A much weirder movie than I’d expected. Emil Jannings seems drawn to humiliating roles. In The Last Laugh he was fired from his respectable job, laughed at by his neighbors. In The Last Command he has a shocking fall from military/government power, ends up a deflated Hollywood extra. But he’s never fallen further than he does here, from an esteemed professor to a cuckooing cuckold clown, crowing for a crowd.

Little pleasures of early sound films: I love that doors and windows are completely soundproof in this movie – closing one interrupts noise from the adjoining room suddenly and completely. On the other hand, the extreme strictness of employers in Hollywood movies has always bothered me. “I’m sorry friend, but you’ve left me no choice. I must request your resignation,” the principal tells Emil, because the kids made noise and drew on the board, and Emil had a flower in his lapel. And it’s the start of the Depression, so losing your job is a big thing.

Emil discovering Marlene:

Anyway, Emil tries to catch his giggling slacker kids at the local nightclub, as if it’s any of his damn business where they go after class. There he sees dancer Lola (Marlene Dietrich in her star-making role) and falls for her. Emil tries to whisk her away from this sordid life, but instead gets pulled into it himself. A few years later the touring troupe returns to the town where he once lived, and the townspeople flock to see the sad professor, after which he crawls back to his old classroom and apparently dies of shame.

I watched the English version – I think the German is more well-known. Remade a bunch of times, including once by the director of Porno Holocaust.

Sternberg turns in a more assured sound film here than Thunderbolt, though it was supposedly Germany’s first talkie. Acquarello: “Sternberg’s use of stark, hyperbolic imagery to symbolize moral degradation is derived from the German expressionist cinema. The Blue Angel was filmed during the Weimar Republic when the German government, caught in a stranglehold over war reparations, was on the verge of collapse. The film echoes the cynicism and hopelessness of the times.”

It’s nice to hear George Bancroft for once, but the sound recording and mix is so primitive, and the visual style seems to be suffering alongside it. It looks more like a standard early 1930’s Hollywood movie than a follow-up to Sternberg’s brilliant silents. Fay Wray has some bad line reads, but weirder, there’s a shot early on where one guy in a conversation is hidden behind a column, as if nobody knew where the camera was located. But it gets better as it goes on, so either it was shot in sequence with the crew learning on the job, or more likely, I was adjusting myself to its quirks, starting to forgive the sound mix and focus on story and shadows instead.

Has a lot in common with Underworld – in each, Bancroft is a tough criminal whose girl falls for someone else. Bancroft goes to prison, and at the last minute he drops his hold upon the girl, wishes the other guy luck and goes to his death laughing.

Sternberg’s first musical number is a success, starring Theresa Harris:

Fay, just off Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March, is in love with boring Bob (boring Richard Arlen of Wings and The Four Feathers). She’s got a good voice, but her dialogue has no flow, as if she’s still learning to speak. Seems like most of the movie takes place in the prison (a nice, simple set for the monstrous talkie camera) after some early scenes in an apartment and a racially integrated nightclub. T-Bolt is briefly introduced to his cellmates, but only a few stand out, such as Bad Al Friedberg, the meanest guy in the joint until Bancroft showed up. George finally gets to back up his tough talk when Bad Al snatches a guard’s gun and the warden (timid old Tully Marshall, one of the professors in Ball of Fire) lets T-Bolt handle the situation. In return, T. gets a pet dog, because audiences can’t be expected to relate to a hard-ass criminal unless he’s kind to dogs, at least. I’m glad the movie kept the dog out of the execution chamber in the final scene. Anyway, his men frame Bob, who is sent to the same prison, and on execution day George plans to grab Bob through the bars and crush his skull, but has a last minute change of heart after a candid chat and seeing Bob and Fay marry in prison, admits the frame job instead.

T-Bolt, left, with Bob:

The convicts have a singing group – my favorite use of sound was the choral backdrops to prison dialogue. The setting gives Sternberg plenty of opportunity to aim noirish shadow-bars across the scenes (online I’ve seen this labeled a proto-noir) Movie was co-written (with Sternberg) by Joseph “All About Eve” Mankiewicz and his brother Herman, who worked on Citizen Kane.

Sternberg puts poetry in his images, but he puts plenty in the intertitles too. Eight minutes in, I’d read about thirty flowery title cards – it’s like if Antonioni movies had subtitles telling you what everything meant, instead of relying on the images.

It’s not as plotless as the Criterion box’s commentaries and docs led me to believe – tells a story, just does it in an unhurried, lingering way. A cowardly young man, a bitter young woman and a helpless child live on the docks, spend their days full of ennui watching a dredge dig the same hole day in and day out, chased around by the dredge workers. One day they up and decide to leave for the city together, after seeing a cat. Take it away, intertitles: “The black cat, like an evil spirit, warned the three nobodies to leave the dredge before the thundering mud could bury their souls.”

