Sternberg Surfs Criterion DVD Wave
Josef von Sternberg's heavyweight status was never in doubt. Critics knew he was something rare almost from the beginning. Perhaps the "von" affectation commanded respect (imposed by studio publicists, he claimed), or perhaps it was imperious ways he adopted once success bloomed. That was awhile in coming, as Joe had started at the bottom and several times blew his luck making unreleasable films or walking off ones that didn't suit him (his first, The Salvation Hunters, inspired Charlie Chaplin to arrange release through United Artists, for which $44,000 in domestic rentals came back). A recent DVD set from Criterion finally lays three of the best silent Sternbergs before us in presentations that fully settle this director's mastery of visual effect. As to proof of that till now, you had to rely on assurance from books and lucky few who saw existing nitrate prints of Underworld, The Last Command, and Docks Of New York. All were museum guarded with copyrights renewed by Paramount, the latter surprising VHS collectors in the eighties with Docks and Command to commemorate a studio anniversary spree that's said to have fizzled, at least with regard sales of silents unknown even to many that fancied vault treasure. What they needed back then, and didn't have, was internet pom-poms to spread word about how special Sternbergs were, a lapse we've corrected with online endorsement from everyone who writes serious about films (even dilettante me got around to it). Again I'd love peeking at Criterion receipt books to know how these are selling, and to learn just how much they tendered to Paramount for video rights. Is this none of my business? May-be, but who wouldn't like insight into what our beloved classics are worth in 2010 dollars-and-cents?
Von Sternberg (think I'll call him Joe from here) was every film journal's pet during the sixties and after. New York revival houses had long been running him to assure connoisseurs that a US director could deliver art same as oversea rivals. Joe having been cast out of studios lent cache as well. His saga of art versus commerce bespoke integrity (still does) except to those footing bills. These three from Criterion represent 1927-28 opening of a commercial window that stayed wide a good five-six years before slamming back on star-making Sternberg, his vogue at Paramount secure for what remained of the silent era and then some, success even more pronounced once Marlene Dietrich hit shores. Underworld has been lauded for a lot of things, but less so for Joe's discovery of three bankable names Paramount would squeeze, then discard, same as they ultimately would him. George Bancroft was a big bruiser you knew would have an abbreviated shelf life, but Sternberg made expert use of him, enough so as to make the Bancroft brand a profitable one for several years into talkies (virtually none of these are shown, despite worthies like The Mighty). There was Evelyn Brent, who was uncertain temptress material, but Joe could have made Polly Moran smolder given the inclination, so for a while at least, Brent was smokin'. Her casting off to B's and cowboys (good support for Hoppy at one point) was a fate Sternberg predicted, knowing she'd falter without him. Clive Brook was better showcased by Sternberg than he would be again. Few are even aware Brook's was once a leading name. Maybe Joe's belligerence (having once said directing was a thankless task I never enjoyed) came of frustration at seeing personalities he'd developed so badly handled by others at Paramount. That was S.O.P. long before JvS arrived, however, and the pattern would be repeated with Dietrich, only then it would be Sternberg getting blame for her mid-30's decline.
Sternberg worked magic with another limited type, Emil Jannings, who'd mastered a range of characters he could (or would) play. Joe varied one of these enough in The Last Command to deliver what everyone called Janning's best performance (we can't confirm thanks to others largely lost). Preston Sturges would say The Last Command was the only perfect film he'd ever seen. Doug Fairbanks sent telegrams of congratulation, and word came they were scalping tickets in front of Warsaw theatres. Command's story was arresting enough for a wide US public to enjoy as well (trade ads such as ones here radiated confidence). Like Underworld, this was a hit. In fact, for a while, it looked like Sternberg had an enviable finger up America's pulse, Underworld being socko in urban markets according to Janet Bergstrom's excellent DVD segment. Highest among complements to Joe may have been Howard Hawks grabbing credit for Underworld's story development years after it stopped mattering, plus he'd crib a memorable spittoon gag from the film for his own Rio Bravo (who in 1959 would recall that having been done three decades before, and in a film long out of circulation by then?). Whatever crazed logic guided Sternberg to treat people so badly may account for his getting Paramount's boot when profits from his stuff went dry, although colleagues who'd known Joe before he was Von were able to handle him better. Still, he made powerful enemies when those could hurt, and none would forget (Ernst Lubitsch among them). Bill Powell had it written into contracts that he'd not work with JvS again (when was this genial actor before or since so miffed?). Sternberg got known as a busy lot's angry young man, but when George Bernard Shaw called The Docks Of New York one the greatest films I've seen in my lifetime, who gets to be right? Anyone with eyes knew Joe was leagues ahead of others aiming cameras. The fact he claimed total authorship of all creative aspects was even OK so long as money wells were deep enough for everyone to sup.
Some have said Sternberg's silents were conked out by onrushing talkies, but a look at the ad above shows Paramount putting best feet forward in '28 for a silent program that likely sold well, what with Wings, Beggars Of Life, The Fleet's In, and Sternberg's Docks Of New York leading the pack. Sound would be a mite longer obliterating this art form. As to Docks Of New York representing summit of silent artistry, you could pretty well call it that without fear of contradiction, for there's no other that looks so stunning. Time seems right too for rediscovery of Sternberg's narrative skill, which is to say he barely concerned himself with story, as neither, apparently, do a lot of modern filmmmakers. You never see three-act wheels grinding with Joe, and for a jaded 2010, that's refreshing. His shows gain considerably on repeat viewing as well, for its smallest gestures and atmosphere that often escape us a first time around. The Sternbergs are ideally served to fans who've been round the silent block and are ready to sample its deeper dishes. Tag Gallagher's DVD extra explains JvS in ways that opened my eyes, and I'd seen these pics several times before. Would they work for the uninitiated? Some called Sternberg a poet of film (and he'd have agreed), but poetry isn't readily understood by us all, so I'm left wondering what an evening with Sternberg would yield in terms of audience response. Has anyone lately tried him out with a crowd?