By Tony Williams.
A box set containing the Josef Von Sternberg (1894-1969) and Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) collaboration, even if copyright reasons exclude The Blue Angel (1930), would appear the fulfillment of any film collector’s dreams. This recent release of the Paramount Studio films should have been the most heralded event of the year and, to a certain extent, Criterion has provided the goods. But recent criticism concerning missing footage from Shanghai Express (1932), the exclusion of Von Sternberg scholar Gaylyn Studlar from any scholarly participation in this important event, and the omission of Robin Wood’s pioneering essays on the collaboration between director and star make this a lost opportunity for the Company in terms of achieving a perfect box set. As Christopher Sharrett has recently pointed out, there is very little explicit reference to the subversiveness the pair represented to American ideology and puritanism, something that Robin Wood recognized in his classic essays on this collaboration, though to be fair several female scholars do occasionally note these aspects in their interviews. Both director and star were the sexually provocative version of Batman and Robin’s later harmless “dynamic duo” of early thirties cinema presenting high-octane visual and independent gender assaults on Hollywood values paralleling the role of Ernst Lubitsch. But while Lubitsch survived to continue making his films, the pair underwent the usual creative divorce affecting so many in the Arts that may have been inevitable in terms of the seven films they made together. Reservations aside for the moment, this Collection has been long overdue and hopefully the Company will reissue the collection in a more complete form and perhaps even offer purchasers of this set a complete version of Shanghai Express similar to many DVD companies who supply their customers with upgraded copies free of charge. We can only hope!
In view of the assault on Arts and Humanities in American Universities generally and the non-corporate controlled world of Cinema Studies specifically, it is all the more important for self-education outside institutions to begin again in terms of recognizing important achievements of the past that offer the possibility of better creative directions in the future. Thus supplementary material on DVDs, such as audio-commentaries, is now crucial in an age of manufactured ignorance and politically motivated anti-intellectualism designed to prevent the realization of any alternatives, whether political or artistic. Criterion does continue its past practice of providing supplementary features that have the potential of stimulating viewers to follow up on what they have seen by finding specialist books and articles on the subject to broaden their horizons. Thus, it is sad to find that no audio-commentaries accompany each film. Even a few commentaries would have been welcome. One or two by Gaylyn Studlar, author of the pioneering In the Realm of Pleasure: Von Sternberg, Dietrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic (New York: Columbia University, 1993), that not only offers a new way of looking at these films but also takes on the dogmatic, dreadful influence of “Mulveyitis” (for which the author is not responsible) that still exists in several ignorant and unenlightened academic departments even today – despite an issue of Camera Obscura undermining its premises – could have been so welcome. (1)
Like Lubitsch, many of the films of this crucial collaboration remain unknown to the general viewer, so it is welcome to see them again, especially Morocco (1930) which I last saw in the UK York Arts Center in 1980. Containing a dream-like visual style photographed by Lee Garmes (1898-1978) who lensed many of these films, as well as a seemingly deceptive lethargic acoustic delivery that represents a different type of transitional world from silent to sound, Morocco is distinguished by the artistic performances of its leading players, Dietrich, Gary Cooper (1901-1961), and Adolphe Menjou (1890-1963) whose archetypal suave aging playboy persona soon falls under the masochistic nonchalant seduction of Dietrich’s Amy Jolly whom we first see on a steamer with a one-way ticket to further degradation and possible suicide. It is a unique film on many levels not just in terms of its seductive sexuality and gender re-workings but also in representing that briefly glimpsed but ultimately lost horizon that Hollywood once accessed before reaction set in. Like Cooper’s Legionnaire Tom Brown, whose liaison with Amy will ultimate lead him to an exotic “realm of pleasure” and knowledge far different from Rugby’s educational establishment represented in the 1857 novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the viewer experiences an exotic world removed from the conformist straitjacket of Western civilization, one that represents dangerous alternatives by its very fascination and possible enticement that is contrary to the normal realms of gender and sexual behavior. If not “Buyer Beware!” it is “Audience Beware!” – an attitude very much in the minds of those other Founding Fathers of the Hays Code. If Cooper’s Tom is the American Wandering Hero finding the Foreign Legion the equivalent to that lost Western Frontier, then Amy is his fellow exile belonging to the “legion of women wearing no uniform, medals, and flags,” a displaced woman from the post-World War I era, possibly a White Russian who now embraces the values of the Weimar Republic. By the looks each exchange, it is not the “male gaze” that predominates but Amy’s female empowerment. Amy and Tom are soul mates within an alternative set of values.
