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Saturday, May 05, 2012

Shanghai Express Finally Pulls In

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 Morocco and 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 from Sternberg/Dietrichs. Double-weight originals were (still are) highly coveted. Shops along
Hollywood Boulevard
were vacuumed 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 over satellite/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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

its interesting how stars fall from grace, in or out of vogue. growing up in europe in the 60's and the 70's, stars like garbo and marlene were celebrated frequently with screenings of their movies on prime time TV trumpeted as 'events'. imagine watching "shanghai express" at 9 o'clock on prime time TV today, knowing millions were discovering it with you! i miss that type of experience. it shaped my generation in a way that can never happen again. we were still children of our times, in tune with modern culture and events, but with reference points to the past, as well. dietrich has fared better than garbo, but they are still very forgotten today. the influence is unmistakenly there, especially in the advertising media, but the very technology that conspired to create these legends has hastily evolved to the point where it has rushed past these legacies to embrace a different notion of stardom that excludes taste and style and mystery. thank god for your forum!

8:03 AM  
Blogger Poptique said...

All of the Dietrich-Sternbergs are astounding and made a massive impression on me when the BBC still regularly screened monochrome movies back in the 80s and 90s.

It's a crime these aren't out sparkling on Blu-ray - the lone Criterion DVD for the Scarlet Empress (possibly my favourite for it's sheer non-stop OTTness) was a pretty threadbare affair, and I've seen clips in far better condition than the print they were supplied with. (There's a couple in a documentary on Hollywood Cinema from Martin Scorsese that sparkle).

It seems that Von Sternberg is suffering the same fate and the other big Von - which is a terrible shame as their pictures are timeless.

It'll be great when more of Paramount's output is available - from the Marx Brothers, through the Sternbergs and right down to the Fleischer shorts that proceeded them, I've often found pre-code Paramount to be the most interesting of all the studios from that era.

11:06 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Speaking of stars "falling from grace," two weeks ago when purchasing my tickets to see the TCM showing of CASABLANCA at my local Bijou, I said to the teenager, while she printed my tickets, "Isn't it always great to see an Ingrid Bergman movie?" Her reply: "Sorry, I don't know who that is." Which is exactly what I expected.

I also recently mentioned the name Jack Benny to a 28-year-old fellow, and he was baffled.

Getting back to Dietrich, about ten years ago, I listed an original 8x10 still from one of her Sternberg's, and I nearly fainted when it sold for just under $1,000.

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Karl said...

MCA/Universal's standard line, for many years now, regarding general unavailability on home video formats of the Paramount titles they own is to mumble something about the original elements being in overall poor condition and requiring too much work for video releases to be profitable. To what degree that is true and to what degree it is an excuse for the company's ignorance about and lack of interest in their celluloid stepchildren, I do not know.

5:13 PM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

If Universal isn't going to do anything with the bulk of the pre-1948 Paramount catalog, one wishes Paramount could somehow buy it back, perhaps working out some agreement with TCM for film restoration (which Ted Turner did with his film libraries in the 1980s, and something he frankly doesn't get enough credit for) and eventual DVD sales.

Dietrich's not the only star who's dimmed by Universal's lack of interest. When TCM held its "Summer Under The Stars" last year, two of Paramount's stars of the 1930s, Carole Lombard and Claudette Colbert, had but one Paramount film between them shown on their days (Lombard's "Hands Across The Table"). Carole and Claudette made their share of programmers for Paramount in the early '30s, and it's unfortunate they aren't available; even if many of them aren't very good, they're worthwhile historical artifacts TCM can show at 7 a.m. some weekday.

3:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are dozens of Paramount features of at least some interest from throughout the '30s. I ought to know as I have seen them.

FYI, some obscure older Paramount and Universal full movies popping up on youtube lately in very poor copies that look sourced from tape. I have no clue from where they come or why they stay.

10:54 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer shares some thoughts concerning Marlene Dietrich:

While I was going to college, a small publisher called Arlington House came out with a lavishly illustrated book by Larry Carr entitled Four Fabulous Faces. Marlene Dietrich was one of the four, the others being Garbo, Gloria Swanson, and Joan Crawford. The abundance of portraits and stills in it suggest the great allure of Dietrich in particular, in the almost sculptural quality of her face, with the high forehead, wide eyes, sensuous mouth, and the broad planes of her cheekbones. If the face was somewhat flat, a visual stylist like Josef von Sternberg could use the brightest lighting to burn its features onto celluloid. It was a superficial rendering of beauty, however. Aside from that, Dietrich revealed nothing of her heart or soul. Undoubtedly she had one, if the stories of her affair with John Gilbert are to be believed. As an actress or entertainer, however, this reticence allowed her to reinvent herself periodically. She brought a shrewd and ruthless intelligence to bear on what she possessed and was willing to make the appropriate adjustments. If the camera could no longer be allowed to come too close, she would create a new persona for an audience which would be kept beyond the footlights. If her skin or hair color or figure succumbed to age, there were apparent miracles that could be achieved with elastic and makeup, wigs, lighting, and that oh-so-important distance. In this way, she created an illusion for those wanting to believe. Probably she serves as an example for Madonna, yet without providing a way out of the essential dilemma, as to how to continue this process of reinvention from beyond the grave. If the glamour she possessed at one time or another was of a certain time now past, it is inevitable that our appreciation of it today will have passed as well. Indeed, you've suggested as much.


