August 28, 2010

DVD OF THE WEEK: Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

by Brian Darr


The Criterion Collection lives up to its name, having in the past twelve years released over five hundred DVDs and box sets, generally with the best available image and sound quality, lovingly lavish packaging and supplemental features, a body of product containing a large proportion of the most noteworthy films in world cinema history. However, for every Jean-Luc Godard or Akira Kurosawa whose filmography has been well-served by Criterion's curatorial mission, there's a whole cinematic realm in which the company falls short. Films directed by women are few and far between, as are films from Asian nations other than Japan. Nothing at all has been released from South America or Africa, unless one counts Europeans' excursions there, such as Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus and Gillo Pontocorvo's The Battle of Algiers.

Surprisingly, the entire silent era, representing over three decades of moviemaking history, has yielded only a handful of dedicated Criterion DVD releases thus far: Nanook of the North, Passion of Joan of Arc, Haxan, Pandora's Box, King of Kings, and now a box set collecting three of auteur Josef von Sternberg's few surviving silents: Underworld, The Last Command, and The Docks of New York. Setting aside the appearance of John Ford's early Bucking Broadway as an extra on the recent release of his Stagecoach, with this Von Sternberg set Criterion has just quadrupled its catalog of silent features made in Hollywood (previously, only DeMille's King of Kings fit in that category), a territory the company has largely ceded to other imprints like Kino and Flicker Alley.

Underworld Josef Von Sternberg seems the ideal figure to launch such an expansion around, as Underworld, The Last Command and The Docks of New York must be three of the most visually compelling dramas made in the American studio system, in this case by Paramount. The same studio for which Von Sternberg would later make six icon-building talkies with Marlene Dietrich starting with Morocco in 1930 and ending with The Devil is a Woman in 1935, Paramount has been perhaps the most reluctant of all the Hollywood majors to release its silent-era heritage on a digital format. There's been vocal disappointment amongst home video aficionados that the studio's licensing deal with Criterion forbade a simultaneous Blu-Ray release. Those of us who haven't become totally spoiled by the HD-video revolution, however, could hardly ask for a better visual presentation of these films. Underworld looks very good playing on a laptop screen, a standard television, or digitally projected. The Last Command looks better, and The Docks of New York better still.

Though the director's backstory is presented nicely in Geoffrey O'Brien's liner-notes essay, and in the video supplements through both Janet Bergstrom's video essay and a 1966 Swedish television interview, it's worth sketching out a few details here. Jonas Sternberg was born in 1894 Vienna, and was shuttled back and forth with his family between there and New York twice, by a father who was often absent and never financially secure. As a teenager in Fort Lee, New Jersey, he entered the motion picture business at the very bottom rung, apprenticed to a cleaner of film stock. Working his way up the ladder in all capacities, by 1924 he was in Hollywood with a new name reminiscent of his hero Erich Von Stroheim's, and had raised $4,800 to independently produce his first film as a director, The Salvation Hunters. Hailed as an instant genius by Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, among others, Von Sternberg encountered the frustrations of aborted and unreleased projects typical of a true artist trying to make his way within the industrial Hollywood system, but in 1927 he was allowed full control over the film which would become the foundation for his reputation as a masterful movie-maker (and as an *ahem* stern taskmaster on his set), Underworld.

Underworld Though gangsters had been prominent characters in previous films starring Douglas Fairbanks, Lon Chaney, Harold Lloyd and others, Underworld has often been called the "first gangster film," perhaps because it contains so many of the elements we associate with the 1930s gangster film cycle: chiaoroscuro photography of urban streets and alleyways, well-dressed brutes and molls in slinky dresses, inter-mob rivalries expressed in violence, and thrilling but not-quite-heroic confrontations with the police. With a ripped-from-headlines scenario written by Ben Hecht, the first screenplay of a long and successful Tinseltown career, the only thing missing from the film seems to be the rat-a-tat of the tommy gun.

With Von Sternberg's visual sense powering Hecht's script (the latter made off with one of the first ever writing Academy Awards despite his dissatisfaction with the director's changes to his story, fully reprinted in the Criterion booklet), we don't miss these familiar sounds. As Megan Pugh wrote of the film for the 2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, "Von Sternberg shunned flat and wasted space—he wanted images that were thick, teeming, layered, and emotionally significant." Emotionally significant the film is, as it portrays a poignant love triangle between George Bancroft's bombastic boss Bull Weed, Clive Cook's alcoholic attorney Rolls Royce, and Evelyn Brent's glamour girl Feathers. Janet Bergstrom relays Brent's account that the cast was obligated by Von Sternberg to watch the daily rushes, which may be the only reason they did not outright rebel against his perfectionism on the set; they were able to see how the details of their performances were to contribute to a fully-envisioned work.

