was Jo Sternberg then. On location in Wales, we slept in the same bedroom and I remember seeing him one morning staring into the mirror. ‘Which is more horrible’, he asked. ‘With a mustache or without one?’ ‘What do you want to look horrible for?’ ‘The only way to succeed,’ he said, ‘is to make people hate you. That way they remember you.’”
Clive Brook to Kevin Brownlow, 1965.
“In a sense, Sternberg was an avant-garde filmmaker who found himself, by fluke and only for a short while, at the controls of the Hollywood machine, then operating at the peak of its otherworldly artificiality. Between his arrival at Paramount in 1927 and his departure in 1935, he directed 14 feature films, two of them now lost, that constitute a body of work without parallel in the studio system.
“Occasionally, his films connected with a wide audience, as did “Underworld” (the 1927 film that sparked the boom in gangster movies) and “Morocco” (Marlene Dietrich’s first American film, released in 1930 ahead of her first collaboration with Sternberg, the German-made “Blue Angel”). But mostly Sternberg seemed indifferent to the public’s reaction. His films’ unreal settings, languorous rhythms and perverse eroticism were not designed to engage and arouse an audience, but rather to reflect the private concerns of their creator. For once, the Dream Factory seemed to be producing actual dreams.”
Dave Kehr, New York Times, 2010.
THE FILMS OF JOSEF VON STERNBERG
1925 The Salvation Hunters. Ph. Edward Gheller.
After eleven years as editor, lab technician, cameraman and director of Army training films, and assistant director on at least a dozen films in Hollywood and London, the thirty year old Sternberg found an opportunity to produce in partnership with actor George K. Arthur and direct a script of his own. “Three derelicts live on a mud scow from which circumstances and environment release them after poetically conceived tribulations,” was the author’s description of the scenario. The derelicts are called The Boy, The Girl, and The Child; other characters are The Brute, The Woman, and The Gentleman. That’s the sort of film it is, the work of a young man, ready to revolutionize movies with Significance and Poetry. However, it is made more than bearable by his apparently innate sense of mise-en-scene and already fabled technical mastery. Further, many elements familiar from his later films are already present here: the sullen heroine of an unknown background (here played by Georgia Hale, not in a class with the leading women in the future, but soon to star opposite Charles Chaplin in The Gold Rush), the man who physically and emotionally resembles the director, the nets, the mirrors, the cats, the graffiti, and the pin-ups. The film was seen and praised by Chaplin, making Sternberg the latest “boy wonder” in town and led to his signing with MGM, the most major and the most factory-like of the major studios.
“It is the first great symbolical picture ever made, and deals in an original manner with the forces that govern human destiny. There are scenes that are like poignant metaphors and similes—scenes that are like eloquent phrases. Its message is tremendous, terrible, beautiful, and charged with an elemental force that is inescapable. It is an unforgettable sermon that burns its text into the brain and leaves one exalted and strangely moved. It is world literature, as overwhelming in its effect as a Grecian tragedy—a milestone in the history of the screen.”
Ferdinand Pinney Earle, The Director, 1924.
“I played this piece of cheese at my theater and the audience must have smelled it from the outside for a donkey and a mule team could not have
dragged them in.”
A theater manager in Pasco, Washington, quoted in Fun in a Chinese Laundry.
“I awoke one morning to find that a celluloid halo had been clamped on my pate, though this unwieldy and irritating headgear was repeatedly removed to be readjusted at various rakish angles, in the course of which manipulation it was often around my neck.”
Josef Von Sternberg, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, 1965.
Sternberg’s eight picture contract with MGM did not turn out well for either party. He was first assigned to a drama of Art vs. Mammon called The Exquisite Sinner. Preview audiences found it to be “obscure,” and when retakes and re-written titles didn’t help, the picture was given to the pedestrian Phil Rosen to reshoot as a comedy. It still didn’t attract an audience. In the meantime, Sternberg was given The Masked Bride, a tale of the Paris underworld with Mae Murray, Stroheim’s Merry Widow. After two weeks of shooting, the disenchanted director ordered his cinematographer, Mae Marsh’s brother Oliver, to turn the camera to the ceiling. and he walked off the set. The studio terminated Sternberg’s contract, and the film was finished by Griffith disciple Christy Cabanne.
“I was given very little choice in the selection of my story, or the cast, or opportunity to aid in writing the scenario, titling, editing, or even in methods of direction. I am glad that the break has been made, and think it is a fine thing for me.”
Josef Von Sternberg, Los Angeles Times, 1925.
1926 A Woman of the Sea (The Sea Gull). Ph. Edward Gheller, Paul Ivano. Art dir. Charles D. Hall. LOST.
Down and out again, though not for the last time, Sternberg was soon temporarily rescued from oblivion by his connection with Charles Chaplin who wanted him to direct a Dickensian story of fisherfolk and the sea. While working on his own film, The Circus, Chaplin wished to produce a vehicle for Edna Purviance who had been his leading woman from 1915 though 1923. Sternberg accepted the opportunity to make another film, and one which could take advantage of the apparently unlimited resources of the Chaplin Studio, but the result seems, as far as we can tell, to have lost the Dickensian quality that the boss had envisioned. After three weeks on location in Monterey and Carmel, the cast and crew, which included young Riza Royce, soon to be the first Mrs. Sternberg, as assistant and bit player, returned to the studio. Shooting and editing progressed without incident and after one screening, Chaplin, apparently dissatisfied with the film, placed it in his vault and eventually, it is said, destroyed the existing material for “tax purposes.”
Until 2008, the primary source on the film in English was John Grierson, no friend of the director. He wrote, “It struck me that sensibility of his peculiarly intensive and introspective sort was not a very healthy equipment for a hard world. A director of this instinct is bound to have a solitary and (as commerce goes) an unsuccessful life of it. Von Sternberg, I think, was weak,” and his assessment of the film that he was one of the few to have seen: “the most beautiful picture ever produced in Hollywood, and the least human.” Now, thanks to the admirable work of Linda Wada of the Edna Purviance Society, we have the extensively researched and copiously illustrated book pictured below. Accompanied by many of the original intertitles, more than fifty production stills illustrate the story and show us what the sets, locations, and actors looked like. Sadly, a still shot is not a film, nor even a frame enlargement; they give no sense of mise-en-scene, Sternberg’s camera placement and movement, his lighting, the motion and timing of his actors. But these pictures, for the first time, provide us with a tool which, along with our experience of his existing films, can give us a “feel” for what this lost film may have been like.