The accompanying featurette “Weimar on the Pacific” features film scholars Gerd Gemunden and Noah Isenberg discussing the formative influences on director and star, the nature of their collaboration, and the subversive gender performative persona of the bi-sexual Dietrich who continued a specific star masquerade until she eventually retreated into retirement. Californian scholar Janet Bergstrom contributes an expert presentation on Dietrich’s significance while Deutsche Kinemathek curator Silke Ronneburg furnishes information on the less glamorous real-life Amy Jolly.
However, the 1936 Lux Radio adaptation The Legionnaire and the Lady featuring Dietrich and Clark Gable in the Cooper role, produced and introduced by the always pompous stentorian tones of one of Spielberg’s influences Cecil B. DeMille, ironically acts not only as a telling difference between the pre- and post-Code eras but also reveals indirectly the radical nature of the earlier film. Gable articulates his tough guy mannerisms unlike Cooper’s more sexually ambiguous depiction in the film. The actor playing Menjou’s role not only speaks too often but also exhibits that decent English “gent” stereotype that Ian Hunter (1900-1975) used to excel in during his pre-WW2 Hollywood days. Brown’s fellow soldier is now a Hollywood Cockney whom one expects to deliver the usual stereotyped phrase “Ta, Guv. Ye’re a real toff.” Tom does not dally with his C.O’s wife (absent from this sanitized audio production) but recognizes him as a murderer on the run from Berlin. Unlike the film, Amy catches up with Tom after joining the camp follower “rear guard” group of women exchanging words of love in a Hollywood happy ending. This radio show reveals why Morocco could never have been made in 1936!
Like Morocco, Dishonored (1931) is a film of subversive “amour fou” whose opening captions recognize sexual inequality. Dietrich’s X-27 could have gone down in history as the greatest spy in history were she not a woman. As a war widow turned to streetwalking, she is recruited into the Austrian secret service to play a seductive “great game” far removed from the world of John Buchan. Engaging in a different game of matching wits and sexual chess-playing, Dietrich remains to the end her own person facing eventual doom before the firing squad scorning with a haughty expression the anguished gentlemanly protest of young officer Barry Norton (1905-1956) concerning the event’s affront to patriotism as she apples her lipstick to the consternation of all present. A great film with Dietrich wearing a leather jacket in some sequences anticipating those Avengers heroines Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg but boldly exploring sexual “final frontiers” into which these two later stars never ventured to go.
The featurettes on this second disc begin with a 2018 documentary featuring feminist film scholars Mary Desjardins, Patricia White, and Amy Lawrence. Desjardins rebuts the myth that Dietrich was “putty” in von Sternberg’s hands, something the star also promoted in honor of her mentor to express the role of agency in performance especially a fluid, aggressive sexuality that could not be constrained by heteronormality. This also appears in Dietrich’s Blue Angel screen test on the “Weimar in Hollywood” documentary though conveyed in a more raw and unrestrained manner. The scholars’ comments act as suggestive supplements to viewers wishing to examine the films again. However, one dubious assertion occurs when a critic claims that Tay Garnett’s 1937 Stand In represents a satire on the excessive talents of Dietrich and Von Sternberg in terms of how they were regarded in Hollywood at the time. When the actual film is seen, it becomes obvious that the female star represents any egotistic American actress and the director’s behavior more reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s stereotypical persona than anything else. Also the film makes clear that the fault lies more with the drunken producer played by Humphrey Bogart than either director or star for making a bad film, the extracts from which bear no resemblance to the Dietrich/Von Sternberg films. It is also doubtful whether Dietrich had any control of the editing of the von Sternberg films similar to the power exercised by the star in this film; all female Hollywood stars wanted their close-ups in studio films, not just this fictional travesty in Stand In. The arguments made for this film’s relationship to both Dietrich and von Sternberg are highly dubious and more evidence is needed for any convincing case. As it stands, the argument resembles Pauline Kael’s in terms of the supposed relationship Mad Love (1935) had to Citizen Kane (1941). (See the actual film here.)
Perhaps the worst feature in the collection is the new video essay by critics Cristina Alvarez Lopez and Adrian Martin, “Bodies and Spaces: Fabric and Light” that comprises a random selection of images from the films interspersed with comments by Claude Ollier and Gilles Deleuze that often resemble Private Eye’s column Pseud’s Corner.” While quotes from von Sternberg’s Fun in a Chinese Laundry (1965) match certain sequences, the problem involves their isolation from each film’s surrounding context making it difficult to understand in this esoteric theoretical vacuum. Another problem with this video essay is that it unconsciously tends to support John Grierson’s famous dismissal of von Sternberg – “When a director dies, he becomes a photographer.” This DVD concludes with a 14-minute interview with von Sternberg’s cinematographer son Nicholas titled “Painting by Light” who champions his late father’s visual artistry.
