Delirious silver-screen glamour never disappoints! Marlene Dietrich’s six Paramount pictures for Josef von Sternberg arrive in a beautifully annotated disc set. The most creative director-muse relationship of the 1930s created an all-conquering German siren-goddess, a screen icon vom kopf bis fuss.
Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood
Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil is a Woman
The Criterion Collection 930
1930-1035 / B&W / 1:19 Movietone (2), 1:37 flat Academy (3) / 542 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date July 3, 2018 / 124.95
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Victor McLaglen, Clive Brook, Herbert Marshall, Cary Grant, Sam Jaffe, Lionel Atwill, Cesar Romero.
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood assembles a package we’ve long desired, a quality set of the duo’s highly artistic Paramount pictures from the first half of the 1930s. The Scarlet Empress arrived in a sub-par Criterion disc early in 2001, and three more Dietrich titles were included in a Universal ‘glamour collection’ in 2006. A later TCM Vault double bill contained the other two. The quality of these DVDs was mostly okay, with the reservation that DVD’s limited resolving power did no favors to Josef von Sternberg’s fine images. The visual spell woven for Marlene Dietrich made heavy use of fog, mist, smoke, and diffusion filters, a look that DVD tends to turn to mush. Blu-ray helps these killer visuals look more like the glossy glamour stills for these movies, the ones that Josef von Sternberg personally shot to protect ‘the franchise.’
Marlene Dietrich often explained that her glamorous von Sternberg image was an artificial construct, one of several performing personae she invented through her career. The director may have chosen her to play Lola-Lola in der blaue engel because she could give the slightly plump appearance of a beer hall entertainer, but from that point forward she was refashioned into a svelte goddess. Billy Wilder described Marlene as a hausfrau who was most happy cooking for friends and movie crews, so that’s clearly one part of her personality. According to many personal accounts, she was a warm personality beloved by her film crews. Of the many performers that went overseas to entertain troops, she was one of the most generous and beloved. Soldiers on both sides of the European conflict associated Dietrich with the song Lili Marlene.
This set begins with her American debut, after a big publicity buildup. We also see a picture or two that weren’t well received, when she was declared box-office poison along with Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. Marlene would later bounce back by reinventing herself in a more humorous guise.
1930 / 92 min.
Co-starring Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Adolphe Menjou, Ullrich Haupt, Eve Southern, Paul Porcasi
Cinematography Lee Garmes
Original Music Karl Hajos
Written by Jules Furthman from the play Amy Jolly by Benno Vigny
Paramount gave Dietrich the big build-up in Morocco to offer her as their answer to MGM’s Greta Garbo. Hollywood had been selling the supposed allure of European sirens from almost the beginning of the studio system, a game that even Josef von Sternberg knew how to play: the ‘von’ was a mild affectation.
Hard-luck French entertainer Amy Jolly ends up in Mogador, Morocco performing a provocative act in the shabby nightclub of Lo Tinto (Paul Porcasi). She falls in love with Legionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper), a footloose and unpredictable womanizer who at first has no use for her independent airs. Wealthy artist Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou) falls head over heels for Amy. She tries to take La Bessiere’s proposal of marriage seriously, as he loves her and represents the security she needs. But Amy discovers that her heart is directed by deeper female instincts.
Dietrich’s English skills improved quickly; she had made an English-language version of The Blue Angel that wasn’t released here until after Morocco. American audiences saw a more sophisticated Marlene playing against top Paramount stars. To serve notice that something new is on the scene, for her first song Amy Jolly appears in a man’s tuxedo. She prowls through the audience ignoring the men, and finally gives actress Eve Southern a big kiss full on the mouth. These were of course our pre-Code years. America was intrigued by permissive attitudes toward sex in Berlin, and the moment was surely confected to make people talk. it’s pretty risqué stuff for 1930.
Von Sternberg was one of the top American ‘art’ directors, having begun with a gritty drama of down-and-outs in San Pedro called The Salvation Hunters. By the time of Morocco he’d refined his visuals into a mode even more gauzy than Paramount’s low-contrast, high-glamour style — the images are sometimes so hazy as to be focus- challenged. Morocco is less kinetic but also less mannered than some of his later work, although 1930 viewers found his sultry, static atmosphere to be irresistible.
Audiences took immediately to Dietrich’s style: quiet and reserved around strangers in public but secure in her independent sexuality. Her first leading men marveled at her beauty while trying to figure her out. Dietrich’s Amy Jolly is the first in a long line of Dietrich women with dark pasts, forever falling in love. The cool exterior of a Dietrich character hides a mass of contradictory emotions, but her apparent heartlessness is usually revealed as a defensive pose. The big character surprise is often that she’s less in control of herself than she thinks.
