The last holdouts of Dietrich/von Sternberg are at last on DVD, not to trumpets and fanfare, but quietly from TCM's online store and bearing Universal label. Shanghai Express was (much) earlier Criterion-bound, delays said to be caused by negative material in need of work. The rendition lately out seems fine, as does companion Dishonored. These Sternbergs were close as Hollywood got to art movies during a rushed precode era. Early historians disdainful of US picture-making called truce for this Paramount group of six. They played even after the war in newly popular art theatres equating Dietrich and Sternberg with Euro sophistication. Are they less regarded now? There hasn't been much clamor for Blu-Ray coverage of the group. If anyone's work could benefit from higher definition, it would be Sternberg's, but what elements survive? I'm told Morocco's negative is long gone, but what of the others?
Shanghai Express is probably the half-dozen's best bet for sharing. There's stronger narrative than usual for Sternberg, which maybe accounts for revenue earned in 1932 --- $827K in domestic rentals and $698,000 foreign against a negative cost of $851K. You could say Dietrich peaked with Shanghai. Her vogue (at least the first one) didn't last so long. Books/trades suggest Para offered her as ready-made successor to Garbo, stardom a fait accompli. The company's promoting strength was equal, if not better, than Metro's. Did Paramount simply dust off blueprints from their Pola Negri build-up to launch Dietrich? There was an industry ball to introduce the new personality just off a boat from Germany. That room filled with Hollywoodites went numb at the sight of MD, so witnesses say. I wonder what crumbs of truth, if any, are in that ...
Paramount product annuals said Dietrich took a show world by storm, this on evidence of Moroccoand afterward release The Blue Angel. The push was intense to a point of force-feeding. Could patron acceptance of Dietrich catch up to intensity of Para's hype? I'd bet lots were waiting for her to slip, then gleeful to note MD's placement on that infamous "Boxoffice Poison" list published by The Hollywood Reporter in May, 1938. Dietrich came back again and again over a long career, her reinventions parallel with Joan Crawford and ... who else? The Sternberg/Paramounts maintained their spell through her lifetime ... no telling how many stills from these she signed ... did Dietrich take fascination for them with her when she went? (in 1992) I haven't heard so much fan noise over Dietrich or Garbo these recent years. Did we need to be there, as in their 30's peak, to really embrace them now? Maybe a general decline of enthusiasm for Dietrich is what's making DVD release of her Sternbergs less of an event.
In collector days, they seemed a bigger deal. A Sternberg on 16mm was treasure continually sought, original prints a priority. Those latter weren't offered by Paramount or subsequent owner MCA. They had to be crept out of TV stations or rental houses, cloak-and-daggering of which made them so rare and sought after. A really good print could dazzle, though even the best of 16mm wouldn't hold a candle to present-day digital. Some hesitate now at$24.99 for Shanghai Express and Dishonored, but they'd have run a minimum of $6-800 for the pair thirty years ago, in the lucky event of finding a dealer with either, let alone both. Print quality was uncertain then, even at premium rate. A Morocco I had, even though designated an "original" on 16mm, was milky. The Devil Is A Woman came high for having once been in Roddy McDowall's collection, and was a beauty, thanks to having been Kodak printed in 1958 among those first prepared for TV distribution. Edge-codes indicating dates a print was made assumed great importance among collectors, as consensus was The Earlier The Printing, The Better The Print.
The same applied to 8X10 (or larger) stills fromSternberg/Dietrichs. Double-weight originals were (still are) highly coveted. Shops along
were vacuumed of these long ago. I recall dealer room prices climbing to $30 or so for really clean 8X10's from The Scarlet Empress, Blonde Venus, and the rest. Now they're in auction houses or E-Bay for infinitely more. We 16mm collectors should have ditched the film and gone for paper ... memorabilia having soared in present-day value while celluloid sank like rocks. Now they talk about scuttling sprockets altogether in favor of digital projection --- talking about it --- heck, they've pretty much done it. I recall dances around the maypole whenever Shanghai Express surfaced on 16mm and colossal effort (plus expense) that entailed, all amounting now to So What? and as much quicksilver. I'd have served myself better collecting horse harness.
Speaking of lost and lamented, there's a near-whole of Paramount's pre-48 library that remains mostly unavailable. With thousands of titles streaming, spinning, and beaming oversatellite/cable, it's remarkable to see (or better put, not see) an inventory of 700 features largely dormant. Famed samples from the lot, including the Dietrich/Sternbergs,Island Of Lost Souls, various ones present owner Universal has released on DVD, have been pretty much it. Representation of Para's early-30's output is very limited. We've memorized the Warner, MGM, and RKO lodes thanks to TCM, Warner's Archive, etc., but early talking Paramount seems nearly as vague as memory of long ago syndicated playdates. It's poverty of these, as much as Dietrich and Sternberg's participation, that make Shanghai Express and Dishonored such must-haves on disc.