The accompanying feature to Shanghai Express is a new 24-minute interview with film scholar Homay King, author of Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier (Duke University Press, 2010) notable for its concise delivery and comprehensive knowledge not only of the complex issue of Oriental representation and the star status of Anna May Wong (1905-1961) but also the film itself. King recognizes the real nature of von Sternberg’s film as an anti-realist, anti-illusionist exhibition of baroque artifice as well as its cluttered quasi-expressionist mise-en-scene and its theatrical use of frame division. Far from being grounded in deep historical awareness, the film is really an Orientalist fantasy. King shows an acute awareness of the significant visual style as well as the contributions of scenarist Jules Furthman (1888-1966) and cinematographer Lee Garmes (1898-1978) but cautions that going to see Shanghai Express for the script is as relevant as going to see any contemporary action film for the story. This film scholar and theoretician actually recognizes the importance of visual style. She also notes that James Wong Howe (1899-1976) was sent to China to photograph scenes that ended up as process shots of back projection images outside the studio railway carriage. Why is Swedish-born Warner Oland’s Eurasian rebel leader not with Mao and his Gang of Plus-4? King ascribes this to the film’s disdain for realism as well as the ideological Orientalism of the era. Fully versed in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) King does not brusquely dismiss the film’s politically incorrect aspects but suggests we examine them in the light of past times. She also notes that in contrast to Hollywood’s use of Asian performers today, Shanghai Express actually has more Chinese in its cast than contemporary Hollywood films and apart from Oland does not exclusively resort to “yellow face” actors and extras.
King also provides relevant information on the status of Anna May Wong who in several ways acts as a double to Dietrich not only in characterization but also in emigrating temporarily to London, Paris and Berlin where she appeared in several films dissatisfied with the roles Hollywood offered her. Like Dietrich in Hollywood, she re-invented herself and on her return exhibited a toughness in her persona that paralleled Dietrich’s. In the film, she actually kills the villain and gets away with it, a possibility in the diminishing months of the pre-Code Hollywood. However, both actresses would not make a similar transition to the very different ideological world of the post WW2 era. They also became queer icons for gay audiences.
Shanghai Express depicts hybridity and its representation of China cannot be limited to the rigid parameters of national identity. Although she describes von Sternberg as a “premature postmodernist” with Nietzshean tendencies to eliminate differences, we must also remember that such was also true of modernism as Raymond Williams once recognized in his opening chapter titled “When was Modernism” in his 1990 posthumously published work The Politics of Modernism and Other Essays: Against the New Conformists. (2) The secondary logo suggests that he had postmodernists in mind. However, to the shame of Criterion and other scholars on this box set, King is the only person who mentions the important role of Gaylyn Studlar and her work on these films.
Features accompanying Blonde Venus include a new 2018 14-minute interview with Deutsche Kinemathek, curator Silke Ronneburg about the Museums’ Dietrich collection obtained from an auction only after the successful bidder would not agree to Dietrich’s daughter’s wish that the entire collection be kept together. Dietrich apparently collected everything and Ronneburg describes what the collection comprises mentioning that the Hollywood period and beyond is more complete than material from the pre-Blue Angel days. Dietrich had other collaborators in addition to director and cinematographers, especially the resident Paramount costume designer Waco-born Travis Banton (1894-1958). Costume designer and historian Deborah Nadoolman Landis delivers an informative 14-minute interview concerning the importance of this key talent in costume design. However, she concludes by noting that clothes do not make the star but the importance of a certain charisma. The featurettes end with a 10-minute 1935 Paramount short “The Fashion Side of Hollywood” in which Banton discusses his work with a fashion editor, It contains clips featuring not only Dietrich in the von Sternberg films but also Claudette Colbert (1903-1996) and Carole Lombard (1908-1942).
The Special Feature on The Scarlet Empress DVD is a Swedish television 28-minute interview with Dietrich following her 1971 Copenhagen concert. Although it is supposedly the first television interview she did, the star is obviously bored with the procedure and the two gentlemanly Swedish interviewers do little to penetrate the professional mask and her dubious answers. Conducted in English, Dietrich mentions her discovery by Von Sternberg when appearing in a minor role on theatre alongside Hans Albers (who also plays in The Blue Angel). Apparently, it was a minor role and Dietrich emphasizes that she was just a “student” and not a well-known actress before her discovery by von Sternberg. However, she had appeared in films since 1923, achieved second billing in Café Electric (1927) and I Kiss Your Hand, Madame (1928), top billing in Three Loves (1929) above Fritz Korner with whom she co-stars in Ship of Lost Men (1929) directed by Maurice Tourneur, achieved star billing in Daughters of the Engagement (1930) before appearing in The Blue Angel where Emil Jannings received top billing. Although Dietrich mentions that it was a Jannings film later in the interview, it is quite evident that she was already an experienced screen performer well before her association with von Sternberg. She also appeared alongside many well-known figures in international silent cinema such as Emil Jannings before their Blue Angel collaboration, Fritz Kortner, Walter Rilla, Harry Liedtke, Robin Irvine from Hitchcock’s Downhill (1927) and Easy Virtue (1928), Vladimir Sokoloff, Gaston Modot, and Fedor Chaliapin Jr. The two interviewers may be forgiven their lack of history but not researchers at Criterion who should have spotted this immediately!
