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DVD fans are benefiting from The Criterion Collection's licensing relationship with the major studios, as with pictures like 20th Fox's Bigger than Life and Walkabout released in deluxe Blu-ray editions. Criterion has now reached back into Paramount's silent era for 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg, one of the "genius" directors that flourished in the late twenties but who fell out of favor less than ten years later. Von Sternberg's films with Marlene Dietrich are the ones most frequently screened, but the three stunningly creative titles presented here have been relegated to film schools and museums for decades. Restored transfers allow us to appreciate the director's meticulously crafted images and his careful direction of actors. We often read that when sound came in, silent movies had just perfected a stylized film language that stressed facial expressions in place of dialogue and used compositions to express subtle relationships. As Norma Desmond said, "We had faces then." These three very late silents, produced when part-talkies were already taking hold of audience tastes, are vastly superior to most of 1929's crude talking pictures.
1927's Underworld could have been the first full-fledged gangster picture if von Sternberg's filmic instincts weren't opposed to most of the tenets of the genre. Ben Hecht provided a realistic story based upon his own newspaper coverage of racketeering in Chicago -- this was two years before the St. Valentine's Day Massacre! - that's much more in tune with the hard-edged adventures of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney yet to come. Von Sternberg's Underworld is instead a poetic vision of a gangland, a fable about honor among thieves.
Beefy George Bancroft is "Bull" Weed, a racketeer who intimidates his peers by sheer barroom force. A bruiser of coarse tastes and strong personal attachments, Weed dotes on his moll "Feathers" McCoy (Evelyn Brent) and gives a boost to a down-and-out intellectual, who he gifts with the nickname Rolls Royce (Clive Brook, later of von Sternberg's Shanghai Express). Weed gets in a beef with another lowlife galoot who eventually tries to rape Feathers. Weed shoots the man dead and is sentenced to hang. He's convinced that his close associates are now lovers and will be happy to see him out of the way. Although Feathers and Rolls Royce feel like prisoners, they do their best to spring their racketeer boss from prison.
After being reshaped by its director, Underworld retains only a few details from Hecht's real-life chronicles. Bull Weed's rival owns a flower shop, as had Chicago racketeer Dion O'Bannion; Weed sees a billboard reading "The World Is Yours" and takes it as his personal credo. Von Sternberg's gangsters don't belong to organized mobs and the only overt crime we see is Bull Weed's robbery of a jewelry store. The final script reduces the story to a love triangle and a crime-land fairy tale: Weed vows revenge from his prison cell, where his warders taunt him about his pending execution.
The director brings the film to vivid life through atmospheric settings and sensitive character manipulation. The story remains at a basic level while von Sternberg concentrates on the emotions and attitudes of his players. Feathers admires Bull Weed but also fears him, as he's like a veritable bull in a china shop. One can't tell when Weed will explode with violence, or with laughter. Rolls Royce gives good strategic advice and impresses Weed with his ability to guess what his next move is. Bull Weed dominates rooms not unlike Bluto from the Popeye cartoons. He's the kind of guy who trusts Feathers and Rolls Royce completely -- or not at all.
Cameraman Bert Glennon helps the director achieve his smoky bar interiors and perfectly realized action scenes. The jewel heist and the concluding gunfight are staged with precision and economy. The low-life settings are made picturesque, elegant. Puffs of smoke indicate gunshots. Although the actors sometimes behave like puppets in glorious close-up, it's still their faces up there making it all work. Evelyn Brent is suitably terrified when trapped by a thug in a back room at a rogue's ball. Clive Brook makes a big impression as the drunk rehabilitated by Bull Weed's generosity. Rolls Royce's character is established when one of the bad guys throws him a silver dollar, by tossing it into a cuspidor ... a gag made famous 30 years later in Rio Bravo. 1
1920's newspapers loved to write about gangster hideouts fortified with iron shutters and other bulletproof defenses. Underworld seizes on that notion to give Bull Weed a defiant machine-gun standoff with the cops. While Weed blasts away from inside, we see what appear to be actual machine gun bullets chattering into brick walls. Trapped inside, the three principals must face this fate together -- who will take the escape route to safety, and who will remain behind?