Some of the sparse dialogue in Morocco is practically hard-boiled, with Amy telling Gary Cooper’s lively trooper Brown that women belong to an army too:
“There’s a foreign legion of women, too. But we have no uniforms, no flags, and no medals when we are brave; no wound stripes when we are hurt.”
Dietrich’s complex appeal comes off well, while Cooper shows an uncommon ease with his girl-bait Legionnaire character. Both are forever changing their minds and contemplating drastic romantic action. Menjou has a role that repeats in von Sternberg movies, the loser in love who doesn’t care that he’s being made a fool of. In this case his La Bessiere earns our respect.
Legionnaire Brown and the smitten La Bessiere play a civilized game of ‘Who does she love’ until Amy makes her near-absurd choice. The final image is well-rehearsed in stories of women and men in the exotic, erotic African desert, from Son of the Sheik to Gavin Lambert’s Another Sky.
Von Sternberg tells his story so directly that the romantic excesses don’t have time to become absurd. His feeling for light and space bathes the players in hazy Saharan sunlight, often burning through wooden lattices and coating Amy and Brown in hazy stripes. Top-billed Gary Cooper is given almost the same glamour accents as Dietrich; I think that his makeup includes lipstick. The absence of a musical score telling us how to react is a definite plus. So is the languid pace, that sometimes places long gaps between dialogue lines. Morocco does impressive things with stasis, and relative silence.
1931 / 91 min.
Co-starring Victor McLaglen, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Warner Oland
Cinematography Lee Garmes
Original Music Karl Hajos
Written by Daniel N. Rubin, Josef von Sternberg
Both Dietrich and Greta Garbo made female spy movies in 1931, with Paramount’s Dishonored preceding MGM’s Mata Hari by eight months. Dietrich’s adventure in espionage is short and sweet, and her mission is almost an exercise in suicide. Ironic death hangs over the picture but our star puts a relaxed, amused face on much of the proceedings. Josef von Sternberg’s ability to sustain scenes where ‘little happens’ is remarkable. At two points in the movie we spend several minutes in a room watching someone rearrange coats, move a cat about, and uncover the truth about an enemy agent. This Dietrich/Sternberg picture has the least emphasis on scenic excess and atmospheric overkill.
World War One has begun. The Chief of the Austrian secret service (Gustav von Seyffertitz) needs a seductive secret agent to uncover a traitor in his organization. Pretending to be a foreign agent, he picks up Marie Kolverer, a streetwalker (Marlene Dietrich). Despite her low station Marie is a patriot, the widow of a fallen army officer. She passes the Chief’s clever loyalty test, is given the code name ‘X-27’ and dispatched to a fancy masked ball. There Marie arranges to go home with the target traitor, Colonel von Hindau (Warner Oland), and while he’s out of the room, finds the secret message that was passed to him by the grinning partygoer who shared their cab and tried to steal her away. Marie then goes after the other man, who turns out to be the Russian Colonel Kranau (Victor McLaglen). They ‘meet’ at a gambling parlor; he breaks away but later on steals into her house and discovers her identity. Marie is impressed with Kranau’s good manners under pressure, and he is smitten by her unshakable composure. Kranau escapes but Marie immediately follows him to a Russian town near the Polish border, posing as a maid right in the Army headquarters. She learns the Russian battle plan but is caught trying to escape. Kranau’s private interrogation of X-27 is another meeting of like-minded mutual admiration: Marie is slated for a summary execution, yet remains courageous and nonchalant.
Thirty years before the spy craze of the 1960s, Dishonored expresses the most romantic myths about espionage. The show begins in a downpour, as Marie Kolverer watches another fallen woman, a suicide, being carried to the morgue. The spy Chief conducts chemical experiments in his offices, presumably to make new knockout potions. Our lady spy is chosen precisely for her ability to put men off guard. She has a broad death wish, and likes the idea of dying in the service of her country. Marie picks up one of her victims during a high-stakes card game. She adopts a full disguise to penetrate the enemy’s domain. And our lady spy even has her own ‘theme music,’ in a show without a conventional film score.
Of all of Dietrich’s characters, X-27 is the most mysterious. Marie is independent, insolent and unmoved by a man’s suicide in her presence. She flirts unashamedly with the young officer (Barry Norton) who escorts her on a long walk to the office of the Chief. The majority of Dietrich’s von Sternberg characters are hardbitten women softened by love. Marie also compromises herself in the name of an almost abstract Love, for an enemy she barely knows. She even arranges for him to think that his escape was an accident, and not her doing.
The final scenes are an inversion of the first — X-27 expresses a philosophical view of death, completely fools a professional man, and takes another long walk with the same young admiring officer. She’s emotionally self-contained: her secrets are her own — her accusers never know her motives, and she greets the finale with a radiant smile. Unlike Garbo, Dietrich rarely gushes with emotion. X-27 adheres to formalities and holds all of her feelings private, yet plays out an intensely romantic game.