My favorite title upon their arrival: “Man’s worst enemy is man. A city is full of enemies.” Some guy who wears lipstick lets them stay at his place for free, knowing that the boy is too stupid to find a job and planning to whore out the girl when the three get too hungry and hopeless. At least I think that’s his plan – things like that used to go unspoken in movies.

But all the makeshift family seems to do is sit on the couch and stare at the walls. Since they expend no energy, they don’t get hungry very fast, so the impatient lipstick man decides to “take her out for a ride in the country and let romance do a little work.” His idea of the country is a depressing little field next to the highway, where he tries to win her trust by beating up the little kid. The young man (“the boy” in the titles) finally asserts himself. “The man was only the victim. The boy was not beating him. He was conquering the harbor, the city, the mud – all the forces that had held him down, and most of all his own cowardly self.”

Horned Lipstick Man:

The titles beam about this moral victory! “Behold! They have fought and won a mighty battle – over themselves! It isn’t conditions, nor is it environment – our faith controls our lives!” The trio walks literally into the sunset, probably falling down and starving to death once out of camera range.

M. Gebert wrote an excellent article about early Sternberg:

Contrary to the usual Hollywood picture of the plucky poor, all must have felt like a slap from something utterly new in 1925. It certainly spawned a fair number of followers— when Lillian Gish gets a face full of wind, when James Murray’s dreams are buried in the crowd, when a Man thinks of drowning his wife for A Woman From the City, you can see how The Salvation Hunters helped shape Hollywood’s idea of what an artistic drama was

In between [Salvation Hunters and Underworld] is the famous unseen and lost film, The Sea Gull. We will presumably never know whether Chaplin suppressed it because he was jealous of how good it was, or because it was unreleasable crap. But I have my suspicions; many independent filmmakers have used their second, better-financed film to essentially remake their first film, much more self-indulgently and with a belief in their own genius inflated well beyond reality.

I thought this was quite good for ’25, it just didn’t make me leap out of my seat like Underworld did. I guess now I’ve seen all the silent Sternberg movies that are known to survive. Some of his other lost films include Exquisite Sinner (pre-Underworld, taken out of Sternberg’s hands by the studio after shooting) The Drag Net (after The Last Command) and The Case of Lena Smith (after Docks of New York). On to the talking pictures.

Came out the same year as Street Angel and The Passion of Joan of Arc, just as Hollywood was gearing up to make sound films exclusively. A period piece, but this movie was made so long ago that I can’t tell how much earlier it was set. Sternberg’s modern-day Underworld seems just as much of a period piece now. I watched with the Donald Sosin score featuring sung vocals in a few spots – interesting idea, and not so bad, but give me the Alloy Orchestra any day.

Ol’ George Bancroft gets to throw his bulk around some more, but he doesn’t roar laughter as much as he did in Underworld. He plays a furnace stoker on a ship, given one night of shore leave by boss Mitchell Lewis (of the original Ben-Hur). This is clearly not a good job, since it’s the same task Emil Jannings was forced to do by the revolutionaries in The Last Command, but George isn’t letting it get him down. Right after he gets cleaned up, he sees a girl (Betty Compson of The Great Gabbo and Tod Browning’s lost The Big City) attempt suicide by jumping in the water, and George jumps in to save her. He spends the rest of the evening with her, trying to cheer her up, and finally on a lark, offering to marry her.

It’s not strictly a legal wedding, since George doesn’t file the necessary papers in the morning – instead he sneaks off and prepares to return to the ship. But Mitchell has been creeping around George’s girl, having been rebuffed by his own wife (Olga Baklanova, baddie in Freaks) who resents being abandoned while he’s shipbound all year – at the saloon wedding between George and Betty, Olga offers her own wedding ring to the couple, saying “I hope it does you more good than it did me.” Mitch is now determined to get a girl before he’s due back on the ship. A struggle ensues – Betty shoots and kills him, but Olga rushes over to take the blame. Poor Betty is in trouble again, this time over her clothes, which George stole to keep her warm after the dock-jumping incident. But he’s decided to jump ship, own up to his crime and make good on his mock marriage vows.

Mitchell and Olga:

It’s an overwhelmingly beautiful movie, and almost as romantic as City Lights. I loved the last two Sternbergs I watched also, hard to say which I liked best. L. Sante: “The picture, if merely described, sounds merely sentimental. Everything that is really valuable about it hinges on von Sternberg’s treatment: its deliberate pacing, its unostentatious but exquisite framing, its delicacy cloaked in apparent gruffness, its devil-may-care romanticism.”

Watched half of the DVD extra (made for TV in ’68) in which a Swedish guy shows us clips from Sternberg’s silents and gathers brief thoughts from the director. After the silents, he runs out of clips and starts showing posters instead.

