The Devil Is a Woman (1935)

The Devil Is a Woman (1935) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/21/2018

“If It Isn’t Pain (It Isn’t Love)” is an excised musical number by Marlene Dietrich, trimmed from Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman. It’s an apt conceit for what the film portrays, which many have read as a thinly veiled interpretation of Dietrich and von Sternberg’s relationship, with Lionel Atwill’s Don Pasqual standing in for the director. Dietrich, as Concha, is as always, herself.

Cut down and re-titled, The Devil Is a Woman isn’t as successful as other films of Dietrich and von Sternberg. The director also shot the film, and the sequences of the carnival are lush and vivid as anything from his earlier films. But the story and the writing, told in a large part in flashbacks as Atwill regales the young, good-looking Cesar Romero of the way that Concha has strung him along, feels less sophisticated than perhaps it should.

While the film portrays something romantic and dramatic, there is also something farcical running through it. A tone I took as intentional, a self aware sense of irony, perhaps?

The Devil Is a Woman isn’t my favorite, Dietrich-Sternberg film, but as always, Dietrich’s wardrobe is amazing.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The Scarlet Empress (1934) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/16/2018

Josef von Sternberg’s biographical drama about Catherine the Great, The Scarlet Empress, has a lot of the Silent Epic about it: lavish sets, huge cast, and intertitles. Again, he dolls up Marlene Dietrich in lush, over-the-top outfits and figures her as the beauty among beauties, the woman above all others.

The Scarlet Empress comes at the very end of the Pre-Code Era, and it’s a decadent, bizarro piece of Hollywood extremes.  The Expressionistic sets are insane and wild, imaginative and evocative, while bearing only loosely to anything of historical or cultural accuracy. The matte paintings could use some work perhaps and the miniatures of Moscow are kind of silly. But those sets, they’re astoundingly weird and awesome.

Adapted in part from Catherine the Great’s own memoirs, the story tells of the young naif Princess Sophia, married off to the Grand Duke Peter of Russia to bear him a male heir. Peter is a simpering weirdo, trapped in a childish state, his mother, Empress Elizabeth, a cold and demanding ruler. Sophie is renamed Catherine, and herlessons in life teach her to take charge of her world, sex life (with a litany of lovers) and eventually of all of Russia as well.

I was struck as The Scarlet Empress could be a possible inspiration for Andy Milligan’s Torture Dungeon?

Sternberg depicts a world that is perverse, ornate opulence, heaped up in grotesqueries, doused with sadomasochism, lust, and icy passion. Such a visual fantasia.



Shanghai Express (1932)

Shanghai Express (1932) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 05/14/2018

If you’ve ever wondered why Marlene Dietrich is considered a sex symbol, just watch Shanghai Express. She is the definition of  movie star here, shot by director Josef von Sternberg and cameramen Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe into absolute iconic pure classic Hollywood cinema.

The cinematography is breathtaking, especially lighting and capturing  of Dietrich. Her outfits, stunning and sublime.

“Don’t you find respectable people terribly…dull?” – Shanghai Lily

Set during a Chinese civil war, the film takes place, largely, on the train of the title, en route for Shanghai but delayed and manipulated by Henry Chang (Warner Oland), a particular player in the country’s unrest. Dietrich is “Shanghai Lily”, an imported courtesan, who runs into an old lover (Clive Brook).  Anna Mae Wong is another mysterious figure on the crowded train, though there is just nowhere enough Anna Mae Wong in the film.

A pre-code gem, Shanghai Express is all intrigue, exotica,  and glamour. All dreamed up on some Hollywood sound stage.

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

The Shanghai Gesture (1941) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 01/19/2016

Ouch, racist stereotypes?  Ouch.

