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3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

by Glenn Erickson Oct 22, 2019

The experts were right when they said that silent filmmaking was developing something unique and beautiful, before talkies came along and spoiled the party with all that noise. This ‘handy three-pack’ of once-obscure Josef von Sternberg classics proves the theory 100% — his intense dramas excite audiences with something that’s gone missing from the movies, or the cinema or whatever you want to call it: the magic of visual stylization in the service of basic human emotions. Before Marlene there was Evelyn Brent and Betty Compson: Sternberg presents them as shimmering visions.

 

3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 529, 530, 531
1927-28 / B&W / 1:33 Silent Ap / 81, 88, 75 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date October 8, 2019 / 79.96
Starring: George Bancroft, Evelyn Brent, Clive Brook; Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell; George Bancroft, Betty Compson, Olga Baclanova.
Cinematography: Bert Glennon; Bert Glennon; Harold Rosson
Original Music: multiple scores by Robert Israel, Alloy Orchestra, Donald Sosin & Joanna Seaton
Written by Charles Furthman, Ben Hecht, Robert N. Lee; Lajos Biró, John F. Goodrich, Josef von Sternberg; John Monk Saunders, Jules Furthman.
Produced by B.P. Schulberg; Jese L. Lasky, Adolph Zukor; Josef von Sternberg
Directed by
Josef von Sternberg

 

The big Hollywood studios began distilling their ‘house styles’ in the second half of the 1920s. Murnau’s Sunrise was a huge influence at Fox, with everyone from Frank Borzage to John Ford emulating his smoky, European look for years to come. Universal’s ‘horror’ look of the 1930s is already present in Paul Leni’s silent The Man Who Laughs. Over at Paramount, the flamboyantly artistic Josef von Sternberg inaugurated a misty, silvery ‘cinema world’ with crowded, atmospheric images. Even as ’30s audiences were becoming weary of his elaborate altars for the worship of Marlene Dietrich, von Sternberg’s ‘look’ was the one that most strongly sold exotic Hollywood glamour.

Criterion is now reissuing on Blu-ray their previous DVD set 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg. The director’s talkies with Marlene Dietrich are the ones most frequently screened, while the three stunningly creative titles presented here are more commonly revived at film schools and museums. Restored transfers allow us to appreciate Sternberg’s meticulously crafted images and careful direction of actors. We often read that when sound came in, silent movies had just perfected a stylized film language. Compositions expressed subtle relationships, and facial expressions made most dialogue redundant. As Norma Desmond said, “We had faces then.” Produced when part-talkies were already transforming Hollywood, these three very late silents are vastly superior to most of 1929’s crude talking pictures.

Everybody who has been part of a full audience laughing at Keaton or Chaplin know what a great experience that is … but great silent dramas like the three in this set ‘play’ the audience as well. That’s the part of old-school conventional moviegoing that’s fast fading: the feeling of being in a communal experience, sharing emotions with hundreds of strangers, in the dark. At UCLA we had live accompaniment by artist organists like Chauncey Haines; Criterion provides a choice of orchestral accompaniment.


 

1927’s Underworld could have been the first major gangster picture if von Sternberg’s filmic instincts weren’t opposed to most of the tenets of the genre. Ben Hecht’s realistic story is based upon his own newspaper coverage of racketeering in Chicago — and this was two years before the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre!  The story has little in common with the hard-edged adventures of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney yet to come. Von Sternberg’s Underworld is instead a poetic gangland vision, a fable about honor among thieves.

Beefy George Bancroft is ‘Bull’ Weed, a racketeer who intimidates his peers by sheer barroom force. A bruiser with 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 masterpiece Shanghai Express). A lowlife galoot tries to rape Feathers; Weed shoots the man dead and is sentenced to hang. He broods in his cell, 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 as well, 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. We don’t really see an organized mob — the only overt crime on view is Bull Weed’s robbery of a jewelry store. The final script reduces the story to a love triangle within a gang-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 sensitive character manipulation — the emotions and attitudes of the characters are the story, generating complexity within what now would seem a thin storyline. Feathers admires Bull Weed but also fears him, as he’s indeed as unpredictable as a bull in a china shop. When provoked, he may explode with violence, or simply laugh. 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’s Rolls Royce makes a big impression as the drunk rehabilitated by Bull Weed’s generosity. His humiliation is established when one of the bad guys throws him a silver dollar, by tossing it into a cuspidor … a gag made famous thirty years later in Rio Bravo. Also borrowed for Howard Hawks’ western is the name ‘Feathers,’ for Angie Dickinson.