5:28 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Marlene Dietrich had such infinite self-possession she could tell from the lack of heat on her face which particular spotlight was burned out while she stood on a stage. She knew that having flowers thrown on stage at the end of a performance would enhance the magic of the moment for her audience. She always arranged before hand to ensure that be done. She left nothing up to chance while at the same time leaving the door open to chance. She knew more about everything than most know about one thing. I discovered her films while working as Director Of Cinema Studies for Toronto's Rochdale College which was the boldest experiment ever undertaken anywhere in alternate education. Our then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau allowed the use inside Rochdale of hashish, LSD, marijuana, mescaline and peyote. It was 18 floors. The higher up we went, the higher we got. The Von Sternberg Dietrichs were a natural in such an environment as were the films of Mae West and W. C. Fields. In fact, anything with intelligence and wit behind it flowered in that heady climate. To this day I enjoy turning young people on to these films. They respond quickly and enthusuiastically to them. It is a mistake on the part of Universal not to market this material but, really, it is a mistake in the industry. Yes, it is easier to sell hot off the racks films to crowds familiar with them due to their current hotness. Hollywood has never appreciated nor understood the value of its history (as your piece on the first television sale of "old" movies shows).

These however are young not old movies. They come from the youth of the cinema when, like youth everywhere, the medium was bold, brash and daring. Today's movies are structured to appeal to the broadest number of people while offending the least just like an old person's diet. Gone is the sauciness and spice of youth. It is no wonder the movies as a whole have lost their audiernce. Television and home video has nothing to do with declining sales. In the 1920's over 65% of the population went tio the movies regularly. Today it is less than 15%. The audience for movies then was what it is now: between 11 to 30, primarliy between 14 to 24. That age group lives to go out. They are going out. They just are not going out to the movies. If anyone knows the wherabouts of good copies of Paramount's Warner Oland Fu Manchu films please let us know. There is so much gold in this discarded rubble it is a shame the people today in possession of this material are so dull, unimaginative and lack lustre. They are very poor businessmen. Old books are not looked at as old books. We recognize authors like Dickens, Dumas, Victor Hugo, Tolstoy, and many, many more as essential reading. Their books continue to sell. So these filmsd as well should be alive in the market place.

10:34 AM  
Anonymous Bob said...

Mainly because no one said it yet -- by, my god, what a terrific actor Clive Brook could be in the right part. He is completely forgotten today, but he did have that certain something....

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Erik said...

Always liked Shanghai Express. Sternberg used the camera often like he didn't know it was a "talkie" and just let it linger here and there on perfectly lit scenes, like the train slowly making its way through the crowded streets of a packed city. The pacing with Dietrich and her acting style in this movie at times goes well beyond just a dated technique and into something that seems like it's not even part of this particular movie. It's like Sternberg made a mini-film inside the bigger film that probably only made sense to him.

8:05 PM  
Anonymous Jim Cobb said...

Just watched SHANGHAI EXPRESS last night. I guess this may be as good as this title is going to look. The new dvd varies in quality, sometimes even shot to shot. What incredible lighting! Hope someday the technology and the funds will be available to get the movie back into its original form. And Bob... I definitely agree about Clive Brook

10:15 PM  
Anonymous J. C. said...

Regarding Karl's post:

When MCA purchased the Paramount library, their interest was in generating prints for television use. To that end, thousands of 16 and 35mm safety stock dupe negatives were created in a relatively short period of time, with the work done as cost-effectively as possible. To say that the results were uneven would be an understatement. Unfortunately, once safety dupes were in hand, MCA had little interest in the nitrate originals. Far too many were lost or junked over the years. If anything, MCA viewed all that nitrate as a liability. A vault fire waiting to happen. It never occurred to anyone that these films might have a future beyond 16mm prints dumped onto the late, late show, and that there might come a day when it would be desirable to have original elements in the best possible condition.

When I was at Universal, there was a feeling that the company was less fortunate than Warner in that the Paramount library was lacking in stars who were marketable to contemporary audiences. Too many Fred MacMurrays and not enough Humphrey Bogarts, so to speak.

The bigger problem, frankly, is that the company doesn't really care about old movies, and the older they are, the less they care. Few "vintage" titles sell well enough to satisfy a huge company like Universal. And also, there has never been anyone there like Warner's George Feltenstein, to champion these films and push to get them out on home video.

10:16 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

As the owner of a small collection of 16mm and 35mm prints, I read your comments about the incredibly shrinking world of film collecting with tragic empathy. I will note that in one sense the future is already here: it is not terrifically unusual for those interested in restoration/digital archiving to seek out (and find) the best sources in the hands of private collectors.

1:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd always noticed that the prints of the pre-48 Paramounts were grainier that those of Universal films of the same vintage-the few that one saw. I remember every night on WBZ Boston, the late movie theme-music from "Barbarella"-fading into the MCA fanfare.

4:42 PM  

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