1928's The Last Command gives von Sternberg the kind of story he seemed to like best, a costume tale with a European setting that allows him to indulge his penchant for exotic visuals. His co-written story is less a narrative than a character study. Autocratic film director Lev Andreyev (a young, dour William Powell) was once a Russian revolutionary. Now he's making a movie about the final days of Czarist rule and needs a convincing Russian General for a battle scene. Lev finds his man in the former Grand Duke Sergius Alexander (German star Emil Jannings), who has been reduced to working as a Hollywood extra. Somewhat confused and brain-addled, the thoroughly humiliated Sergius is harassed by the other extras when he claims to have been a real general. But the feel of the General's costume cues Sergius to remember his last days in command and his infatuation with Natalie Dabrova, an actress / revolutionary spy (Evelyn Brent). When the October insurrection seized his army train, Sergius survived the wrath of the mob due to Natalie's intervention. Lev remembers Natalie as well, and now that their fortunes have reversed Lev can't wait to exert his power over his former captor. But what will the unbalanced Sergius do when he gets on the film set, representing a snowbound trench on the Eastern Front?
The Last Command is a study in ironic contrast. In Russia Sergius was waited on hand & foot and had entire divisions of soldiers at his disposal; his biggest problem seemed to be dealing with Czar Nicholas's interference. Now an insignificant extra in the enormous Hollywood movie machine, Sergius is at the receiving end of another bizarre power system. Sergius is pushed and shoved amid a mob of eager extras following orders and crowding to get their costumes. The other younger Russian expatriates playing extras pay him no mind, and a dismissive assistant director ignores his corrections about his costume because "Hollywood has been making these things for years".
The Last Command is really a showcase platform for the undeniably powerful Emil Jannings. Von Sternberg has the actor hold back his full power, reserving him like a big gun for the finish. Fired up by the director, given a Russian flag and placed at the head of a line of soldiers, Sergius seems to swell in size and strength in a matter of seconds. Asked to spur his men into battle, the old patriot rallies one more eloquent blast of inspirational orders. It's quite a display, a bravura actorly transformation.
In the late 1920s the events of the Russian Revolution were barely a decade old -- closer than the 9/11 attack is to us now. The film takes a typically pro- White Russian attitude. The Czar may be a meddling fool but the revolutionaries are depicted as an opportunistic, unprincipled rabble. When a trainload of rebels crashes into an icy river (a pretty weak model), were not supposed to miss them terribly. Lev and Natalie are characterized as sneaky manipulators, plotting the revolt. Only Natalie begins to respect Sergius when she sees how much he loves his country. She uses her theatrical skill to free him, but her commitment is nothing next to Sergius' blue-blooded patriotism.
The Last Command allows Von Sternberg to exercise his visual skills to the hilt. He trucks his camera past a line of windows where shoes and belts are doled out to what seems an endless crush of studio extras. The crowded rebel train rushes to its destiny with the exhausted and bloodied Sergius forced to stoke the furnace. Only a couple of hours before this the general was luxuriating in his privileges. Evelyn Brent, dressed in fashionable furs yet showing a pair of sexy knees above her fur boots, seems like a study in sexy cool for one of Marlene Dietrich's later movies. Sets are bathed in smoke, while Bert Glennon's camera caresses the contrasting textures of uniforms, fur, and cold steel.
The disc extras tell us that Emil Jannings retreated to Germany almost immediately, knowing that he wouldn't be able to continue in Hollywood once all-talkies took hold. The director would collaborate with Jannings again on the German made classic The Blue Angel, the film that for most 'civilians' is Von Sternberg's first.
1928's The Docks of New York is one of the last all-silent pictures and a true masterpiece. In it von Sternberg reaches the apex of his personal style, while also setting the parameters for the Paramount house style -- tasteful sets and lighting, artistry over glamour for its own sake. For the story von Sternberg returns to the underclass milieu of his first films The Salvation Hunters and The Sea Gull. The author is the ill-fated John Monk Saunders, once noted as the writer of pioneering aviation films Wings, The Dawn Patrol and The Last Flight. The final film in this von Sternberg box limits its scope to the brief romance between a rough stoker and a lost girl of the docks.