1920s newspapers loved to glamorize fortified gangster hideouts with descriptions of 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 — it’s been documented that real sharpshooters were often used, before saner practices were established. Trapped inside, the three principals face a violent fate — who will take the escape route to safety, and who will remain behind?


 

1928’s The Last Command is the kind of story von Sternberg liked 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 he finds employed as a lowly 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 his 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 the pampered Sergius had entire divisions of soldiers at his disposal; his biggest problem was Czar Nicholas’s interference. Now an insignificant extra, Sergius is at the receiving end of a different bizarre power system, the Hollywood movie machine. Sergius is pushed and shoved amid a mob of eager extras following orders and crowding to get their costumes. Younger Russian expatriates also playing extras pay him no mind. A dismissive assistant director ignores his corrections about his costume: ‘Aw, Hollywood has been making these things for years.’

The Last Command is really a showcase for the undeniably powerful Emil Jannings, that re-runs the ‘loss of face’ tragedy of Jannings’ The Last Laugh. Von Sternberg has the actor hold back his full power until 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.

 

At this time the events of the Russian Revolution were barely a decade old. The film’s bias is predictably pro- White Russian. The Czar may be a meddling fool but the revolutionaries are depicted as an unprincipled rabble. When a trainload of rebels crashes into an icy river (a pretty weak model) we are not supposed to miss them terribly much. Lev and Natalie are characterized as sneaky manipulators, plotting the revolt. Natalie begins to respect Sergius only 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. Sets are bathed in smoke, while Bert Glennon’s camera caresses the contrasting textures of uniforms, fur, and cold steel. 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 the general had been luxuriating in his privileges. Evelyn Brent dresses in fashionable furs yet shows a pair of sexy knees above her fur boots. She seems a study in sexy cool, a template for Marlene Dietrich movies that came later.

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, tawdry situations bathed in glamour. 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, the writer of the Lost Generation dramas Wings, The Dawn Patrol and the extra-morbid The Last Flight. The final film in this von Sternberg box limits its scope to a 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 enjoying a single night’s leave. Mae is aided by Lou (Olga Baclanova), the unfaithful wife of Andy, Bill’s superior in the engine room (Mitchell Lewis). Bill steals some clothing for Mae, who recovers and joins him in a bawdy dive downstairs. But Andy puts the moves on Mae, and Bill loses his job defending her. In the magic of the moment the two of them find romance, and are ‘married’ sans 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 solely from expressive fog and fishing nets. The director’s camera likes nothing better than to slowly truck through the galleries of the smoky waterfront bar. He ends his introductory scene with another camera move, backing out of the bar as tables and overhanging rafters drift by. Sea gulls make their homes on the window sill of Mae’s miserable room. The visual elements that in The Blue Angel were so ‘European’ and in the Dietrich pictures so ‘exotic’ are already present, fully formed.

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. Already an oversized galoot, George Bancroft’s Bill is the kind of guy who can drop a bar bouncer with one punch. He’s a heavy drinker with a face as weathered and folded as Charles Bronson’s. Bill at first regards Mae as a quick 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 attentions, 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 broad-shouldered 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 adapted 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 Docks of New York is a dream-like experience, a fantasy version of reality. It remains a key film to demonstrate that silent film had developed a language of emotional communication that didn’t need sound. The addition of audio and dialogue clearly had more possibilities, but these late silents created a poetic-cinematic experience that wouldn’t return.


 

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg is a quality up-tick of the very good DVD set from 2010. The trio of classics are in remarkable condition. Back at UCLA in the early ’70s we were shown original 35mm studio prints of von Sternberg films, and I can say that Criterion’s Blu-ray pretty much repeats the experience, minus the shimmering ‘silver screen’ appearance of those unusually clear nitrate prints.

The DVD extras are retained. Each film comes with 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.

The fat insert booklet contains an extended essay section with pieces by Geoffrey O’Brien, Anton Kaes and Luc Sante. The disc’s new music 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.

The impressively designed disc packaging makes good use of beautiful production stills. I’m told that von Sternberg shot the stills for his films personally.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg
Blu-ray
rates:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent multiple scores by Robert Israel, one each by Alloy Orchestra, Donald Sosin & Joanna Seaton
Supplements: Visual essays by Janet Bergstrom & Tag Gallagher; 1968 Sternberg TV interview, 96-page insert booklet with essays by Geoffrey O’Brien, Anton Kaes, Luc Sante plus composers’ notes, original Ben Hecht story for Underworld and an excerpt from von Sternberg’s autobiography.
Packaging: three card and plastic disc holders with book in heavy card sleeve.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Intertitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
October 19, 2019
(6112von)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.