Aha, but Marie does have an outlet for her hidden emotions — she re-directs them into music. At the piano she pounds out rhapsodic songs, mainly ‘Donauwellen’, which we know as ‘The Anniversary Waltz’. It’s her private dance-of-death theme music.
The show has no daylight scenes. The only break from interiors and night exteriors is a brief battle montage, lasting barely twenty seconds; it appears to include an outtake from the silent Wings. Von Sternberg’s visual control commands everything else; the slo-ow dissolves have us looking at curious superimposed images for seconds at a time. The big costume party is interestingly arranged as a vertical set of indoor balconies festooned with confetti. The finale takes place in a castle yard, in the snow. The office of the ‘Chief’ is at the end of a long and ornate formal palace hallway. We can’t help but think of Don Adams’ Maxwell Smart, navigating his own secret corridor to reach his own Chief.
Perhaps to serve notice on MGM that X-27 is not a clone of Mata Hari, the show gives Dietrich a comic scene in her disguise as a country maid in traditional clothing, knee-high boots and braided blonde hair. Playing dumb, X-27 remains silent with the officer that tries to seduce her (Lew Cody) but instead pops her eyes, covers her face with her skirts when she blushes and pulls faces like Stan Laurel. It’s a funny bit of clowning that I’ve seen nowhere else in Dietrich’s pictures. The other ‘clowning’ is the strange performance of Fox loan-out star Victor McLaglen, who recites his dialogue slowly, often through a toothy grimace. In the film’s first scenes we worry that the character is stricken with lockjaw. His stylized dialogue delivery appears to be a von Sternberg specialty, as he directs a number of his leading men to speak in a strange cadence.
Dishonored plays most everything else fairly straight, except perhaps some costumes that seem out of place for 1915. X-27 wears an elaborate caped getup for the party scene, with a black mask that hides most of her face, almost like RoboCop. She also dons leather flying gear for a couple of shots showing her departing for Russia. The bleak finale allows X-27 to turn the finish into a moment of self-expression: a piano is provided for her to play, and she dons her unofficial uniform, a dazzling black dress. Only Marlene Dietrich could get away with applying lipstick in those extreme conditions. I don’t see many outpourings of love for Dishonored the way that fans go for Morocco and The Scarlet Empress, but it holds a special place in the collection.
1932 / 82 min.
Co-starring Clive Brook, Anna May Wong, Warner Oland, Eugene Pallette, Lawrence Grant, Louise Closser Hale, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Emile Chautard, Willie Fung, Victor Wong.
Cinematography Lee Garmes, James Wong Howe
Original Music W. Frank Harling
Written by Jules Furthman from a story by Harry Hervey
Shanghai Express is a likely candidate for the best of the American Dietrich-von Sternberg collaborations. For once the ‘exoticisms’ in the story are borne out by the setting, a crowded railway train plying its way through a Chinese civil war. While the Anglo passengers fuss and complain, the world outside the rail ‘teems’ with masses of humanity, and the visuals are jammed with market clutter, silk banners and commerce conducted by cart and by foot. The von Sternberg fantasy image of Inscrutable Asia is the vision that stuck in the cultural imagination; soldiers going to Vietnam likely expected the place to look like panels from the comics’ Terry and the Pirates.
The rail passengers are scandalized to learn that the notorious ‘Shanghai Lil,’ a woman of ill repute plying her trade on the China coast, is a fellow traveler with a questionable young Chinese woman, Hui Fei (star Anna May Wong). English Army doctor Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook of Cavalcade) is needed in Shanghai to perform a brain operation on the governor-general. Although he’s too self-contained to show it, Donald is shocked to learn that Lily is actually his former lover, Madeleine. Donald bitterly rejects Lily, and she’s too proud to throw herself at him. Eurasian passenger Henry Chang (Warner Oland) eventually reveals himself to be a revolutionary general. When government troops arrest his top lieutenant, Chang’s rebel army halts the train while he negotiates the man’s return, using Donald as a hostage. The other passengers remain unaware of the personal sacrifices that Hui Fei and Lily make to insure their safe passage. Lily even agrees to go away with Chang as his lover, in a deal to keep the warlord from blinding Donald with a hot poker. She makes the preacher Carmichael (Lawrence Grant) promise not to reveal this. Will Captain Harvey realize how much Lily still loves him?
On the surface Shanghai Express recapitulates an old De Maupassant tale: an oppressed seamstress offers her body to a cruel Prussian officer to save a coach-load of fellow Frenchmen, only for her sacrifice to go unappreciated. Transposed into glossy romantic terms, Jules Furthman’s screenplay intensifies links between sex and devotion, torture and sacrifice. Portly passenger Eugene Pallette keeps remarking that they’ll all be lucky to reach Shanghai alive, what with the vagaries of the revolution. The other passengers remain mired in indignant post-colonial denial. Lily, Hui Fei and Donald play out a grand passion play.
