Criterion Sunday 531: The Docks of New York (1928)

Sternberg’s last surviving silent film reaches a feverish peak that he would sustain over his next run of sound films starring Marlene Dietrich. It conjures the atmosphere of the titular location, beautifully using light and shadow, smoke and fog, and gliding camerawork. The actors are pretty great too, with George Bancroft giving his ship’s stoker character, Bill, a burly menace softened by his evident warmth of feeling towards Betty Compson’s suicidal prostitute Mae. There’s a generosity towards both characters, a lack of moral judgement, and the drama is in whether Bill will overcome his compulsion to fulfil the manly archetype he seems to hold of the sweaty stoker committed to his backbreaking labour, and whether Mae is willing to accept the possibility of a better life for herself. It’s all fairly compact and stays focused on the poetic evocation of this setting, doing a beautiful job of capturing what ultimately is a romance — and a hopeful one at that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writer Jules Furthman (from the story “The Dock Walloper” by John Monk Saunders); Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring George Bancroft, Betty Compson; Length 75 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 7 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, July 2000).

Criterion Sunday 530: The Last Command (1928)

Emil Jannings won the very first Best Actor Academy Award for this performance (though actually, in this first Oscars ceremony, actors could be nominated for multiple roles, so technically it was not just for this film). Looking back in retrospect, it can be difficult to judge whether such awards were justified. After all, as is typical of the silent era, there’s a lot of gestural and facial work that seems to modern film viewers rather broad and a little lacking in subtlety. But if you get through those (which come partly from the wordless form, and are partly typical of just the style of acting prevalent at the time), you can see at the core there is indeed something rather fascinatingly complex about Jannings’ work here.

Himself a lauded German actor (as in Murnau films like The Last Laugh), Jannings here plays a grand Russian military figure, perhaps the most senior after the Tsar, fighting desperately against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Finding sympathy here is no natural task — the Tsarist forces aren’t exactly on the side of the people, and as far as I understand from history, America was hardly as virulently anti-revolutionary and anti-Communist back then as it later became — but Jannings and director Sternberg achieve something similar to what Renoir was doing in France: evoking empathy for those relics of history like Jannings’ military man. Along the way he pulls out all kinds of camerawork that has a vibrancy and lightness to it, with movement and momentum matching those of the characters, which would take a while for cinema to regain in the sound era. It’s a film that looks forward to some of Sternberg’s masterpieces of the sound era with Marlene Dietrich, a blend of European and brash American sensibility that’s quite enticing. Plus there’s a young William Powell as a revolutionary turned film director in the framing story.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writers John F. Goodrich and Herman J. Mankiewicz (from a story by Lajos Biró); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 28 February 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 529: Underworld (1927)

Josef von Sternberg’s silent crime movie is generally considered to be the one that laid in place a lot of the tropes that would persist (and continue to do so) in gangster films over the years. We have the gregarious mobster “Bull Weed” (George Bancroft) who shows pity on the alcoholic “Rolls Royce” (Clive Brook), helping him to clean up and work again as a lawyer, in which role he’s able to help Bull while also getting close to Bull’s girl “Feathers” (Evelyn Brent), a classic three-way love story that motivates the divided loyalties of the film’s climactic shoot-out with police (because there’s always got to be a shoot-out). Despite being pre-Code, there are still strong moral lessons that bad guys need to learn, but the film keeps what now comes across as pretty hackneyed content relatively fresh. The camera doesn’t move too much, but somehow the film gives the impression of a whirl of action and movement, with pools of murky darkness befitting the setting. In short, it still holds up.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writers Ben Hecht, Charles Furthman and Robert N. Lee; Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Clive Brook, Evelyn Brent, George Bancroft; Length 81 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 21 February 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 370: The Emperor Jones (1933) and Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979)

The first film on the first disc of Criterion’s Paul Robeson box set is reserved for The Emperor Jones (1933), not Robeson’s earliest work featured on the collection but probably the most famous of his film roles. The acclaim is certainly warranted when it comes to his acting, though to be fair he is given not just a big role (being the title character, Brutus Jones) but a very big character too (shot as if towering above everyone else on the set). Having gained the rare distinction of a job among the white world as a Pullman porter, Jones womanises and gambles his way to serious trouble, and upon escaping finds himself on an island (Haiti, allegorically), where he proclaims himself Emperor. Eugene O’Neill’s source play is what we would nowadays call ‘problematic’ I suspect and certainly leans heavily on a certain depiction of Black people (soulful, primitive, a little bit magical) in a script laden with racial epithets. Still, there’s stuff there that in the context of the early-1930s feels bold, like having him lord it over a white capitalist, even if things don’t end up going his way, and there’s even a showcase for Robeson’s fine singing voice.