1927 Underworld. Ph. Bert Glennon. Art dir. Hans Dreier.
After the disaster of A Woman of the Sea, Sternberg was unemployable again, but after a while, Paramount’s West Coast production head, B.P. Schulberg (father of the writer Bud Schulberg), at the urging of his wife, hired Sternberg, though as an assistant director. This title should really be assistant to the director, as the a.d. rarely, if ever, actually directs. However, he was called on to fill in for an ailing Clarence Badger for a day or two during the shooting of It with Clara Bow. This led to his being assigned to finish Bow’s next, Children of Divorce, replacing Frank Lloyd. He did so well on this job, proving he could play for the team, that he was given Underworld, replacing Arthur Rosson. The film was to be based on an original story by Ben Hecht who had spent some years as a Chicago reporter covering that city’s fabled criminal world. Among the many contributing to the script, some credited, some not, were Jules Furthman, Charles Furthman, Robert N. Lee, George Marion Jr., Howard Hawks, and Sternberg. Hecht was not happy with the final product, especially the “half-dozen sentimental touches introduced by its director.” He wired Sternberg, “You poor ham take my name off the film.” Since Paramount wanted the prestige of a published novelist in the credits, Hecht’s name remained, and he did not object to accepting the first Oscar for Best Original Story. Paramount cast Evelyn Brent and Sternberg cast his old friend Clive Brook, cowboy actor George Bancroft, and out of fashion comic Larry Semon. In addition to the above-mentioned Jules Furthman, Glennon and Dreier, another who was to become a regular member of Sternberg’s team was the colorful costume designer, Travis Banton. After an efficient five week shoot, timid studio executives opened Underworld at a small New York house, but quickly moved it to the large flagship Paramount Theatre in Times Square when audience demand required round the clock screenings, it is said for the first time in film history.
“…an experiment in photographic violence and montage.”
Josef Von Sternberg, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, 1965.
“When the lure of the female, with its primary appeal to the opposite sex, is examined, as it should be, vertically, horizontally, and in depth, it must be apparent that, as women compose the majority of those who pour into the theatre, this bait is not meant to attract only the male.”
Josef Von Sternberg, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, 1965.
1928 The Last Command. Ph. Bert Glennon. Art dir. Hans Dreier.
The story of this film has a somewhat convoluted history, but it is worth trying to get it straight. Ernst Lubitsch had met a former officer of the Czarist army named Theodore Lodijensky who was now a Hollywood extra. He thought this would make a great story for newly-arrived German star Emil Jannings who specialized in roles where he fell from the heights to the depths, as in Murnau’s Der Letzte Mann. A few days later, Lubitsch heard the same story from screenwriter Lajos Biro who credited it to Jannings. Biro did a treatment, and John S. Goodrich wrote a screenplay. Jules Furthman and Sternberg made extensive changes to the script and Herman Mankiewicz wrote the titles. The film was made with a number of important changes from the published Biro-Goodrich script. An obscure writer then appeared claiming, with apparently convincing proof, that it was his story and had been plagiarized. Paramount settled out of court and tried to blame Lubitsch, but he said that since he had been denied credit by Jannings, Biro, and Sternberg, he would not accept it now. Paramount decide to blame Sternberg; he had better have a bigger hit than The Last Command turned out to be, and soon. It had been a highly praised prestige picture, and Jannings won the first Best Actor Oscar for this performance, along with that in The Way of All Flesh which, speaking of writers, had very little to do with Samuel Butler’s celebrated novel of that name.
I know this picture is way out of proportion for this site, but it is such a great shot. This may be the most intense moment in Evelyn Brent’s career. Look at those eyes.
1928 The Drag Net. Ph. Harold Rosson. Art dir. Hans Dreier. LOST.
There is not much information available about this lost film. Sternberg barely mentions it in his memoir, John Baxter’s biography gives it short shrift, and it has not received the blessing of a “reconstructing” book as have the equally missing A Woman from the Sea and The Case of Lena Smith. It appears to have been a Paramount attempt to repeat the spectacular success of Underworld by using similar plot elements, some of the same cast, and the director. Another hit would have strengthened Sternberg’s position after the financial disappointment of his prestigious The Last Command, but The Drag Net was not to be it, nor was his next film, the masterful The Docks of New York.
Since the release of Underworld, the admirable George Bancroft had become a major star, the first gangster star. While shooting a scene for this new film in which Bancroft’s character, “Two Gun” Nolan, is shot, Sternberg instructed him to fall when he shouted, “Bang!” The actor did not fall on cue and remarked, “One shot can’t stop Bancroft!”
In Fun in a Chinese Laundry, Sternberg tells of an unnamed actor, quite obviously Bancroft, repeating to him, “Isn’t it wonderful? You want to be like me, don’t you?” Maybe not, but he surely wanted to be like the characters Bancroft played.
1929 The Docks of New York. Ph. Harold Rosson. Art dir. Hans Dreier.
“Docks of New York was one of the finest achievements of a period when fine achievements were commonplace. Its impact has gained strength with the passage of time. It is one of the enduring masterpieces of the American cinema, a triumphant vindication for a man whose behavior suggested to so many that of an artistic charlatan. He achieves a feeling of warmth and humanity—he seems to care about his characters, instead of using them as in some of his sound films merely to form patterns of light and shade.”
Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By, 1968.
“The entire film, save for the ending, immerses the viewer in a poetic idealization of the kind of place the New York waterfront ought to be but certainly is not. The docks, fog-shrouded at night, and in daytime glistening in softened sunlight, are just what one might dream of finding where the big ships come into the great port of New York Harbor. The nights are moonwashed with mystery, and not even the daylight dispels von Sternberg’s pictorial magic.”
James Card, Seductive Cinema, 1994.