This being a pre-Code story, Lily is identified as a prostitute without further explanation. Camp interpretations of the film frequently imagine further entanglements, insisting that Lily and Hui Fei are also lovers, that Chang is bisexual and keen on Captain Harvey, etc.. But there’s plenty to work with in Express strictly on heterosexual terms.
The best thing about the show is the prominent role give Anna May Wong, a veritable ethnic superstar in productions here and in England, whose career was diminished by the Production Code’s insistence that minorities be marginalized. Hui Fei is as much a mystery as Lily — fiercely independent, she’s the only passenger with the courage and determination to strike back at Chang. The icing on the cake is that the story allows a righteous murderer to walk away untouched at the climax. A post- enforcement Code movie would blame Hui Fei for the crimes of being sexually active, Chinese, and a woman. I should imagine that Hui Fei would be canonized by the #MeToo movement.
The Lily-Donald relationship is stylized quite strangely. When Lily is under pressure, Marlene Dietrich is often directed to simply twitch her eyes and move her chin nervously, like an attractive animal in a cage. It’s certainly better than redundant dialogue would be. On the other hand, in one early scene Lily delivers a long expository speech, an explicit recap of how she mistakenly drove Donald away and then regretted it for five long years. Lily is so interesting that we don’t mind — she’s simply explicating the meaning behind her carefully chosen tease line:
“It took more than one man to give me the name Shanghai Lily.”
Clive Brook recites most of his lines in a slow, grave manner, as if his mind were engaged in mulling over his love/hate relationship with Lily. Even when being nonchalant, Donald speaks in slow motion. He’s so deliberate that we’re surprised when he slugs an enemy soldier, instead of just standing and brooding over the situation. The romantic impasse is much like the Joan Crawford-Sterling Hayden emotional conflict in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, a traumatic breach of trust and selfish jealousy. In a post- Code enforcement picture, Lily would be a dull woman condemned for a simple indiscretion, or shady past relationship. And Captain Harvey would have to shun Lily because a doctor can’t be seen with ‘that kind of woman,’ even if her sins are only rumors. Yes, pre-Code pictures often had themes involving immorality, but they weren’t consistently hypocritical and dishonest.
Von Sternberg pulls off numerous impressive trucking shots through all of those packed sets. One desert location (Barstow?) was used for some establishing shots of a train, but the claustrophobic studio sets drip with atmosphere. Dietrich wears a couple of extravagant dresses, with feathers, etc., but the most impressive image simply shows her face re-sculpted by an overhead light. Critics of yesteryear expressed movie rapture over images of Lily’s face obscured by cigarette smoke. Shanghai Express is surely the height of the Dietrich All Glamour, All The Time period.
I took notes from a discussion board, where was posted an explanation for a jump cut that occurs during an interrogation scene in Shanghai, when Lily interprets for Major Lenard, a French officer. * Paramount voluntarily Cut Out some dialogue to appease the French Embassy, which placed a premium on military honor:
CHANG: Explain to him if he does not tell the truth I’ll have him shot.
LILY to LENARD (in French): He says if you don’t tell the truth he will have you shot.
LENARD (In French): When I was in the army I committed a minor offense and I was discharged.
LILY: He has been discharged for a minor offense.
CHANG: Then why does he wear that uniform?
LILY: Why do you wear that uniform then?
LENARD: I’m going to see my sister and I don’t want her to know I’ve been discharged.
Can we assume that James Cagney’s musical number ‘Shanghai Lil’ in the next year’s Footlight Parade is a reference to this movie?
1932 / 94 min.
Co-starring Herbert Marshall, Cary Grant, Dickie Moore, Gene Morgan, Rita La Roy, Robert Emmett O’Connor, Sidney Toler
Cinematography Bert Glennon
Written by Jules Furthman, S.K. Lauren
The ornate, fun and somewhat silly Blonde Venus is an exercise in fantasy exoticism. Dietrich’s playing of her character barely makes sense beyond whatever near-absurd set piece happens to be on the screen. No ‘woman’s journey’ ever set up such a simplistic contrast between maternal and erotic instincts. One main compensation is a scene where Dietrich enacts the role of a simple housewife and mother. She’s sexier bathing her baby boy than when cavorting through von Sternberg’s notion of erotic nightclub acts.
German entertainer Helen marries Ned Faraday (Herbert Marshall), an impoverished researcher in New York. They’re happy with their little boy Johnny (Dickie Moore) until Ned needs 1500 dollars to go to Europe for a cure for radiation poisoning. To get the cash Helen goes on the stage as Helen Jones. She meets the rich playboy Nick Townsend (Cary Grant) and spends quite a bit of time with him; he advances her money to send Ned off right away. While Ned is away being de-irradiated Helen and Nick conduct an affair. Ned discovers this when he returns early from his cure, and threatens to take Johnny away. That’s when Helen goes on the run with the boy.