The most remarkable thing about the accompanying documentary about Robeson’s life and work, Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979), is that it’s so short. It could be a thirty part mini-series but instead it’s a jaunty 30 minutes, narrated by Sidney Poitier, and touching ever so briefly on so much of his work that there’s no real room for his legacy. We do, however, get a careful delineation of the shifting lyrics to his iconic song “Ol’ Man River” as he sang it repeatedly over the years, as well as his involvement in political struggles not just in the USA but across Europe and the world (though very little engagement with the nature of those political beliefs, aside from the fact that they were enough to warrant him being denied his passport for 10 years). There is certainly room for a longer more detailed work about the man, but this will have to suffice along with his many films.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Sunday 8 November 2020.

The Emperor Jones (1933)
Director Dudley Murphy; Writer DuBose Heyward (based on the play by Eugene O’Neill); Cinematographer Ernest Haller; Starring Paul Robeson, Dudley Digges, Fredi Washington; Length 76 minutes.

Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979)
Director/Writer Saul J. Turell; Length 30 minutes.

Criterion Sunday 170: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

On second viewing, this still impresses as Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece. It’s not just in the characters — whose love affairs are delightful, particularly that between gentleman thief Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and elegant pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins), handled with the ‘touch’ Lubitsch was known for, a sort of playful understanding of sex before that was a subject you were ‘allowed’ to address directly in cinema — nor the fabulous actors (oh, Kay Francis!) but in the subtler artistry. The camerawork for example, just little pans across to catch a detail (especially in that almost avant-garde sequence of clock faces dissolving into yet more clocks). Or the way a fade to black can suggest so much. It’s the way that every actor gets little tics that make them into real people, or that a famous city like Venice can be introduced by a garbage gondola in the night, undercutting with great economy the usual conventions. There are so many fine choices, articulated as part of a whole that moves towards a romantic comic resolution, and all of it in well under 90 minutes.

Criterion Extras: There’s a 45-minute long film from early in Lubitsch’s career included as an extra, Das fidele Gefängnis (The Merry Jail) (1917). Lubitsch likes the genteel contours of the sex comedy, though his famous ‘touch’ wasn’t perhaps so refined in 1917 as it would be a mere fifteen years later. Indeed, this is primarily a stagy (three act) farce, in which a frivolous dissolute womanising husband has one put over him by his wife, using the time-honoured (even 100 years ago) device of putting on a mask to fool him. There’s a side-plot about the wife’s maid and… I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with the jail, such is the economy/speed with which this 45 minute film just speeds by, but suffice to say there’s a lot of kissing — whether cheating men with other women, or jailed men with their drunken captors. Isn’t life a merry jail?


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ernst Lubitsch; Writer Samson Raphaelson (based on the play A Becsületes Megtaláló by Aladár László); Cinematographer Victor Milner; Starring Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis, Edward Everett Horton, Charles Ruggles; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Friday 23 May 2014 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 13 August 2017).

Criterion Sunday 109: The Scarlet Empress (1934)

After some genre-defining silent films (which we’ll get to much later on in the Criterion Collection), Austro-Hungarian émigré director Josef von Sternberg did a run of films with Marlene Dietrich — the first in Germany (The Blue Angel, 1930) but the rest in the United States. In some ways these defined something else in cinema, every bit as important as a narrative structure, which is a sense of the fetishisation of the actor as icon. Obviously there had been stars before Dietrich, but the quality that Sternberg gets across in his run of films with her is something else, something more profound, something almost magical. His penultimate film with her was The Scarlet Empress, and alongside the shimmering beauty of Dietrich — the burnished close-ups, the flamboyant dress — this must rank as some kind of masterpiece of set design. Every image is crammed with baroque detail, every shot framed by grotesque sculptures presiding creepily over the action. This latter largely revolves around Dietrich on her road to becoming the Empress Catherine II, “Catherine the Great”, married into Russian nobility (the mad Peter, played with wide-eyed intensity by Sam Jaffe) and learning the ways of the court and methods of extending her power. The camerawork and lighting is bravura, but it’s those stylish set touches that only heighten the film’s giddy campness and emphasise how much Sternberg has given to the cinema in the 20th century. Stars would never again shine quite as brightly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writer Manuel Komroff (based on a diary by Catherine II Екатери́на Алексе́евна); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Louise Dresser, Sam Jaffe; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 31 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 2001).