The Last Command The Last Command envisions a world far away from the tough Chicago streets we see in Underworld, but not a step away from the place where Von Sternberg created this simulacrum—and it was a simulacrum, fully created on the Paramount lot, as the director always maintained he loathed shooting on location, a claim belied only by the use of San Pedro Port in The Salvation Hunters. For The Last Command, Von Sternberg carves a Russian nesting doll of Hollywood within Hollywood. The film tells of a deposed Czarist general (Emil Jannings), now a shell-shocked film extra employed by his former revolutionary opponent (William Powell)—now an émigré director—for $7.50 a day. The story, based on a discarded idea of Ernst Lubitsch's, is the quintessence of irony, and its execution often makes its rather obvious role-reversal feel like the most elegant conceit imaginable. The opening pair of intertitles announces: "Hollywood – 1928! The Magic Empire of the Twentieth Century! The Mecca of the World!" But this is not how Von Sternberg shows his industry. Later, prefacing shots of extras swarming for their costumes, a title card reading "The Bread Line of Hollywood" seems closer to the mark, but for Von Sternberg, Hollywood is multifaceted. Both a paradise for illusionists, and an assembly line of ignominy, the town deserves both words of its nickname "Dream Factory."

Along with its philosophically complex illustration of the movie-making process, The Last Command contains a simplified, if not entirely sanitized, illustration of the Russian Revolution, revealed in the extra/general's extended flashback to his rivalry with Powell's Bolshevik for the affections of the beautiful Natalie (Evelyn Brent). Between the romantic and political intrigue, and opulent production design by frequent Von Sternberg collaborator Hans Dreier, it's this 1917 segment which most evidently prefigures the Marlene Dietrich pictures: Dishonored, Shanghai Express, The Scarlet Empress, etc. But the film's most impactful moments are found in the Hollywood bookends. Von Sternberg's final shot, a dolly revealing the picture-making apparatus, is one of the most apropos camera flourishes in his entire career.

The Last Command While Underworld and The Last Command were commercial and critical successes that helped put Academy Awards in the hands of Ben Hecht and Emil Jannings (who won the first Best Actor trophy for both The Last Command and the now-lost Victor Fleming film The Way All Flesh), The Docks of New York was largely ignored in a now-talkie-obsessed America. Its stature was higher abroad, as in Japan—where, in 1930, it was voted the Kinema Junpo magazine's top foreign film of the year. Docks has the most streamlined story, and is perhaps the most formally perfect film, of the Criterion set. Burly George Bancroft plays a steamboat coal-shoveler with one night of shore leave he’s determined to make the most of. No sooner does he arrive on dry land, than he finds himself back in the ocean to rescue a drowning prostitute played by Betty Compson, an actress then in the midst of a celebrated second Hollywood comeback. These two cynics find an unlikely night of romance in the dive-iest of wharfside bars, only to wake up in the morning unsure of just what was real in the previous night's merriment. Parting seems inexorable, but is it really?

In a film about individuals finding their true natures after meeting a kindred spirit, it makes sense that Von Sternberg uses reflections as a major visual motif. The silky shimmer of the East River provides the first reflected glimpse of Compson's character. The mirrored walls of the sailor bar reveal constant activity within the space, and make several long tracking shots seem all the more impressive. Among other stunning camera effects is a bleary-eyed point-of-view shot that, removed from its context, might be mistaken for pure abstraction. After viewing this film, there's no question why Von Sternberg of all Hollywood directors became a favorite of many avant-garde filmmakers, including Jack Smith and Guy Maddin. One of the first book-length studies of his work was written by Herman G. Weinberg, who made the landmark experimental film Autumn Fire. But perhaps the preeminent silent film historian and populizer Kevin Brownlow put it best when he wrote: "Docks of New York was one of the finest achievements of a period when fine achievements were commonplace."

The Docks of New York More compelling evidence for the greatness of each of these films is found in one of the supplemental features, a visual essay created by Tag Gallagher for this Criterion release. For example, Gallagher shows how Von Sternberg adeptly uses close-ups and multi-character shots in his visual language, how Underworld was influenced by Von Stroheim's Greed, and even the varying functions of the many cigarettes in the three pictures. Written essays by Anton Kaes and Luc Sante, and an excerpt from Von Sternberg's provocative autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry round out the extra features in this set. Which brings me to the musical scores, the only element of this Criterion release that could be termed "a mixed bag," bearing in mind that taste in silent film music can be even more personal than silent film itself, and that many cinephiles will be thrilled to be able to play these discs with the soundtrack disabled, either in silence or with their own musical instruments or home-made "needle-drop" scores put to use.