Dietrich’s many changes of heart and romantic allegiance in this dazzler are neither sufficiently explained or acted. Her dedication to her family doesn’t fit with her willingness to take up with Nick Townsend. Her fiery love life works on the assumption that women in show biz simply cannot stay faithful to one man. At first the perfect mommy, she becomes the sacrificing female, the scorned hussy, the fallen floozy, the triumphant star and finally the hopeful woman who wants her family back. Herbert Marshall’s Ned grumbles and fusses bitterly through most of the picture, diminishing our sympathy for him. Cary Grant’s one-note playboy isn’t all that great either; its surprising to see how limited his acting range is under von Sternberg’s all-controlling direction. When the circumstances require a sensitive reaction Dietrich is directed to do her ‘indecisive nervous twitching’ act.
The story is a stack of visually arresting scenes that appealed to von Sternberg. The movie begins with a delightful ‘water fairy’ scene in which Dietrich is one of six nymphs that catch the eye of some students on a walking tour. Lee Garmes lays on the gauze and the nude maidens (this is still the pre-Code era) frolic in double-exposures through hanging foliage. We’re told that this entire opening sequence was censored in some localities, well as in some countries overseas.
The Faraday household is a domestic paradise, with mommy Helen singing German nursery rhymes to little Dickie Moore. He’s barely more than a toddler yet this is his 30th film; he later appeared as a teenager in Out of the Past. Dad fumbles with his deadly isotopes in another part of the house. The business about getting cured for radiation overexposure is a real hoot; I’m sure the characters of On the Beach would have been interested in learning about the treatment.
Helen’s scandalous stage performance ‘Hot Voodoo’ is practically the working model for the gender-twisting definition of Camp. Six months before King Kong, The Blonde Venus makes her entrance in a hulking gorilla suit, complete with the icky, Stroheim- like detail of dripping nostrils. Performing a simian striptease, she reveals herself as a cannibal queen in a blonde Afro.
‘Hot voodoo, black as mud / Hot voodoo, in my blood
That African tempo, has made a slave.’
Only Jane Fonda went farther when she stripped off a bulky spacesuit in Barbarella. What Dietrich lacks in singing versatility she makes up in personality — whether in English, French or German, most of her deep-voiced lyrics really seem to say, ‘This way to the bedroom.’
Blonde Venus’s chaotic continuity is held together by a surfeit of stock shots of trains, boats and other ‘traveling montage’ devices. Von Sternberg delights in showing Dietrich drunk and disorderly in steamy flophouses. Helen plays a trick on Sidney Toler’s flatfoot by pretending to be a prostitute. Since so much of the movie is vague suggestion, for all we know von Sternberg is saying that she is a prostitute. Yet the movie engages because (sigh) Dietrich is just so dreamy. We don’t care what kind of martyred fallen woman she is supposed to be, and if she wants to hug the baby boy as a gentle hausfrau und mutter, that’s fine too.
Along the way we get good bits from Clarence Muse, Sterling Holloway and Hattie McDaniel. Robert Emmett O’Connor from The Public Enemy is a jaded nightclub manager.
The Scarlet Empress
1934 / 104 min.
Co-starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Sam Jaffe, Louise Dresser, C. Aubry Smith, Jane Darwell, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Maria Riva, Akim Tamiroff, Kent Taylor, Edward Van Sloan.
Cinematography Bert Glennon
Written by Manuel Komroff, Eleanor McGary from the diaries of Catherine II
There was once an associate film professor at UCLA named Robert Epstein who ran wonderful screening classes. To show us smug students how little we knew little about life, he showed us movies like International House to prove that sex and drugs were not inventions of our generation. When Epstein screened The Scarlet Empress in an original nitrate print from the brand-new UCLA Film Archive, we saw photographic artistry far beyond what was showing down the hill in Westwood. We also saw proof that early ’30s offered content a lot more interesting than Shirley Temple. Jules Furthman’s screenplay is a burlesque of stuffy historical melodramas, and revels in ribald sexual innuendo.
Cue images of royal crests and marching banners. Polish Sophia Frederica (Marlene Dietrich) is chosen by Russia’s Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) to become the wife of Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe) and produce an heir to the throne. An imported bride is needed because Peter is a perverse idiot who plays with toy soldiers. Frederica, now known as Catherine, is strongly attracted to Count Alexei (John Lodge), Elizabeth’s current favorite. Life at court is confusing. The tyrannical Elizabeth demands that Peter should be in bed with his wife assuring the continuity of the monarchy, but the grinning madman instead indulges in bizarre games with his favorite courtesan – playmate. As soon as Catherine learns the ropes at court, she proves a master at power games both political and sexual.