Although an interview with Dietrich is not to be sniffed at, the process reminds me of one of Robin Wood’s written comments that were he ever to interview Ethan Hawke, the experience would probably not compare to his film appearances. The same is true of this interview. Interesting though it may be, it is redundant. A well-researched cinematic analysis of the implications of the Dietrich/von Sternberg Paramount films and the significance of her previous film and stage appearances would have been much better. Dietrich is also vague about her career denying that she ever traveled to England in the 1930s. However, one of her most well-known films shown on UK TV in the 50s and 60s was Knight without Armour (1937) shot in Denham Studios, produced by Alexander Korda, directed by Jacques Feyder, co-starring Robert Donat with a host of British players such as John Clements, Hay Petrie, Austin Trevor, and Miles Malleson as a drunken Soviet Commissar! Peculiarly, Dietrich mentions that she found “no new atmosphere in Hollywood” in the post-war era seemingly oblivious to HUAC’s malign effect on the American film industry. Next to von Sternberg, she acclaims the work of Orson Welles. Among the actors she admires are Paul Scofield and Gerard Philippe. Fascinating though this interview may, be it is redundant in comparison to the challenges and experiences films in this collection offer the viewer. The interview is disposable, if a new version of this collection ever appears.
The special feature accompanying The Devil is a Woman (1935) that Dietrich mentions in the above interview as the favorite of her collaborations with von Sternberg is a 78rpm recording of a song from a scene that the Breen Office ordered removed from the film. Although the scene no longer survives, the recording does. “If it isn’t Pain” is a reference to a European mature depiction of a love relationship, one no longer permissible in the censorship dominated Hollywood that would now prohibit any further types of films represented by the challenging gender and visual depictions in the collaboration between two unique talents.
Accompanying this collection is a booklet containing three essays: “Mistress of Ceremonies” by Imogen Sara Smith, “The Devil is in the Details” by Garry Giddens, and “Where Credit is Due” by Farran Smith Nehme. They are merely average and better articles could have been selected. One notes the absence of reprints of Robin Wood’s important articles on Dietrich and possible contributions by Gaylyn Studlar who wrote pioneering studies on the films in this box collection. Ignoring these critics’ prestigious contributions makes this DVD collection sadly lacking in what it really could have been. (3)
This collection is in drastic need of reorganization and it is to be hoped that Criterion will rise to the challenge in view of disappointment expressed by critics such as Christopher Sharrett, Brad Stevens, and David Hare. (4) On its next reissue, the pioneering work of Gaylyn Studlar should receive appropriate recognition with, perhaps, an invitation to her to provide audio-commentaries to all, or at least some, of the films? A better critically accompanied box collection is needed. At the moment, this edition echoes the hit song of the late Billy Fury’s (1940-1983) UK Top Ten Hit – “Halfway to Paradise.”
- Another monograph that has been ignored since its first appearance in 1991 is D.N. Rodowick’s The Difficulty of Difference: Psychoanalysis, Sexual Difference, and Film Theory. Routledge Library Editions: Cinema. New Jersey: Routledge, 2014. Like Andrew Britton’s critique on postmodernism, it has been scandalously ignored by the academic establishment. The Camera Obscura issue containing individual responses to what is known as “Mulvey’s Law” by 57 feminist scholars (and one male) is in Camera Obscura 20-21 (1990): pp.82-335.
- See Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists. London: Verso, 1989, pp. 31-36.
- I usually leave issues of visual quality to sites such as (Leave it to) DVD Beaver but Anthony Slide kindly gave permission for me to quote for his August 11th email. He mentions that Universal made cheap copies of the Paramount nitrate originals then destroyed them Thus it is impossible to see the original versions in the way they once appeared. The only exception was The Scarlet Empress. Bob Gitt had access to an original nitrate version that enabled him to preserve the film in a way far superior to those other supposedly “preserved” versions. Digital restoration could ensure an even better copy but further nitrate deterioration may prevent this. Slide also mentioned that current low payments for audio-commentaries would not make them an “expensive proposition.”
- https://filmalert101.blogspot.com/2018/07/on-blu-ray-david-hare-is-er.html I wish to express my gratitude to Brad Stevens for retrieving this link for me which includes the 40-second footage that is extremely important. To quote Hare’s final remark, we have every reason to be “pissed off.”
Tony Williams is Professor and Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a Contributing Editor to Film International.