L. Sante again:

It exemplifies virtually every quality of von Sternberg’s films. It is theatrical, with complex but enclosed sets; it makes maximum use of lighting and atmospherics; it is nominally a melodrama but adds unexpected depth to a flimsy outline. It is justly famous for its use of slow dissolves, which serve, as Andrew Sarris noticed, “to indicate the meaninglessness of time intervals between moral decisions.” It is exquisite in its use of montage – but for all that, as Sarris also noted, this is primarily a moving-camera showcase – and its cinematography. The first is demonstrated by the delicate sequence of images showing that Lou has shot Andy, without any sign being more overt than two puffs of smoke, while the blurred subjective-camera shot of the needle Mae is trying to thread through her tears is the highlight of the second. It conveys extraordinary panache in the midst of squalor, and gives all that brio to its characters rather than depicting them from a worldly remove. It is possible to watch the whole picture without being exceptionally aware that it is silent. It is dated in nearly every particular, and yet it is somehow eternal.

JvS: “All my films were made inside of a studio. I don’t like the outside.”

Another splendid Sternberg movie with an Alloy Orchestra score – how Criterion spoils us. It’s hard to fully embrace a movie with the dialogue “From now on you are my prisoner of war… and my prisoner of love.” But once I accepted the melodramatic story elements, this was almost the equal of Sternberg’s great Underworld.

Supposedly based on a real person, Emil Jannings is a powerful Russian general who escapes the country during the 1917 revolution (between this, Potemkin and Mother, Russian revolutions have been coming up often) and scrapes by in the U.S. as a Hollywood extra. This is not portrayed as a glamorous career path – note that The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra was made in the same year. We’re also shown a bunch of resentful bastards at the studio costuming department, as if Sternberg and his writer were out to de-glamorize the movie-making process.

Directed by Michael William Powell:

Back in Russia, General Jannings (after his three great movies with Murnau, so already a star) clashes with young idealist revolutionary William Powell (with perhaps a thicker, less refined mustache than he sports in the Thin Man films). I was glad to see Evelyn Brent (Feathers in Underworld) again, and Sternberg and his photographer light her as ecstatically as before. She’s attached to Powell until taken prisoner by Jannings, eventually warming to him and helping him escape once the tables are turned. Later in Hollywood, Powell plans to shame the former general by casting him in a film that re-enacts his defeat, but the general gets too caught up in his nostalgic fervor and dies of a heart attack. Powell seems to forgive him after that, seeing that they both loved their country, just in different ways – which helps explain Evelyn’s split loyalties as well.

Evelyn Brent, revolutionary:

A. Kaes for Criterion:

Von Sternberg seems to have been fascinated by Jannings’s acting style and persona and did not restrain them in The Last Command. Instead, he used the actor’s histrionic theatricality to explore the power of performance and filmic illusion themselves—a subject he would continue to mine for the rest of his career.

Mulligan (Fred Kohler of a couple other Sternberg features) is a mean-ass gangster who tries to make a poor drunk pick a tenner out of a spitoon. Funny, since earlier this week Katy and I watched Rio Bravo, in which the same thing happens. Like in Rio Bravo, the poor drunk turns out to be one of our heroes – the smart and loyal Rolls Royce (Clive Brook, an early Sherlock Holmes, also in The Four Feathers). Unlike Rio Bravo, the guy who saves him isn’t the sheriff but another gangster making a show of power: the giddy, reckless Bull Weed (George Bancroft, the marshall in Stagecoach) in front of his lady, pouty Feathers McCoy (Evelyn Brent, a cult member in The Seventh Victim, also in a couple of “anti-Mormon propaganda films”).

Bull and his Feathers:

pre-reform Rolls Royce:

Rolls joins Bull’s gang (which seems to consist of himself and some comedian (played by Larry Semon, formerly a hugely successful comic but on his way to an early grave when he appeared in this). Rolls is a big help, giving his boss valuable tactical advice, but he’s transparently falling in love with Feathers. The boss goes to prison, sentenced to death for shooting down Mulligan in his own flower shop. He escapes with vengeance on his mind, but ultimately decides to surrender himself and let Feathers and Rolls have each other.

It’d be a good, entertaining gangster movie from the story and acting alone. Ben Hecht, who wrote more great movies than I can list, won an oscar for this, although he hated the final product for deviating from his script. But the visual style is so splendid it puts the story to shame, and accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra on the Criterion DVD, it’s a piece of cinema heaven.

Sternberg wrote, with apparently typical contempt for his audience, ““I had provided the work with many an incident to placate the public, not ignoring the moss-covered themes of love and sacrifice.” But as G. O’Brien points out, “His high opinion of his own capabilities and his majestic sense of his poetic vocation might indeed seem like intolerable arrogance were they not so undeniably justified.”

Mulligan inside his flower shop:

…while outside…

Guy Maddin’s article on Sternberg and the films is, of course, wonderful to read, and it sounds from the quote like Sternberg’s own writings might be essential:

Once, wandering the shower rooms among the actors washing the day’s grime off themselves, von Sternberg heard a background player release “a formidable laugh, an inhuman laugh, enormous and savage, monstrous, a child’s laugh and a murderer’s laugh.” This gigglepuss was George Bancroft, and … von Sternberg rushed right into the shower stall and cast the naked, roaring gigantopithicus he found there as Bull Weed, the gangster-king of his new picture, Underworld.