A stylized, near-comic historical fantasy, The Scarlet Empress delivers a jolt from its very beginning. With all the trappings of a massive, sober epic, its script wastes no time in sending up the costume genre. Young Frederica (played by Dietrich’s daughter, Maria Sieber) is examined by a doctor who takes his leave as if imitating Groucho Marx. He am-scrays stage left, mumbling his exit line: “Now I’m off to perform another one of my operations.”
No sooner is Frederica pronounced healthy than an Uncle (Edward Van Sloan, no less) tells her bedtime stories about depraved tortures, which are depicted in a technically advanced page-turning optical montage sequence decorated with nude female victims. Such license was rare before the Production Code arrived and is simply amazing here. When Frederica grows up, Russian beefcake emissary John Lodge arrives to take her to Moscow. He delivers every line as von Sternberg had instructed Victor McLaglen, as a monotone sneer through half-clenched teeth, usually while leering at Dietrich. For her part, Dietrich plays the first section of the film in mouth-open awe, astonished by every outrageous event she witnesses.
We’re equally astonished by von Sternberg and designer Hans Dreier’s vision of Empress Elizabeth’s courtrooms, some of the most original and weird sets ever constructed. Everything is massively oversized. The doors to Catherine’s room are so heavy, eight women are required to open them. Made from rough logs, the palace is covered with religious icons. Oversized carved wooden figures of old men (saints?) are part of every piece of decor — chairs, staircases, etc. There is hardly a close-up of a character that doesn’t share the frame with a giant gnarled hand or twisted wooden face. It’s as if the drama were being played out amid a castle crowded with petrified ancestors. Most of the statues hold candles, which in addition to the dozens of other candles in view at any given time, give the whole movie a congested, oppressive quality.
This is Josef von Sternberg at his most baroque and Marlene Dietrich in her most sylized, minimized role. Transformed by Bert Glennon’s camera into a vision of desire, Dietrich’s face is always framed with glittering jewels or abstracted by veils or other softening devices. One closeup during her wedding to Sam Jaffe drew applause from us jaded film students … it is unlikely that any woman in film history has had as much glamour lavished on her visage.
The freakish joker leading Sternberg’s parade of perversity is Sam Jaffe’s Peter, played with wild eyes and a skull-like grimace. His activities are beyond bizarre. Peter marches real soldiers around the palace as if they were full-sized toys. Hissing his dialogue lines, he bores holes in the log walls with a giant drill (an anachronism?). The first inkling of Catherine’s rebellion is her natural willingness to disobey her new Empress and avoid this reptile.
The Production Code had taken effect several months before the release of The Scarlet Empress. Mae West’s films were severely sanitized but The Scarlet Empress must have been given a free pass, for the sheer volume of adulterous seduction on view is staggering. The ribald dialogue has some real zingers. Empress Catherine catches Peter’s concubine running around after him cleaning up the toy soldiers he’s left behind, and warns the woman to make herself scarce: “You’ve been picking up soldiers around here long enough!” A lady-in-waiting advises Catherine that every woman in court has a lover, including Elizabeth, and Catherine soon learns that Sex is Power. The scene where it is implied that she’s bought the loyalty of the Army with sexual favors is potent stuff. Couple the innuendo with the sensual decor, and this is one of the most delirious films ever made.
The Devil is a Woman
1935 / 79 min.
Co-starring Lionel Atwill, Edward Everett Horton, Alison Skipworth, Cesar Romero, Tempe Pigott, Francisco Moreno
Cinematography Josef von Sternberg, (Lucien Ballard)
Art Direction Hans Dreier
Written by John Dos Passos, S.K. Winston from the novel La femme et le pantin by Pierre Louys
The last Dietrich-von Sternberg collaboration is a fanciful adaptation of a scandalous book that ended up being made into several sexy European films, among them Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire. The age- old story posits the female of the species as a cruel manipulator of over-eager males. Depending on one’s viewpoint, it’s either an accurate measure of female perfidy, or the most misogynist story ever written. Von Sternberg’s version is not the most perverse, and it opts for a sentimental ending. But we immediately sympathize with whatever hapless male happens to be skewered on Ms. Dietrich’s amorous hook.
This time out the director’s motivation must have been the creation of a Spanish- flavored visual fantasia: it’s 1900, but some of the ornate costumes and stylized situations are a better fit for a hundred years earlier. Captain Don Pasqual Costelar (Lionel Atwill) meets the coquettish, predatory Concha Perez (Marlene Dietrich). She proceeds systematically to flimflam, fleece and humiliate him. Conchita flouts her power over her victim. She even makes it known that she has other lovers, including the bullfighter Morenito (Don Alvarado). Don Pasqual is eventually forced to resign his commission over the scandal. He meets handsome Antonio Galvan (Cesar Romero) at Carnaval and warns the younger man away from Concha… advice that Antonio doesn’t take to heart.