Maybe that’s not the first takeaway one should have from Josef von Sternberg’s final completed Hollywood film, but it’s hard to ignore.  Ona Munson plays “Mother” Gin Sling in Chinese make-up, the film’s pivotal character, a dragon lady femme fatale with fantastic tresses and Clyde Fillmore plays the inscrutable Percival Montgomery Howe, another white actor in stereotypical Chinese dress and make-up.  To an odd somewhat lesser extent we also have Victor Mature as Omar, an indefinite Middle Eastern character.

Interestingly, in contrast, the extras of the film, touted in the opening credits as they so rarely are as “…a large cast of “HOLLYWOOD EXTRAS” who without expecting credit or mention stand ready day and night to do their best — and who at their best are more than good enough to deserve mention” are actual people of color, mostly without speaking roles, but yet significantly represented.  The idea of Shanghai as this global hub of all peoples but as well of all vices gives a worldly but lurid and highly tinged image of many peoples, a galaxy of period stereotypes, and yet, actual representation as well.

Von Sternberg is a fascinating director, one whom I am growing to like better all the time as I see more of his films.  His films exude, even here in 1941 well under the eyes of the Hays Production Code, a keen eye for the darker side of the tracks, more starkly sexualized and oddly explicit even in innuendo and veiled suggestion.  While this is his milieu, it’s not one moralized exactly.  His characters are vivid and sympathetic.

I sought out The Shanghai Gesture as I’ve been working my way through the films I hadn’t seen from the recent BBC list of best American films.  This film seems quite anomalous on that list (though that list is filled with anomalies as much as with shoo-ins).  At first blush, it’s a weird and lurid, at times almost surreal film, with these blatantly racist stereotypes in the foreground.  But its complexity and strangeness are intoxicating, a weird ride down a rabbit hole crafted by an all-too-forgotten auteur.

I’m already wanting to watch it again.

Blonde Venus (1932)

Blonde Venus (1932) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 09/01/2015

My Marlene Dietrich/Josef von Sternberg double feature followed Morocco (1930) with 1932’s Blonde Venus.  Since it was the other film on the disc.

Blonde Venus is another melodrama, waxing and waning throughout in qualities and oddities, but ultimately is lifted by Dietrich herself from something potentially middling to something quite touching.

In this one, she’s the German bride of a research scientist who contracts radiation poisoning and has to travel to Germany to get cured.  The two of them have a small boy and live humbly in New York, so Dietrich gets a job as a cabaret singer to earn enough money for her husband’s cure.  Only she takes up with Cary Grant, a rich bigwig.  When her husband comes back, she and her son go on the lam around the country.

You can see, it’s a pretty convoluted melodrama.

It features a trio of songs by Dietrich, somewhat more seemingly outside of her range ideally, jazzy uptempo numbers with lots of American hep slang.  And one of them is a pretty notorious “jungle-themed” tune, which she starts singing after taking off a gorilla suit.

Somehow the movie manages to transcend the corny and campy aspects and turns out to be really quite good.

Morocco (1930)

Morocco (1930) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 09/01/2015

A couple years back I got really into Pre-Code Hollywood films and binged through several of them.  Since then, they sprinkle along in my viewings.  But I never got around to watching any Marlene Dietrich films, though I’ve had them in my queue for some time.  Since then, I’ve also come to really like the films I’ve seen by director Josef von Sternberg, like Underworld (1927) and The Docks of New York (1928), though those were from the silent era.

von Sternberg and Dietrich made several films together, including her breakthrough German film The Blue Angel (1930).  Morocco was her first American film and features some of her most famous images and moments.

It’s an odd film, at times full of bloated cliche, featuring some stiff-sounding dialogue from some very American-sounding actors, including star Gary Cooper.  And then it has flashes of brilliance.  Dietrich is by far the film’s real star, powering every scene she is in with an aura of cool.

Her key moments, appearing in a man’s tuxedo, is still a fresh and striking image, so much so it’s probably very hard to appreciate how audacious it was in 1930.  If the suggested sexual identity play wasn’t potent enough, she plants a kiss on the lips of a woman in the scene, and a gay and lesbian icon forevermore.  It’s fantastic.  She’s fantastic.  It’s a great moment still.