Today widely regarded as Sternberg’s masterpiece, The Docks of New York had the misfortune to be press screened the same week as The Jazz Singer which distracted audiences, reviewers, and studios from films that were not talkies or, at least, part-talkies.
“The Docks of New York (1928) is Sternberg’s first surviving full-scale collaboration with screenwriter Jules Furthman (1888–1960). (Furthman had adapted Underworld and cowritten the now lost The Dragnet with his brother, Charles.) The writer went on to collaborate on six more of Sternberg’s (mostly) finest films, while also beginning a similarly symbiotic relationship with Howard Hawks. Although I would certainly argue for the primacy of the director over the writer, there are instances where the writer is so intrinsically in synch with the director’s vision that their mutual contributions cannot be easily distinguished. It should be said, too, that Furthman’s work with other directors did not measure up to his films with these two giants.”
Charles Silver, MOMA program notes.
1928 The Case of Lena Smith. Ph. Harold Rosson. Art dir. Hans Dreier. LOST.
“The most completely satisfying American movie I have seen.”
Dwight Macdonald, The Miscellany, 1931.
“The Case of Lena Smith may be regarded as von Sternberg’s most successful attempt at combining a story of meaning and purpose with his very original style.”
Curtis Harrington, An Index to the Films of Josef von Sternberg, 1949.
The source of Sternberg’s final silent film was the first screen story written by Samuel Ornitz, better known later as one of the Hollywood Ten, victims of the post-World War II blacklist who served prison terms for “contempt of Congress.” Ornitz’s story was about a prostitute and her child set in contemporary US. By the time Jules Furthman began the first draft of a screenplay, the setting had been changed to Vienna in the 1890s, and the wronged mother had become a servant secretly married to an aristocrat. The director’s influence on the script is evident from its now taking place in the time and place of his birth. An important early scene is set in the Prater, Vienna’s amusement park seen earlier in Stroheim’s Merry Go Round and later in Reed’s The Third Man. Several pages at the beginning of Fun in a Chinese Laundry are devoted to the Prater of his childhood. “Mine was every crevice of the vast amusement park, the like of which never again existed. In another phase of my life, parts of the impression it made were passed on to others (The Case of Lena Smith, 1929).”
The late director, Curtis Harrington, was the first person to write an extended study of Sternberg’s work, at which time, he may have been the last to see this lost film screened at Paramount. It had been totally unseen, until 2003, when film historian Komatsu Hiroshi found a four-minute fragment of the highly regarded Prater scene “in an antiquarian shop in Dalian (the former Port Arthur).” This sequence has been screened at a number of festivals, and its appearance as a dvd extra is eagerly awaited.
Like A Woman of the Sea, The Case of Lena Smith is also the subject of a book, this one published by Oesterreichisches Filmmuseum. The pictures are not as well-reproduced as in the other book, and the layout of the reconstruction, as film historian Eileen Bowser has pointed out, is a challenge to follow, but the book is packed with valuable information on the development of the script, the production, and the reception of the film in several countries. Particularly useful, in view of my comment above, is a comparison of a production still and a frame enlargement of the same shot from the rediscovered fragment.
Sternberg’s final silent leading woman was the talented, experienced, and extraordinarily beautiful Esther Ralston. This was the 65th of 97 films she appeared in between 1915 and 1940. She was extremely popular and well-paid during the late twenties, having worked with many of the best directors of the day, including Brenon, La Cava, Arzner, Fleming, and Lubitsch. Though her voice was fine, the studios lost interest in her in the thirties, and she returned to her early roots: westerns, serials, and Bs before retiring at thirty-eight, old age for a leading woman at the time.
“Nobody had ever given me the chance to do anything but light comedy…I was so impressed with him, and he brought out the best of me.”
1929 Thunderbolt. Ph. Harry Gerrard. Art dir. Hans Dreier.
The director’s first sound film puts the lie to the myth that the camera couldn’t be moved during that time. He uses sound imaginatively without calling attention to it, except as he has Bancroft speak his lines in the even tone and measured rhythm that would be further developed in Morocco and, especially, Shanghai Express. There was also a silent version released.
“It was treated with respect at the box office, but, with one exception, not a single soul noticed my attempt to put sound into its proper relationship to the image. The one exception was a fellow director, the scholarly and sensitive Ludwig Berger, who sent a telegram which read: ‘Saw your Thunderbolt and congratulate you with all my heart. It is the first rounded out and artistically elaborated sound film. Bravo.’”
Josef Von Sternberg, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, 1965.
For many of us, Thunderbolt is also notable as the first known screen appearance of the talented and beautiful Theresa Harris (see Lost Women of Hollywood). She is seen in a “Negro night club” singing Daddy, Won’t You Please Come Home. She wins a well-deserved admiring glance from Bancroft. Harris’ next film was Morocco as one of the extras.
1930 The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel). Ph. Gunther Rittau, Hans Schneeberger. Art dir. Otto Hunte, Emil Hasler.
Germany’s major studio, UFA, offered Ernst Lubitsch $60,000 to come back to Berlin to direct the country’s first sound film starring Emil Jannings as Rasputin, but Lubitsch was very comfortable at Paramount and turned down the offer. When Jannings’ wife decided that it was not a good role for him, plans had to be changed. They agreed on the 1905 novel Professor Unrat by Thomas Mann’s older brother Heinrich and offered Sternberg $30,000 to direct. He accepted, after they raised the ante to $40,000.
The director suggested changing the structure of the novel and offered the new title. Then the script was written by Mann (though his work was rejected), popular playwright Carl Zuckmayer (most of his dialogue was retained), Robert Liebmann, and Sternberg.
The final and crucial hurdle was to find the woman to play femme fatale Lola-Lola. Because The Blue Angel was to be shot in German and English versions, she had to be bilingual, and because it would be a sound film, it had to have songs, so she had to be able to sing. Sternberg’s first choice was Brigitte Helm, best known in the US as the leading woman of Metropolis, but her price was too high and, not surprisingly, she was rather busy. Lucie Mannheim was also rejected, though she was a trained singer and her English was fine, as we know from her later performance in Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. The popular Kathe Haack had actually been signed for the role and, after the final decision had been made, was paid off. This did not seem to have a negative effect on her career, as she worked constantly from 1915 to 1985, chalking up 236 film and tv credits. It is said that Leni Riefenstahl campaigned vigorously for the part to no avail. Among the American women who were ruled out because they spoke no German were Phyllis Haver, Gloria Swanson, and Louise Brooks.