In any other hands the The Devil Is a Woman might become a one-joke farce, but von Sternberg’s direction and the earnest playing of Cesar Romero and Lionel Atwill (one of his best performances) make it into a bold story of male frustration. Edward Everett Horton’s semi-comic Governor serves a serious purpose as well. The operative theme seems to be that irresistible women are irresistible, and when they know it they can get away with anything. As in the other versions Concha Perez allows her suitors to shower her with money and gifts, under the mistaken assumption that they are buying special favors. They are then stupefied when she flaunts another lover in their faces. By not giving in Concha both maintains her self-respect and demonstrates her power. Being able to luxuriate in willfully wicked feminine caprichos is an added bonus.
After the previous year’s The Scarlet Empress failed to scale the box office heights, grandiose opulence was apparently out of reach for this last Dietrich-von Sternberg collabortion. The Devil Is a Woman achieves its atmospheric visuals on a smaller scale, yet the Spanish settings are suitably ornate. Featuring boldly are plenty of those wrought iron gates that figure so strongly in the other versions of the story.
Dietrich’s costumes are as impressive as ever. Despite being as Spanish as peach strudel, she’s a knockout in the lace-and-mantilla Spanish dresses. Dietrich says one accented word (‘Sevilla’) and is content to bat her Teutonic eyes from behind a fan.
Von Sternberg’s ornate erotic fantasies made him a darling of surrealists, and this movie makes use of an impressively advanced flashback structure. As Atwill tells his story to Romero, we keep bouncing back to new episodes from the past. Transitions between the past and the present use no ‘wavy glass’ oil dissolves, only simple straight cuts. Audio cues sometimes precede the cut. It looks and plays like something from at least the 1960s, and it’s possible that audiences in 1935 had difficulty following the continuity.
Devil didn’t make a pile of money either. Von Sternberg decided not to work with Dietrich again, which according to biographer Homer Dickens didn’t sit well with his leading lady. The director was also possibly jealous of the attention given Dietrich’s contribution to the films. Dietrich immediately went on to work for other top directors — Frank Borzage, Ernst Lubitsch — often dictating her own lighting as learned from her mentor. Von Sternberg was not generous with creative credits. He lit his own pictures and sometimes omitted credits for other cameraman (like Lucien Ballard) along with some art directors.
The common reason given for the decline of Marlene Dietrich’s pictures is that her brand of exotic erotica fell out of tune with the mood of the country. Audiences were rejecting exotic females with breathy foreign accents. A major exhibitor labeled Dietrich, Crawford and Hepburn ‘box office poison’ in 1937, starting a critical backlash that threatened all of their careers. Hepburn retreated momentarily to the stage and Crawford lost what little pull she had for choice roles at MGM. After being booted from the ‘jinx picture’ Hotel Imperial Dietrich made movies with David O. Selznick and Alexander Korda (Knight Without Armour). She sat out a full year before bouncing back strongly in 1939’s comedy western Destry Rides Again. Her solution to win back her audience was to spoof her previous imperious image as a sultry siren. Going forward, her greatest hits would include an element of comedy.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood does right by these 85 year-old classics, reviving them with new scans and meticulous clean-up. Paramount films of the 1930s have been a worrisome problem for some time. With the entire collection sold to MCA in the 1950s (what were they thinking?) most features were protected with only one or two safety fine-grains, and everything else thrown out. This means that alternate versions with scenes censored by the Production Code office were simply lost. In many cases small censorship changes (like the snippet cut from Shanghai Express) became permanent. The perfect nitrate prints screened at UCLA in the early 1970s misled many of us to think that the films would always be available in pristine condition, a notion that has been proven wrong many times: what remains of Paramount’s 1932 Island of Lost Souls can’t compare to what we screened at UCLA.
We’ve therefore been wary of what can be done with the Dietrich pictures — even on DVD, many 1930s Paramounts are available only in marginal quality, even some of the Marx Brothers comedies. For the most part the new transfers are a very happy surprise. Criterion’s notes say that Morocco was given a new 2K transfer, while Dishonored, Blonde Venus and The Scarlet Empress were transferred in 4K from positive prints held by UCLA. A dupe negative of The Devil is a Woman received its own 4K scan. Shanghai Express isn’t mentioned so I assume an earlier Universal master was used.
The good news is that five of the six films look great, with no complaints. An occasional shot might pop up with a problem, but the softness of earlier DVDs is mostly gone. The digital cleanup erases most blemishes. Those amazing close-ups in Scarlet Empress now do more than just approximate the luster of original prints. Von Sternberg’s frequent lengthy lap dissolves are mostly silky-smooth, with no dip to a lower image quality. The Paramount logo for Blonde Venus simply cuts on; it’s possible that someone later removed an NRA title card that preceded it.