She’s great in it throughout.  When we first see her, a passenger on a ship, she is approached by a man who is interested in her and she blows him off with a world-weary nonchalance, affirming her independence.  It’s a subtle but significant moment of power.

And of course she sings, echoes of the era just passing.

My favorite image, though, is perhaps at the very end.  The story is about a love affair between Dietrich and Cooper, set in Morocco (of course).  He’s with the Foreign Legion, trooping all around the country, followed often by a team of women and children, the lovers tailing the soldiers.  And Dietrich takes off her shoes and walks forth in the sand, following the troops and her love.  It’s a wonderful image and she’s perfect in it.

The Docks of New York (1928)

The Docks of New York (1928) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 07/15/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

My second favorite film that I saw this last weekend at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was the second Josef von Sternberg film that I’d seen there in recent years.  A couple of years back I’d seen his film Underworld (1927), which I had liked.  Both Underworld and The Docks of New York starred George Bancroft, but the real impact of the film, its heart and character arise from its female lead, Betty Compson.  Like Underworld, the film was introduced by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation, was a much more astounding, moving, and remarkable film.

The film opens in the shadowy depths of a stokehold on a steamship, where the stokers pump in the coal and start planning their night ashore with women and booze.  When Bancroft’s big, brawny stoker rescues Compson from a suicidal drowning, carrying her limp form to a soft warm place above a teeming, seething, lusty waterfront beerhall.  When she rouses, she regrets having been saved, but Bancroft promises her a world of fun, talking her into joining him for a night out.  Bancroft’s character is a brute, barely passable as a gentleman, though he’s certainly refined in contrast to the captain under whom he’s served.  Compson is a stark contrast in a sense to the flapper girl of Clara Bow from Mantrap (1926).  Compson’s character isn’t much older but is a thousand times more played out and experienced.  Beyond world-weary to world-worn.

Filmed entirely on a soundstage, von Sternberg controls the aesthetics of the docks to a dark, dismal place, though a place not without poetry.  The image of Compson we first see, is her reflection in the water before her jump, a nameless,faceless female amid the shadows and darkness.  The tracking shots entering the beerhall are beautiful and elegant, deftly crafting this contained, imagined world into something concrete and recognizable.

As Muller noted before the film, it’s slim on plot.  The couple rush into an impulsive marriage among the booze and boozehounds.  The hopes and realities play out against each other, and the tragedies or near tragedies are the stuff of movie magic.  There is a poignancy to Compson’s lost soul, as there is to the brutish modicum of a soul beneath the hunk of a man of the stoker.  I really enjoyed the film a lot, romantic or anti-romantic as it may be.



Underworld (1927) movie poster

(1927) dir. Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 07/11/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The first of three or four films that I went to see at the Castro this last weekend as part of the Silent Film Festival, Underworld is notable as a prototype “gangster” film, written by Ben Hecht, who would go on to a very notable career in screenwriting, including Scarface (1932) and others far too many to mention.  The film was directed by Josef von Sternberg with great style and flair and features quite a bit of fun.

The film was introduced by Eddie Muller, local noir aficianado, who suggested it as one of the earliest instances of the gangster film and one of the precursors to noir, though certainly not noir specifically.  And those points were easy to see.

It was interesting to see the gangster film as a silent, since in watching several gangster films lately, the language and delivery of the dialogue seemed so key.  The story is more purely prototypical, as are some of the characters: the moll, the smallish but very tidy gangster, the bigger than life antihero.  According to Muller, Hecht felt that von Sternberg ruined the film with some more sappy sequences.  Again, hard to say, but the film wasn’t as “hard” as some of the later, more well-known gangster films that would soon follow.

I enjoyed this film, but oddly, I am not finding a lot to say about it.  So, I’ll leave it at that.