The legend says that Sternberg first saw Marlene Dietrich in the musical comedy Zwei Kravatten by Mischa Spoliansky and Georg Kaiser, but there is testimony that they had already met, and it does seem probable that he had seen at least one of her eighteen previous films. At any rate, the decision was made, and Dietrich became Lola-Lola and the director’s Muse for the next six years.
“You have to understand that I am Dietrich.” – Josef Von Sternberg.
It’s worth pointing out here that the English titles for The Blue Angel generally do not translate the words of Lola’s signature song, Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss merely reprinting the softer words of Falling in Love Again, written by Sammy Lerner, who also wrote the lyrics for Popeye, the Sailor Man. For the record, Friedrich Hollander opens the words to his tune, “From head to foot / I’m made for love, / Because this is my world. / Otherwise, there’s nothing. / This is what I must do—my nature. / I can only have love. / Otherwise, there’s nothing.” This is a far cry from, “Falling in love again, / Never wanted to. / What am I to do? / Can’t help it.”
1930 Morocco. Ph. Lee Garmes, Lucien Ballard. Art dir. Hans Dreier.
“None of us had ever been to Morocco, and I remember asking Von Sternberg if he could point the country out to me on a map—and I don’t believe he could.”
Gary Cooper, Introduction to Fun in a Chinese Laundry.
Maybe not, but Sternberg’s Morocco can no more be found on a map than his Russia, New York, Vienna, Spain, or even Anatahan.
Cooper, who had attained stardom in The Virginian, was chosen by Paramount to be Dietrich’s first leading man in the US. Top-billed, much as John Gilbert had been billed above Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil, he turned out to be her most erotic “partner” in any of the films with Sternberg. Undoubtedly because of his resemblance to the director, Sternberg insisted on Adolphe Menjou for the third-billed part, paying him twice as much as Cooper and Dietrich received together. Others in the cast included Eve Southern, the “bad girl” in A Woman of the Sea and Sternberg’s one-time mentor, Emile Chautard, the only director for whom he had been assistant that he had anything positive to say about.
Morocco, in spite of less than laudatory reviews, was extremely popular in the US and abroad. Dietrich’s stardom was confirmed, never to fade, and Oscar nominations were given to her, her director, the designer Hans Dreier, and cinematographer Lee Garmes. Once again, Sternberg could do no wrong, but that, of course, would only last a few years.
“In Cannes the Pasha of Marrakech once asked me why I had not visited him while in his domain. I told him I would have paid my respects had I ever been in Morocco, whereupon he said he had seen a film of mine and that it contained scenes photographed on streets that he recognized. He smiled when I told him that this was no more than an accidental resemblance, a flaw due to my lack of talent to avoid such similarity.”"
Josef Von Sternberg, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, 1965.
1931 Dishonored. Ph. Lee Garmes. Art dir. Hans Dreier.
Paramount, wanting to repeat the success of Morocco and to steal the thunder from MGM’s forthcoming Mata Hari with Greta Garbo, decided to produce their own spy movie. Sternberg provided a story unprovocatively called X-27, and a screenplay was written by Daniel N. Rubin, whose only prior credit was The Texan, one of the eight films Gary Cooper had appeared in the previous year. When the studio changed the title, the director vainly protested that “the lady spy was not dishonored but killed by a firing squad.” Plans to reunite the stars of Morocco were thwarted when Cooper, who had developed some clout, followed in the footsteps of William Powell and refused to work with Sternberg again. One of the great mysteries of Hollywood history is why they then decided to fill the part with Victor McLaglen. A great actor, but lacking an erotic appeal to match Dietrich’s, he is, of all Sternberg’s leading men, the most uncomfortable excepting, perhaps, John Wayne in Jet Pilot.
The episodic structure of the script also dilutes the power of the film, but it is a visual feast for Sternberg devotees: masks, disguises, a serpentine-filled ball scene, busy sets, multi-planed shots, long dissolves, and outrageous Travis Banton costumes for Dietrich. Oddly though, his first film since The Case of Lena Smith to be set largely in the city of his birth does not create a Viennese ambiance to equal that of his Morocco, China, or Russia.
“Together they create the ultimate vision of beauty as courage and the ultimate victory of style (Dietrich’s and Sternberg’s) over content; style has become content.”
1931 An American Tragedy. Ph. Lee Garmes. Art dir. Hans Dreier.
Whatever made the powers that be at Paramount think that hiring Sergei Eisenstein was a good idea? Did they really think that he would fit into the Capitalist Hollywood studio system? Was there anything in Battleship Potemkin that led them to believe that he could produce a film that they would be able to market? Not surprisingly, the arrangement was unsatisfactory for both parties, and Eisenstein’s long and cinematically advanced script of An American Tragedy was never filmed.
Having already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the rights and development of Theodore Dreiser’s monumental 900 page novel, Paramount asked Sternberg to come up with a modestly-priced, simple adaptation, and that is exactly what he did. Though Dreiser was so unhappy with the result that he sued, but lost, the film captures the essence of the novel’s plot, if not its radical underpinnings. The emphasis is quite different from that of George Stevens’ remake,A Place in the Sun, in that Sternberg’s poor girl is played by the biggest name in the cast, Sylvia Sidney, and the rich girl is the yet unformed Frances Dee. Stevens, of course had the startlingly beautiful young Elizabeth Taylor as the symbol of love and wealth and Shelley Winters, already a character player, as the millstone around the hapless protagonist’s neck. It would be kind to Phillips Holmes to not compare him to Montgomery Clift in his prime.
“I have just finished reading the Eisenstein adaptation of An American Tragedy. It was for me a memorable experience; the most moving script I have ever read. It was so effective, it was positively torturing. When I had finished reading it, I was so depressed that I wanted to reach for the bourbon bottle. As entertainment, I don’t think it has one chance in a hundred.”
David O. Selznick, Memo to B. P. Schulberg, 1930.