It's always appreciated when a silent film DVD release contains multiple options for the music track, one of the technological features of the digital era that cannot be replicated in a theatrical screening. However, for someone who has been spoiled by the experience of seeing Underworld and The Docks of New York in cinemas, masterfully accompanied by pianists Stephen Horne and Judith Rosenberg, I can't help but feel that each of the two soundtrack options on each of these two DVDs comes up short in some way.

The Docks of New York Underworld's muscular jazz-age images and rapid-fire montage may require more lightness than Robert Israel's stately chamber and orchestral arrangements can provide. Similarly, the Alloy Orchestra's largely synthesized score seems inappropriate to such an of-its-time film. The Alloys are currently perhaps the ideal accompanists for a science-fiction film like Metropolis, or an extremely modernist work like Man with a Movie Camera, and can even suit the action thrills of a film like The General or The Eagle, but I'm not sure they're quite cut out for a drama like Underworld.

The Docks of New York presents a peculiar challenge in that much of the film takes place within diegetic "earshot" of a barroom piano that we can see onscreen, yet it contains scenes of such emotional heft that to ignore character psychology in a soundtrack would do a disservice. Israel's solution is to alternate between solo piano and ensemble arrangements, but I found the transitions between these timbral palettes to be very distracting. Pianist Donald Sosin provides the second score on this DVD, and his jazz-influenced playing seems generally well-suited to the pre-Prohibition milieu Von Sternberg has recreated in the film. I'm still unsure about his intermittent incorporation of vocalist Joanna Seaton, singing lyrics of her own devising, into the score. Again, it was something of a distraction, though perhaps after a few repeat viewings with this score I'll find her contribution a more natural one.

The Docks of New York Whether because it's a grander film, or because it's the only one I've never heard a live accompaniment for, I felt that within the confines of this box set, both the Alloy Orchestra and Robert Israel provided their most well-judged scores for The Last Command. Israel uses a full symphonic sound for much of the film, and incorporates familiar Russian themes quite effectively. It's straightforward, but well-researched and stirring.

Ken Winoker of the Alloy Orchestra has described the synthesizer as the late-20th/early-21st century equivalent to the theatre organ, in that both instruments allow a single keyboardist to generally mimic the voices of a true symphony orchestra, though not so well that a discerning ear would be fooled into thinking it was hearing the "real thing." He's right, but often the Alloys' melodic sound rests on far fewer synthesized timbres than an accomplished organist might use. Still, The Last Command contains scenes with the sweeping, epic feel that plays to the percussion-heavy trio's strengths. And there's something appealingly appropriate about the Alloy synth's ersatz horns playing a Russian anthem while Emil Jannings staggers around William Powell's set, at least momentarily fooled into thinking he's back in his homeland and not California. It seems to underline an idea I'm sure Von Sternberg would've signed off on: that you have to be crazy to think Hollywood fabrication is real.

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Posted by ahillis at August 28, 2010 11:19 AM


America, Europe, Russia and Japan have released better films that most other nations/regions on Earth. Men have dominated film directing from the birth of the medium. Neither of these things is Criterion's fault, and for them to alter what they release in an effort to balance out this nonsense just to pay lip-service to an over-correcting, semiotic worldview would destroy them as a company. I would guess that their lack of releasing more silent films is owed more to the public domain factor than anything else, but in any event, their acquisition of the Chaplin catalog should certainly beef up that particular muscle. It's just too bad Charlie wasn't a woman, I guess.

Posted by: Alfred Chamberlain at August 31, 2010 6:42 PM

Thanks for weighing in with a contrasting point of view, Alfred Chamberlain. I hope my opening paragraphs here didn't come off as a bitch session. What I meant to convey was my sense that, although after so many titles in the collection, Criterion may seem to be limited in what directions it can turn as a company, beyond upgrading all its Bergman and Fellini holdings to Blu-Ray, there are still large segments of cinema their curatorial mission has barely touched. Silent film, especially American silent film, being one of them- and this box set and the upcoming Chaplin releases seem to indicate it's an area Criterion is particularly interested in moving into.

Posted by: Brian at September 1, 2010 2:19 PM
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