THE GALLOPING COW
It's well known that Marlene Dietrich preferred to forget the silent films she made before Von Sternberg's The Blue Angel. She consistently claimed there had only been a few, that they were all terrible, that she was terrible in them. Well, the IMDb lists eighteen confirmed roles for Marlene before Sternberg "discovered" her. As for their quality...
The Ship of Lost Men, directed by the great Maurice Tourneur, is a great film, listed by Alfred Hitchcock as one of his top ten. Dietrich is very effective in it, apart from some unfortunate costume choices. Dietrich also acted for Henrik Galeen, Arthur Robison and Alexander Korda.
"A galloping cow," was Louise Brooks's verdict on the early Dietrich, noting that Sternberg styled her and taught her how and when to move, reining in her tendency to bound across the screen. "A galloping...thing," said Orson Welles, seemingly reading from the same hymn sheet.
Yet in Curtis Bernhardt's Die Frau Nach Der Man Sich Sehrt - The Woman Men Year For (1929), Dietrich is posed, poised and still, with the glassy madness in her eyes we see when she meets her death in Sternberg's Dishonored. The lighting is different: Bernhardt and his cameramen, Curt Courant and Max Sheib favour a strong side light, although they still blast the crown of her head with the hottest of spotlights, to make her hair glow. The hair is a major difference: this Dietrich is a brunette Venus.
In Bernhardt's film, adapted from a novel by Max Brod, Uno Henning, the impossibly handsome and tender leading man of Asquith's A Cottage on Dartmoor, plays a young man marrying the boss's daughter. Oddly, the movie spends a considerable amount of time and effort to establish the family business and Henning's crusty father-in-law: time spent solely, it seems, to make the prospect of his return to this life seem unappealing.
As Henning and his bride, Edith Edwards, board the train, Henning sees a woman at the window... "And from that moment, he was as one dead." Old Arabian legend.
The soulful Henning, smitten by the siren Dietrich, discovers she's in the midst of some kind of unfolding drama: she's with a man, Fritz Kortner (a sort of meat-cube in a monocle), but she says she daren't be alone with him. As the train, now a charming miniature, chuffs on through miniature countryside, Henning feels the call of a story.
A poor groom but a dedicated protagonist, Henning realises, once Dietrich has gotten off the train with Kortner, that he can't live without her. Pulling the emergency cord, he tumbles out into the snow, and heads for the hotel where he's learned the mystery couple will be staying.
Now the film changes tracks from being a locomotive movie (always an exciting thing) to being a hotel movie (even better!). It's New Year. Kortner and Dietrich are registered as Dr. and Mrs. Karoff. Henning announces himself and starts trying to muscle in on Dietrich. He's in the throes of a grand passion, but doesn't realise that the story he's gatecrashed only wants him as a helpless witness to the last act of a tragedy.
The staff, obliging and suave, loan Henning evening dress so he can attend the celebrations. As the countdown to midnight looms, Dietrich agrees to run away with him at the party's height. Meanwhile, we learn the secret part of the story, or some of it (we never learn much): Karoff has killed Dietrich's real husband, and she's gone along with him. Now she wants to put some distance between herself and the homicide. Henning, naive and trusting, seems a better bet than the desperate Karoff. Despite these revelations, both Dietrich and Kortner maintain sympathy. Both are simply doing what they must. Kortner's Karoff is clearly a doomed man, hopelessly obsessed with Dietrich, who's living up to the film's title.
While Henning and Kortner throw themselves about, fizzing with controlled intensity, Dietrich hardly ever seems to move at all: she's just there, while the men orbit around her. Henning is a near-forgotten hero of silent film, impossibly beautiful, and possessed of a poetic, tortured essence. Kortner seems to have as many different modes as he made movies, bouncing from expressionist contortion to sly drollery, naturalism or pantomime villainy. Here he seems quite "real" and modern, despite the suit and the monocle. He's more weak than menacing, more angst-ridden than evil.
Throughout these events, Bernhardt is directing the hell out of this thing: you realise how stylistically quashed he must have felt in Hollywood, helming trashy fun like A Stolen Life. There's a bit of expressionism, and a lot of Murnau-type camera movement. His favourite device is the relay-shot: following a cigarette girl from table to table at a party, he alights on a waiter and then follows him, losing his original subject. Pleased with himself, Bernhardt does this again and again. It's beautiful.
At midnight, everything goes wrong, of course. The story boils over into climax, with Henning spat out as an irrelevance. Dietrich assumes the role of good-looking corpse, slain by Kortner as the police arrive, her eerie stillness finally finding its purest form. Kortner, a double murderer now, is led away, and the hotel suddenly rears up and assumes the role of monster. "By the back stairs, please!" snaps a functionary to the arresting officers. Kortner's uncomprehending reaction, as he finds that not only has his life ended in midstream, but he has suddenly become déclassé, is astounding. I don't think such an expression has adorned the front of a human head in recorded history.
At the same time, the hotel sets about removing Henning, discharging him from his room with polite finality. "Where may I book your train ticket for?" asks the hotel, embodied by one of its interchangeable staff. The Karoffs are erased from the register. New guests, new stories, will take their place.
The phony husband is placed back on the phony, miniature train, and transported back to his phony life, having briefly tasted some kind of truth.
So why did Dietrich trash her earlier work? The history seems to show an actress on the rise, catching plum roles in major films with major directors, with The Blue Angel as a logical next step in her irresistible rise. Portraying that film as a last-moment rescue from oblivion is consistent with Dietrich's odd tendency to ascribe everything good in her work to Sternberg, her Svengali, a tendency we can plainly see but cannot so easily explain. And maybe that version of events just made a better story.