“I eliminated the sociological elements, which, in my opinion, were far from being responsible for the dramatic accident with which Dreiser had concerned himself’.”
1932 ShanghaiExpress. Ph. Lee Garmes. Art dir. Hans Dreier.
“It is not too far-fetched to view Shanghai Express as the mirror image of Moroccao. the other major Sternberg/Furthman/Dietrich collaboration. Suppose Amy Jolly had not followed Gary Cooper into the desert! Suppose she had waited for him to come to her on her own terms!”
Charles Silver, Marlene Dietrich, 1974.
After two somewhat less popular films, Sternberg was again in need of a hit to reaffirm his position in the Paramount machine. He succeeded on all counts with Shanghai Express, a brilliant blending of an audience-pleasing exotic adventure with an intense personal drama of deception and trust. It was responsible for nearly half the studio’s income that year. The Chinese government protested against the film’s depiction of their people, but as their country had been invaded by Japan, they were too preoccupied to follow up on their demand that it be suppressed. Their later objections to The Shanghai Gesture were likewise ignored. There was still a war going on.
One of Sternberg’s least admirable habits was minimizing or even denying the contributions of others to his films. He claimed, for example, that Harry Hervey’s original treatment for Shanghai Express was only “a single page,” but Charles Silver, who examined this material at the Museum of Modern Art, counted twenty-two and cited a number of details that found their way into the finished film. The reliable Jules Furthman, undoubtedly with major input from the director, turned this into a screenplay, but of course what Sternberg did with this script is what a great composer does with an opera libretto; he applied to a blueprint the element that made it a work of art. Some commentators have aptly compared this film to an opera, and it is indeed made up of arias, duets, and ensembles that embellish the directors themes in a larger than life manner.
This time Sternberg had two extraordinary female faces with which to embellish his canvas.
“Though my performers could not respond to my instructions with the same speed as the train which contained them, I thought the canvas of China, as evoked by my imagination, quite effective.”
Josef Von Sternberg, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, 1965.
1932 Blonde Venus. Ph. Bert Glennon. Art dir. Hans Dreier.
In later years, Sternberg tended to be very dismissive of this one, as if it were something he had been contractually forced to do. However, it is a particularly personal film for him, as well as for his Muse. While this was not the first time, nor the last, that the director would place her character between two men, Blonde Venus most clearly suggests the “design for living” that existed at the time among Sternberg, Dietrich, and her husband, Rudolph Sieber. Interestingly, among the various actors who played characters representing the Auteur himself, Adolph Menjou and Lionel Atwill most notably, this is the only time that his surrogate was played by a particularly handsome young man, in this case the not quite yet fully formed Cary Grant. In the original treatment, written together by director and star, they were together at the end. In the final film, of course, the sanctity of marriage is restored.
The script, variously called East River, Song of Manhattan, and Velvet, went through several changes which did not satisfy studio pressure,eliciting from B.P. Schulberg, a perennial Sternberg supporter, “the goddamnedest piece of shit I’ve ever read in my life.” Sternberg was removed from the project which was then assigned to the unimaginative Richard Wallace. Dietrich, at a peak of popularity and power, refused to make the film without her mentor. A compromise was reached, Sternberg was back, and Blonde Venus, somehow, was made.
For his next film, Sternberg proposed Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which Paramount had just purchased, with Dietrich and Gary Cooper. The latter, of course, had refused to work with Sternberg again, but it became a moot point when the studio decided to proceed with Cooper and Helen Hayes, directed by Frank Borzage. The result is poor Hemingway, but great Borzage, one of his best pictures.
Undaunted, Sternberg proceeded to make one of his, and Hollywood’s, most perverse, bizarre, and fantastical costume melodramas.
1933 The Scarlet Empress. Ph. Bert Glennon. Art dir. Hans Dreier.
“It sacrificed some of the more ordinary virtues of even his own films for the sake of a grandiose form and a visual splendor verging on madness. The Scarlet Empress is the kind of work the cinema produces perhaps once in a decade—a film so far ahead of its time in ambition and scope that no one knows quite how to deal with it. Like Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), Gance’s Napoleon (1927), and Ophuls’ Lola Montes (1955), it represents an artistic denouement, a literal explosion of creative energy and inspiration.”
Charles Silver, Marlene Dietrich_, 1974.
A typical budget for an A film in 1933 was about $400,000. The Scarlet Empress cost close to a million. Sternberg paid no more attention to the film’s expense than he did to history or authenticity in the sets, the costumes, and the music. The palace in which the intrigue surrounding Catherine the Great’s rise to power was depicted was represented by enormous dark rooms crowded with huge statues by the director’s friend and protoge Peter Ballbusch and grotesque icons by painter Richard Kollorsz.
A number of , at the time, anachronistic intertitles are used throughout, as well as several uncharacteristic montage sequences, all to deal with the history that was of no particular interest to the director. Also uncharacteristic of Sternberg is the absence of a love story.
The cast included Louise Dresser who had also played the Empress Elizabeth in The Eagle with Rudolph Valentino, Sam Jaffe as the mad Grand Duke Peter looking amazingly like Harpo Marx, and as the Count who is at times the lover of both empresses, John Lodge, grandson of long-time Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and soon to wisely give up acting to go into Congress himself, eventually becoming governor of Connecticut.
Paul Czinner’s pedestrian Catherine the Great with his wife, stage actress Elisabeth Bergner was released while The Scarlet Empress was still in production. It got the respectable and respectful reviews that Sternberg did not, but seeing both films today, you will not yawn or doze during the latter.
1935 The Devil Is a Woman. Ph. JVS, Lucien Ballard. Art dir. Hans Dreier.
Pierre Louys’ 1998 novel, _La Femme et le pantin, an intense and poetic tale of sado-masochism, has apparently been irresistible to filmmakers from all over the world. Sternberg’s version was the third of at least nine screen adaptations. Among Dietrich’s fellow portrayers of the unobtainable vamp, Concha Perez, were Opera diva Geraldine Farrar, Conchita Montenegro, Maria Felix, Taheya Cariocca, Brigitte Bardot, Carole Bouquet, Angela Molina, Valerie Kaprisky, and Maribel Verdu. In some adaptations, however, character names were changed. If there are ten names here for nine films, it is because Luis Bunuel’s version, That Obscure Object of Desire, used two actresses for the role.
After the critical and box-office disaster of The Scarlet Empress, a smart career move for Sternberg would have been to make a modest, light film , something along the lines of Desire that Lubitsch and Borzage would later build around Dietrich, but smart career moves were not his forte. The last collaboration between the two was almost guaranteed to alienate reviewers and drive away audiences. _The Devil Is a Woman became his most extravagant, most perverse, and most personal film yet, a black comedy of dark emotions, shot in the brilliant colors that only great black and white photography (credited here to the director) could provide. The most intense working out on screen of their waning off-screen relationship, their cinematic swan song paints a cold, cruel portrait of Dietrich, more distant and more masked than on the previous six films. The only Sternberg film, except The Last Command, with flashbacks.
The Spanish government demanded that it be withdrawn from exhibition and that all prints be destroyed. It was taken out of circulation, but not destroyed, as it was the only one of her films that Marlene Dietrich kept in her possession. It was rarely seen for decades, becoming legendary as a result.
One further odd note: the credited Assistant to Mr. Von Sternberg is Rudolph Sieber, her husband.
“The seven films in which Josef von Sternberg directed Marlene Dietrich constitute one of the most dazzling runs of creativity in the history of the movies. Released by Paramount Pictures between 1930 and 1935, these are works of breathtaking formal beauty, profound moral philosophy and devastating wit.
In many ways they seem apart from, and perhaps in advance of, their time. The near-abstract quality of the images — throbbing, sinuous, ever-shifting patterns composed in black and white and all the gradations in between — anticipates an American avant-garde movement that would not flower until the late 1940s; the self-consciously preposterous narratives, with their wild melodramatic coincidences and exotic settings, would find their echo in the 1960s, in the camp posturing of “underground” filmmakers like George Kuchar and Jack Smith.”
Dave Kehr, New York Times, 2012.
1935 The Fashion Side of Hollywood.
This ten minute short represents the last professional connection between Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Largely comprised of costume tests, mostly from The Devil Is a Woman, it crammed into it’s brief running time designer Travis Banton, Joan Bennett, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, George Raft (George Raft?), and Mae West. An excerpt featuring Dietrich footage can be found on YouTube.
1936 Crime and Punishment. Ph. Lucien Ballard. Art dir. Stephen Gooson.
“At best it can be no more than a film about a detective and a criminal, no more related to the true text of the novel than the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gower is related to the Russian environment. As mixed a collection of human beings as can be imagined is before me, members of a cast of players herded together by a Hollywood studio. Some are literate, some are not. Among those present are trained performers and those who have made the jump to the screen from the trampoline of a mattress. A few have been chosen for their skill in characterization; still others are there because they are under contract to the studio. In this odd assortment to be welded into a unit is a woman who was once a celebrated beauty, lovely enough ‘to turn the heads of countless cavaliers,’ as George Jean Nathan put it; but now only her little dog Moonbeam turns its head when she passes. It is my first meeting with Mrs. Patrick Campbell. She has read neither the book nor the script. None of the others have read the novel to be filmed, with the sole exception of Peter Lorre, who, though unsuitable for the part of Raskolnikov, has been contracted for it. Two of the others, among them, Edward Arnold, have memorized the dialogue, and the rest, who will give me less trouble, await my instructions.”
Josef Von Sternberg, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, 1965.
Parted from Paramount after ten years, Sternberg signed with Columbia, for two pictures. Working within the limitations of his new studio’s limited resources, he created an admirable updated Dostoevsky adaptation, and brought it in five days under schedule. Regardless of his view and Andrew Sarris’, Peter Lorre is excellent, as is Edward Arnold. Once again, Sternberg took a minor Hollywood player, the extremely pretty Marian Marsh, and made her look better in all ways than in any of her other films.
1936 The King Steps Out. Ph. Lucien Ballard. Art dir. Stephen Gooson.
Though Crime and Punishment was not a money-maker, Columbia rewarded the director for his economy on that film with a larger budget the second time around.
“Josef von Sternberg’s least-known film, and probably his least, period. It’s a schmaltz operetta with prima donna Grace Moore. Occasionally Sternberg awakes from his slumbers to wrest a nice composition from the Ruritanian bric-a-brac, but mostly it’s take the money and run. For compulsive Sternbergians only.”
Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader.
Well, Dave, it certainly is a pretty silly movie, the sort of musical that gives musicals a bad name and, while he was alive, the director always requested that it be omitted from retrospectives of his work. But, it has quite a number of “nice” compositions and graceful dissolves that suggest the Sternberg touch more than in a few other of his credited films that need not be named here. Furthermore, there is a brightly kinetic carnival sequence that looks not unlike the published frame enlargements from the recently rediscovered Prater scene from the otherwise lost The Case of Lena Smith. And, if that weren’t enough to hold the attention of a slightly less than compulsive Sternbergian, there is the presence of Eve Southern from The Woman of the Sea and Morocco in her last performance as the Gypsy fortune teller.
“It had only one noteworthy quality: picture and sound were recorded at the same time, on the stage and simultaneously, in contrast to all other films of that kind before and after, where the singer is recorded first, and then does her best to move her mouth in time with the sounds she made when less concerned with her appearance.”
Josef Von Sternberg, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, 1965.
It is claimed by Imdb and Wikipedia that Gwen Verdon debuted here as a ballet dancer. I didn’t see a member of the corps who appeared to be about eleven years old, so let’s discount this one until evidence is produced.
1937 I, Claudius. Ph. Georges Perinal. Art dir. Vincent Korda. UNFINISHED.
“The subject interested me, and my plan was not only to bring to life an old empire and to depict the arrogance and decay of its civilization but to hold it up as a mirror to our own tottering values and to investigate the diseased roots of excessive ambition. The plot of the film-to-be was highly dramatic and was to relate how a stuttering cripple became Emperor Claudius by allowing his enemies to consider him an idiot, how he conquered England with a few elephants, and how he ordered the death of his faithless wife, Messalina, who consorted with men who aped and mocked him, and how he finally was appointed a god by the Roman Senate. To show how a nobody can become a god, and become a nobody and nothing again, appealed to me.”
