Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Light, Shadow and Synergy ~ von Sternberg and Dietrich, Part II

1931 began spectacularly for director Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich. Their first two films together, Morocco and the English language version of The Blue Angel, had both just opened in the U.S., creating a sensation...and big box office.

The 36-year-old von Sternberg, who during the silent era had been called "the young Austrian with a streak of genius," came into his own. Dietrich, at 29, finally achieved the fame that had eluded her during long years of lukewarm success in German films and cabarets. The two rushed into their next Paramount collaboration only weeks after Morocco wrapped.

Dishonored (1931) is a variation on the story of Mata Hari, a courtesan/spy of the World War I era. The film demonstrated von Sternberg's many talents; he directed and edited, wrote the story and composed original music for the film. More obvious to audiences gazing up from their theater seats, it showcased Dietrich's dazzling starpower.

As her screen persona assumed more irony and nuance, Dietrich the actress continued to evolve. Incredibly, she also seemed to grow ever more beautiful. The "painterly" von Sternberg, master of mise en scene, offers two particularly fine renderings in Dishonored: a Viennese streamer-and-balloon festooned masked ball and the film's final moments when Dietrich makes her way from a prison cell to a firing squad (see sidebar at right to watch).

By the time their fourth film was in production, Dietrich was becoming what Paramount had hoped for and MGM had feared, a formidable alternative to Garbo. Shanghai Express (1932), would become the most successful of the seven von Sternberg/Dietrich films.

Shanghai Express has been called "a vertible Grand Hotel on rails," the story of a group of passengers traveling through dangerous, war-torn China. Within this tale, the film is a fatalistic meditation on love, illusion and betrayal, and is one of von Sternberg's finest. The director overlooks no detail in the expression of his cinematic vision, with every shadow, texture, gesture and sound meshing precisely. The focal point of this deeply atmospheric excursion is, of course, veils, feathers, ruffles, silk, chiffon and fur...mocking, sensual and other-worldly at the same time.

Shanghai Express, on the set

Thirty years later the director looked back and reflected that he didn't visit China until after he had made Shanghai Express. He mused, "The actual Shanghai Express, which I...took out of Peking, was thoroughly unlike the train I had invented, except that it, too, carried a protecting complement of armed military. I was more than pleased that I had delineated a China before being confronted with its vast and variegated reality. There is quite a difference between fact and fancy." He added, "I became more and more partial to fancy as I proceeded to make a fifth film with my fair lady..."

That film was Blonde Venus (1932). Though it has been called "a picaresque potboiler," it is, like all the films of the auteur and the legend, visually intoxicating. Among its charms are Dietrich in a fantastical and iconic musical number, "Hot Voodoo," and a young Cary Grant in one of his early major roles (months before She Done Him Wrong was released). Grant was well-matched with Dietrich, closer to Gary Cooper in Morocco than Victor McLaglen (Dishonored) or Clive Brook (Shanghai Express).

By 1932 the Great Depression had deepened, Paramount was in bankruptcy and von Sternberg's champion, studio head B.P. Schulberg, was no longer in power. The director, with his and Dietrich's studio contracts ending, announced that he would retire - to paint and read and build a house designed by architect Richard Neutra. But...he was also meeting privately with Jesse Lasky, who had moved from Paramount to Fox, and Charles Chaplin of United Artists.

For her part, Dietrich stated that she would never make pictures in the U.S. with anyone but Jo. If he retired she intended to return to Europe and the stage, she said, but she scoffed at charges that von Sternberg was her Svengali..."People have said he casts a spell over me. That is ridiculous...Can you think of anyone casting a spell over me?"

Part III to follow...scroll down for Part I...


  1. Eve, this is reading like a serialized novel that magazines used to publish. I am really looking forward to #3. Really interesting story about these two talented people and their journey. I haven't see any of her movies for a long time, and now want to get them as soon as possible.
    Please do more 3-parters like this (wink).

  2. i will definitely revisit SHANGHAI EXPRESS..again..a nice foray into the D & S collaboration.. i really liked the observations on her "leading men"..COOPER looked out of place..GRANT looked right at home!!!

  3. I hadn't expected this to be a multi-part blog, but to do the subject any justice at is...I think Cary Grant looked very much at home with Dietrich...Cooper seemed less comfortable - I thought he was awkward but appealing. Cooper hated working with von Sternberg but Grant and the director became friends...there's an anecdote about him in von Sternberg's autobiography - he refers to Grant as "a charming companion who, in a moment of confidence, after we had stopped in Rouen for goose and Beaujolais, leaned toward me to say, 'You know, it took me five years to understand what you said to me when I worked in your film.'"

  4. Good stuff Eve. I can remember my first film teacher telling us after we watched Morocco that we should see Blonde Venus. He said it was terrible, but that you couldn't miss the Hot Voodoo number.

    Look forward to more.

  5. I find, as with the different versions of Anna Christie, that I much prefer The Blue Angel in the original German language version. I haven’t seen Dishonored, and though you are right that she was probably mismatched with Victor McLaglen, the video reveals a far more interesting film than Mata Hari with Garbo and Ramon Navarro. I have seen Shanghai Express and though it is not my favorite Von Sternberg and Dietrich project, I much prefer the film to Knight without Armour in which she appeared with Robert Donat.