The dispirited Mae (Betty Compson of The Great Gabbo) is fished out of the East river by Bill Roberts (George Bancroft), a swaggering steamship stoker with only one night off. Mae is aided by Lou (Olga Baclanova), the unfaithful wife of Andy, Bill's superior in the engine room. Bill steals some clothing for Mae, who recovers and joins him in a bawdy dive downstairs. Andy puts the moves on Mae, and Bill loses his job defending her. But in the magic of the moment the two of them are "married" without a proper license by Hymn Book Harry, the local preacher (Gustav von Seyffertitz). Come the morning, Bill prepares to ship out again. Will he stay with Mae instead?
The Docks of New York shows von Sternberg turning a generic waterfront story into pure cinematic poetry. The dock exteriors are made of fog and fishing nets and the director's camera likes nothing better than to slowly truck through the galleries of the smoky waterfront bar. He can't resist ending this introductory scene by backing out of the bar in another move, as tables and overhanging rafters drift by. Sea gulls hang out on the window sill of Mae's miserable room. Everything visual that makes The Blue Angel look so "European" and the Dietrich pictures so "exotic" is already present in The Docks of New York.
Von Sternberg's characters are as weathered as the sets. Betty Compson's face is a study in despair and disillusion, suggesting volumes of unspoken back story. Still an oversized galoot, George Bancroft looks more taken to drink here, with a face as weathered and folded as Charles Bronson's. Bancroft's Bill is the kind of guy who can drop a bar bouncer with one punch. He begins by sizing up Mae as an easy solution for his "one night to score" problem, but his face soon registers concern and caring, seemingly without changing expression. Mae is given a momentary reprieve by Bill's attention, but we're convinced that she'll collapse as soon as he leaves.
The villain of the story, Mitchell Lewis, would later play the main Winkie Guard in The Wizard of Oz. The other really strong performance is by Olga Baclanova, the beauty of Paul Leni's The Man Who Laughs and also the treacherous Cleopatra in Tod Browning's Freaks. Tougher than Mae, Baclanova's Lou has responded differently to misfortune. They're like sisters, and von Sternberg treats their scenes together with an uncommon tenderness. The Docks of New York resolves with a melodramatic sacrifice and a hopeful finish -- the director's ability to animate such a simple story is remarkable. The best silent films had developed a style of emotional communication that didn't need sound. The Docks of New York is still a dream-like experience, a fantasy version of reality. Adding audio clearly had more possibilities (and anti-cinematic pitfalls) but these late silents created a poetic-cinematic experience that wouldn't return.
Criterion's DVD set 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg presents its trio of classics in remarkable condition. Von Sternberg's visual style (a major contributor to Paramount's house style) favored smoky shots with many layers of gray but saved deep blacks only for night scenes. Each film has set-pieces that seem better than their counterparts in movies made just a few years later -- the confetti-strewn gang party in Underworld, the ridiculously crowded dressing room in The Last Command. Back at UCLA in the early 70s we were able to see original 35mm studio prints of von Sternberg films, and I can say that Criterion's The Docks of New York pretty much repeats the experience, minus the shimmering 'silver screen' appearance of those unusually clear nitrate prints.
Each film has a choice of musical scores. Robert Israel and his orchestra contribute tracks to all three titles, while the Alloy Orchestra does the first two and Donald Sosin & Joanna Seaton perform on The Docks of New York. Two new visual essays, by Tag Gallagher and Janet Bergstrom, join a Swedish TV interview with von Sternberg, filmed in 1968.
A longer than usual insert booklet contains an extended essay session with pieces by Geoffrey O'Brien, Anton Kaes and Luc Sante. The composers offer notes on their work. Also included is the entire Ben Hecht story for Underworld and von Sternberg's thoughts on actor Emil Jannings, taken from his autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry.
Designed by Sarah Habibi, the impressively disc packaging makes good use of beautiful production stills from the movies. I'm told that von Sternberg often shot the stills for his films personally.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg rates:
1. Gary Teetzel pointed out that the girl's name "Feathers" was used for Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo as well.
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T'was Ever Thus.