Josef Von Sternberg, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, 1965.
Some weeks into shooting, leading woman Merle Oberon was injured in an automobile accident, and her husband-to-be producer Alexander Korda seized the opportunity to close down a troubled production and collect the insurance. Way behind schedule, I, Claudius had been constantly thwarted by the disruptiveness of Charles Laughton’s neurotic behavior. The scenes that were completed, however, show what might have become his finest performance, as well as one of Sternberg’s finest films. This footage is the highlight of Bill Duncalf’s 1967 documentary The Epic That Never Was. Unfortunately, this film is only available at present as part of the multi-disc BBC version.
1939 Sergeant Madden. Ph. John F. Seitz. Art dir. Cedric Gibbons, Randall Duell.
After the debacle of I, Claudius, Sternberg was once again in the position of needing to accept any work that was offered. At the request of Victor Fleming who had already done retakes for Julien Duvuvier’s The Great Waltz, MGM hired him to add some finishing touches to the musical, presumably on the basis of his modest success with The King Steps Out.
Pleased with his work, they then assigned him to “give the Dietrich treatment” to Hedy Lamarr in a romantic comedy called New York Cinderella. After eight days of constant interference from Louis B. Mayer, who considered the film a personal project, Sternberg walked out. “Each detail of this film, on which I worked not more than a week, was predetermined by a dozen others. Other directors were better fitted to participate in this kind of nonsense, though this may well beyond the ability of anyone.” Frank Borzage was then hired, and most of his predecessor’s footage was scrapped. After a monthe or two, Borzage was out, a few of his scenes were kept, and W.S. Van Dyke, One-Shot Woody, was brought in. A year and a half in production, the film, retitled I Take This Woman, was released to no particular attention, except that of a wag who suggested it be called I Re-take This Woman.
To complete Sternberg’s contract, the studio assigned him to this Wallace Beery vehicle. With John Seitz as his cinematographer, he created a handful of shots suggestive of his mode of filmmaking. The picture did not fare well, and the director was again looking for a job.
1941 The Shanghai Gesture. Ph. Paul Ivano. Art dir. Boris Leven.
“And a large cast of HOLLYWOOD EXTRAS who without expecting credit or mention stand ready day and night to do their best—and who at their best are more than good enough to deserve mention.”
Josef Von Sternberg, opening credits of The Shanghai Gesture, 1941.
After his second far from satisfying experience working for MGM, Sternberg planned to film a Max Reinhardt stage production of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, however, his next project to be realized turned out to be of a highly different nature. Since 1926, at least seven studios had held options on John Colton’s infamous Broadway play, and the MPPDA had rejected at least thirty-two scripts presented to them. As Will Hays wrote to one of the hopeful producers, “The play deals with a bawdy house which at times is unusually attractive and at other times wretchedly sordid. Into this background is woven miscegenation, illegitimacy, white slavery, murder, and an opportunity to incur the ill-will of other countries. If the story were re-written so as to avoid all of these difficulties, as it would have to be, it is my honest opinion thet it would be so emasculated as to thwart the purpose you have in mind.”
Arnold Pressburger, who had been in the film business in Austria, Germany, France, and Britain since 1909 and would later produce American films by Lang, Clair, Sirk, and Peter Lorre, felt that he could get the film made and establish himself in Hollywood. He hired his friend Sternberg who, along with Jules Furthman, Geza Herczeg, and Karl Volmoeller, wrote a script which was accepted by the Hays office. The bordello became a casino, the madam Mother God Damn became Mother Gin Sling, and there was no mention of the young leading woman’s opium addiction, though her nickname, Poppy, was suggestive enough.
From these dubious roots, Sternberg made a film that incorporated many of his familiar visual motifs and demonstrated that his style could adjust to the nineteen forties as smoothly and successfully as it had entered the thirties. However, the decade provided only two minor jobs for one of the greatest living filmmakers until he signed with Howard Hughes in 1949.
Gloria Swanson was interested in playing Mother Gin Sling, and costumes were optimistically made to fit her diminutive frame. However, when her comeback film Father Takes a WIfe flopped, she again retreated from the limelight until Sunset Boulevard, nine years later. The problem then was to find someone for the part who was the same size, as had happened on The Devil is a Woman. Ona Munson’s ability needs no apologies, but truth to tell, she would not have gotten this part had she been two inches taller.
Gene Tierney had the face for Sternberg, but she had not yet developed the poise and skill that marked her work in such films as Laura, Leave Her to Heaven, and Where the Sidewalk Ends.
The murals in Mother Gin Sling’s dining room were painted by actor and commercial artist Keye Luke. Best-known today as Warner Oland’s “number one son” in Charlie Chan movies, he also decorated the walls and ceiling of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and created the artwork for the King Kong pressbook.
1943 The Town. Ph. Larry Madison.
Made for the Office of War Information Overseas Branch, this ten-minute short about the town of Madison, Indiana shows that Europeans have contributed to the American people and to the American way of life. It is efficient and attractive and void of stylistic flourishes of any kind. There were apparently no Jews in the Melting Pot, and there is one brief shot of a Black man in the town library. Madison had another brush with film history in 1958, when Vincente Minnelli used the location for Some Came Running. The only hint of Sternberg’s personality is during a series of close-ups of the children of the town (“the chief interest is in human beings”): all of those shown are girls.
1950/1957 Jet Pilot. Ph. Winton C. Hoch, Philip C. Cochran. Art dir. Albert S. D’Agostino, Field Gray.
This picture’s auteur, in spite of the presence of Sternberg as credited director and Jules Furthman as producer, writer, and uncredited director, is Howard Hughes who, as usual, directed some scenes himself. There are three things he was known to like: making movies, flying, and women with large breasts, not necessarily in that order. Making Jet Pilot fulfilled all three of these predilections.Planned to be the Hell’s Angels of the jet age, Sternberg worked on it for about a year and a half before starting on Macao. Hughes fiddled around with the film for so long, with additional footage shot by Donald Siegel, Byron Haskin, and Ed Killy, that by the time it was finished, the planes were dated and the stars, John Wayne and Janet Leigh, looked younger than they did in other films then in release. Neither of these factors affects enjoyment of the picture today, but those interested in Sternberg’s mise-en-scene are likely to be disturbed by Hughes having released it in SuperScope, a process whereby a film shot in the standard ratio was printed masked to appear wide screen.
Actually, there’s not much in this movie that suggests the Sternberg touch. Most noticeably, the very good-looking Janet Leigh looks even better than usual here and is endowed with more than the physical attributes so beloved by the Boss. She has a cool and playful erotic appeal that makes Wayne’s boyish embarrassment when searching her, difficult to accept. There’s a scene in a dress shop that looks as though it was planned and shot by someone who understood cinema. Incidentally, the saleswoman here is played by Ruthelma Stevens who had been the Grand Duke’s dark and scheming mistress in The Scarlet Empress. Another small part is filled by Joyce Compton whose most memorable performance was as Dixie Belle Lee in Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth.
The best part of Jet Pilot is an airborne courtship scene. We see neither of the leads, but we hear their voices on their radios as we watch two mutually admiring professional pilots show each other what they can do. I like to think that Sternberg was responsible for this part.
1950 Macao. Ph. Harry J. Wild. Art dir. Albert S. D’Agostino, Harley Miller.
“After Jet Pilot, I made one more film in accordance with the contract I had foolishly accepted. This was made under the supervision of six different men in charge. It was called Macao, and instead of fingers in that pie, half a dozen clowns immersed various parts of their anatomy in it. Their names do not appear in the list of credits.”
Josef Von Sternberg, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, 1965.
The uncredited “clowns” were Nicholas Ray, Mel Ferrer, and Robert Stevenson. In his meticulously researched biography of Ray, Bernard Eisenschitz includes synopses of both Sternberg’s original 85 minute cut and the final 80 minute release version, along with attributions of who shot what. There were also eight writers and four producers on the project, some credited and some not. Not surprisingly, it is a bit of a mess, though there are enough recognizably Sternbergian scenes and touches to keep most viewers awake. The leading players. Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, Gloria Grahame, and William Bendix, were all unhappy during the shoot and their work is far from their best. Grahame, who was going through divorce proceedings with Ray at the time, is said to have told him that if he edited her out of the picture, he wouldn’t have to pay her alimony. Sternberg’s last Hollywood film, released seven years before Jet Pilot, since Hughes did not take as close a personal interest. Two years later, the director created his most personal film, the timeless masterpiece Anatahan.
1952 The Saga of Anatahan. Ph. JVS. Art dir. Takashi Kono.
“I planned to picture the Japanese exactly as they were, not as they imagines themselves to be, and I wished to show that they were no different from any other race of people, much as they would like to be considered apart from the rest of mankind.”
Josef Von Sternberg, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, 1965.
Sternberg’s characters are, of course, no more particularly Japanese than his other characters are particularly American, Russian, or Spanish. Anatahan, even more than his previous films, is an intensely personal reflection on the human condition, the ways of men and women.“A more extreme degree of stylization is impossible to imagine: the Pacific island setting was re-created entirely in a Japanese studio out of cellophane and paper (Sternberg complained that he was forced to use real water), and the actors who perform this tale of shipwrecked sailors are Kabuki-trained Japanese. Distance is built into every aspect of the production, from the shadowed, filtered images to Sternberg’s own voice-over narration, yet the feelings that emerge are incredibly pure and immediate: Sternberg seems to be photographing the absolute essence of human emotion.”
Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader,
This is the first film over which Sternberg had total artistic control since his directorial debut in 1925, The Salvation Hunters. In addition to his direction and cinematography, he wrote the script, based on Michiro Maruyama’s memoir of life on a small island in the Marianas during and after World War II. A dozen sailors, their boat sunk by the enemy, managed a Crusoe-like existence on Anatahan, already occupied by a former plantation foreman and his woman. Sternberg calls her The Queen Bee and the men her Drones. The force of her femaleness puts them all in her power, for she is indeed The Last Woman on Earth, as the film was sometimes called. Keiko, the last of Sternberg’s heroines, was played by young Akemi Negishi who made more than fifty films after this, including several Kurosawas and King Kong Vs. Godzilla. She brings to her first film role her dancer’s grace and an erotic appeal perfect for the final Sternbergian woman.
The ensuing drama is played out almost entirely on a patently artificial set built in a former aircraft hangar in Kyoto. A further degree of distanciation from the naturalism inherent in film, at least in the American version, is the director’s voice-over commentary throughout, sometimes translating the Japanese dialogue, sometime commenting on the action, and sometimes reflecting on the nature of Man, Woman, and Sex. Several writers describing Sternberg’s narration, even the admirable Glenn Kenney on this site, have referred to his “Brooklyn-inflected” voice. Let me point out here that Sternberg does not appear to have ever lived in Brooklyn, but grew up in Queens where he was graduated from Jamaica High School.
“When Keiko in Anatahan sees three sailors watching her bathe in a tub, she reacts first with embarrassment, then responds to the inner pleasure of power and exhibits her leg, rejecting civilized morality on impulse, and in that moment becomes Queen Bee of the island. But in so doing, she enslaves herself to power.”
Tag Gallagher, Senses of Cinerma, 2002.
In the final scene, Keiko, who had left the island earlier, appears at the airport when the surviving men, finally believing that the war is over, come home. Anatahan and Josef Von Sternberg’s oeuvre come to an end where his art began, in a woman’s face.
MORE ABOUT JOSEF VON STERNBERG
Fun in a Chinese Laundry, the director’s 1965 memoir is one of a handful of great books about films and filmmaking. It is not always reliable, and omits mention of some of his most valuable collaborators, but he is, oddly, a great storyteller and provides many insights into his life and work.
John Baxter’s Von Sternberg, 2010, is the only full-length biography to date. It may not be the definitive work that is still hoped for, but it is a thoroughly researched and highly readable life story that answers many questions that arise from a study of the films. Baxter also wrote a fine early study of the director’s work, The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg, 1971.
Andrew Sarris’ pioneering monograph, The Films of Josef von Sternberg, 1966, is remarkably insightful and written with styleRead less