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

Hollywood films of the early-1930s, before the instigation of the Production Code, quite often have a loose and freewheeling quality that still delights so many decades on. Plenty of that is in evidence here, with the sparky Sylvia Sidney playing heiress Joan, who begins dating alcoholic reporter Jerry (Fredric March) after meeting him at a high society party. Indeed, the title of the film comes from his signature toast. In terms of the pre-Code elements, the frank portrayal of alcoholism and adultery — as Joan and Jerry start to feud and break apart — is forthright and unapologetic, and there’s a lot to enjoy in the spirited performances. It’s a pity, then, that the denouement glosses over the preceding events with a moralistic hue, but for the most part director Dorothy Arzner keeps things moving along nicely, and it even briefly features a young Cary Grant as one of Joan’s paramours.

Merrily We Go to Hell film posterCREDITS
Director Dorothy Arzner; Writer Edwin Justus Mayer (based on the novel by Cleo Lucas); Cinematographer David Abel; Starring Sylvia Sidney, Fredric March; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Sunday 31 January 2016.

Gabriel Over the White House (1933)

A lot of the more prominent films that Hollywood made at the outset of the sound era, before the enforcement of the Production Code, dealt with such outré topics as sexuality and violence. These are the ones that still grab the column inches, whether it’s the amoral bloodshed of Scarface (1932) or the sexual liberation of Baby Face (1933). However, Gabriel Over the White House manages to be an equally outrageous film without any of these more saleable elements, but instead uses the allure of autocracy to transform its vision of America. In his Roosevelt-like reforming zeal, the President played here by Walter Huston looks brazenly towards dictatorship to push through the necessary reforms following years of Depression. It’s the kind of plot outline that reads like satire, but presented here as divine inspiration (hence the title), the film seems totally onboard with the proposed ideas, as the President bypasses Congress to push through his bold measures. That said, it’s a patchy piece of filmmaking and modern audiences will struggle to take it as seriously as the filmmakers, but then we have the benefit of hindsight.

Gabriel Over the White House film posterCREDITS
Director Gregory La Cava; Writer Carey Wilson (based on the novel Rinehard by Thomas Frederic Tweed); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Walter Huston, Karen Morley, Franchot Tone; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Friday 23 May 2014.

Jewel Robbery (1932)

1932 saw two witty, urbane films featuring jewel thieves and the acting talents of Kay Francis, and this concise Warner Bros. film is not the one that has gone down in history, not least because Trouble in Paradise is one of cinema’s great achievements, directed by Ernst Lubitsch whose style Jewel Robbery is brazenly trying to command. That said, it’s certainly not without its own pleasures. For a start, there’s Kay Francis, of whose work I had hitherto been unaware, but who strikes me as a great talent (not to mention a great beauty). As Baroness Teri, her snappy repartee with William Powell’s unnamed jewel thief anchors the film. She also has a forthrightness to her manner that would make for a fine animated GIF set if I were inclined to that sort of thing and this were Tumblr. There are other actors, sure, but in truth it’s hard to remember any but the pair of them, the robber and his prey, first in the shop, then at her home, their relationship developing just as his seemingly effortless heist appears to be unravelling. It’s like an elaborate dance that the two of them undertake, such that the jewel heist plot seems an unwanted detail imposed for merely metaphorical purposes, and this is precisely how the two characters seem to treat it. It’s a film about falling in love, whether Baroness Teri with her robber, or — for me at least — the audience with Kay Francis.

Jewel Robbery film posterCREDITS
Director William Dieterle; Writer Erwin S. Gelsey (based on the play Ekszerrablás a Váci-uccában by Ladislas Fodor); Cinematographer Robert Kurrle; Starring Kay Francis, William Powell; Length 68 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Friday 23 May 2014.

Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Like Baby Face of the following year, this is a story of a woman using sex to advance in the world, though I’m given to understand from what I’ve read that the MGM house style (as opposed to Warner Brothers’) preferred to downplay the role of social class. Here, then, we have Jean Harlow as a young secretary looking to do better, who latches onto her wealthy boss Bill (Chester Morris), splitting him from his wife before setting her sights on the even richer tycoon Charles (Henry Stephenson). What’s particularly delightful here is that Harlow keeps the viewer on her side, and the screenplay by Anita Loos allows itself to set aside her questionable morals as she pursues her goals of wealth and happiness, never really punishing her as we might expect. That’s perhaps because Jean Harlow makes for such a transfixing presence in the title character of Lil, whose capricious whims are leavened by a streak of aggressively optimistic single-mindedness in her flirting, exemplified by her pinning a photo of her boss to her stockings when seducing him near the film’s outset. By the time she arrives in Paris near the end, she maintains her lavish lifestyle in pursuit of wealthy marks while retaining the services of her chauffeur boyfriend, Albert (Charles Boyer). Certainly not a boring film, then.

Red-Headed Woman film posterCREDITS
Director Jack Conway; Writer Anita Loos (based on the novel by Katherine Brush); Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring Jean Harlow, Chester Morris, Henry Stephenson, Charles Boyer; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 15 May 2014.