I’m guessing that the problem with Morocco is the lack of a good transfer source. The image is appreciably softer and lighter than the other five pictures. I would imagine that some of the websites specializing in fine image analysis might be critical of the other presentations as well, but I’m more than pleased. I really was expecting them all to have serious issues. Von Sternberg’s films rely on high-quality images to be properly appreciated, and the old Scarlet Empress DVD was a rare Criterion disc that simply didn’t look good. This remaster makes amends.
As with the best Criterion extras, everything included on the six discs has its reason and makes its statement. On the first two discs, thoughtful and well-illustrated featurettes chart Dietrich’s early life and career, and the power of her carefully crafted screen image. A German archivist shows us through an enormous collection of Dietrich’s personal possessions, and briefly tells the story of the real woman on whom Morocco’s Amy Jolly was based. Other extras go into Dietrich’s fashions; she also appears in color on Danish television, in 1971.
An eighty-page illustrated book carries excellent essays by Imogen Sara Smith, Gary Giddins, and Farran Smith Nehme. They examine clues as to authorship of the films, and report specifics of the seven-film collaboration. Marlene Dietrich was far too strong a personality to be passively controlled by anyone, yet made herself an eager object for von Sternberg’s artistic impulses.
* Two enlightening correspondent messages about the deleted dialogue in Shanghai Lily:
From Facebook 6.30.18:
David Hare: Thanks for the cracking review Glenn. On the subject of Shanghai Express and the dialogue cut, I am still not convinced your correspondent’s explanation for the cut being made by Paramount at the behest of the French government in 1932 is correct. I am now relying on personal memory verging on ancient history but I distinctly recall the missing dialogue in many, many screenings dating back to 1968 in Sydney at an almost complete retro of Jo’s work at both the Sydney Uni Film group and the then NFT, at the latter of which the 35mm nitrate prints on loan from MOMA and UCLA were screened. I recall the print being uncut, although the then- current print of Blonde Venus was far more heavily cut, with the opening ‘German glade’ sequence of approx 4 minutes which was removed cutting the film sharply from the credits to the boat sailing into the Hudson River, cutting sharply again to Dickie Moore in the bathtub. This was how it presented in its MCA television print form. I only first saw a complete print of this ten years later in Paris, at one of the then- regular Sternberg-Dietrich festivals that adorned one or other of the left bank cinemas. Shanghai Express was also playing in ’78 and was again uncut. And in France! The missing dialogue quoted is from page 100 of a UK publication of the screenplays (in fact the continuity scripts) for Morocco and Shanghai Express published in 1973. The book’s texts were drawn from prints supplied from both the BFI and the BBC (who regularly screened the cycle in its own 35mm on BBC2). The other source was continuity scripts provided by Universal. I think unless we have some corroborating statement from Universal itself that the cut in the Shanghai Express interview sequence was made by them for the reasons stated it is in fact what I would consider a ‘rogue’ cut which was made sometime between what I would call roughly 1978 and 1994 when the first videos, including laser, VHS and DVD were released of the title all sporting the cut. My own impression is that given the rough, jagged state of the emulsion and the print physically in the few seconds leading up to the cut it was done mindlessly by some staff in the Archive to clean the print up without any attempt to find dupe footage to replace the (longer, ca. 40 second) shot. Perhaps your correspondent could provide further material to support the ‘censorship appeasement’ theory?
James Steffen: Agreed Glenn and David, this a really thoughtful and detailed review of the set. I can’t wait to receive my copy! Regarding the missing dialogue, I checked the film’s Production Code Administration file, and there is in fact a memo from September 16, 1932 noting that France requested a number of deletions, including the full dialogue exchange in question. This was, however, several months after the film’s February 1932 release in the U.S.. So audiences here would have seen the film uncut. David could very well be right about uncut prints of the film circulating until the last couple of decades, but who knows what has happened to those prints since then?
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood
Video: Morocco: Good -minus/ Fair +plus; the other five Very Good / Excellent
Sound: Very Good / Excellent
Supplements (re: Criterion): New interviews with film scholars Janet Bergstrom and Homay King; director Josef von Sternberg’s son Nicholas; Deutsche Kinemathek curator Silke Ronneburg; and costume designer and historian Deborah Nadoolman Landis. New documentary about actor Marlene Dietrich’s German origins, featuring film scholars Gerd Gemünden and Noah Isenberg; New documentary on Dietrich’s status as a feminist icon, featuring film scholars Mary Desjardins, Amy Lawrence, and Patricia White; The Legionnaire and the Lady, a 1936 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Morocco featuring Dietrich and actor Clark Gable; New video essay by critics Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin; The Fashion Side of Hollywood, a 1935 publicity short featuring Dietrich and costume designer Travis Banton; Television interview with Dietrich from 1971. Plus, and 80-page illustrated book featuring essays by critics Imogen Sara Smith, Gary Giddins, and Farran Smith Nehme.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Six discs in card and plastic folders with book in card box
Reviewed: June 28, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson