Scarlet Empress (1934): Marlene The Great

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In the case of his excursions into historical drama, director Joseph Von Sternberg only used the past as a kind of malleable tableau on which to impart his own creative vision. Once more the cornerstone of this vision is Marlene Dietrich, and she is poised to become the greatest monarch of her time: Catherine The Great.

A nice bit of tribute finds Dietrich’s daughter (Maria Riva) portraying Sophia in her youth. Her movie mother’s only desire is to find a fine husband for her to marry to improve the family’s stability. Her father is a far more benevolent figure (C. Aubrey Smith).

Very early on there is the juxtaposition of ghastly torture mechanisms reminding us how dastardly humans can be with their cruel devices. Contrary to this is the sheer opulence and in this regard, The Scarlet Empress is all but unparalleled in its generation of period dramas. Historical accuracy be hanged.

The story continues with pace which is usually a welcomed addition when it comes to the often sluggish genre of period drama. Marlene plays her opening scenes wide-eyed, with a kind of spaced-out innocence. Because she is still a creature of adolescence as she gets sent to Russia as the betrothed of Peter III.

Her husband to be (Sam Jaffe in his debut) is vacuous, head on a swivel with a dopey incredulousness plastered on his face. Meanwhile, her demonstrative Queen Mother (Marie Dressler) remakes the impressionable girl to her liking — with a new name, new clothes, and all the expectations that come with her new station. More than anything else, she is expected to bear a son, an heir to the throne, and this is her primary usefulness. This is her only agency.

It’s almost gluttonous how indulgent the wedding sequence and all the subsequent sequences are in their pomp and regal showmanship. With the nation still dragged down by the Depression, one questions if the common man was taken with the escapism or was nauseated by the sheer extravagance.

While the images are visually splendorous, initially there are far too many title cards interspersed. However, they do begin to make their purpose more evident as the movie never seems to get unnecessarily bloated by dialogue. In some respects, they do set a kind of narrative precedent and use that to create a rhythm throughout the movie. It’s almost more like a silent picture, more concerned with a sweeping overview of a life — the impressions left behind — than honing in on every significant moment.

The sheer scale is staggering in the most extraordinary manner because there is no CGI. Von Sternberg has manicured and incubated this entire consolidated world inside the palace that’s without equal.

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The lighting, the ornate touches, gossamer canopies veiling Dietrich’s face in her chamber, and then outside the inner court hosts of ghoulish gargoyles, statuettes, and iconography of the Pantokrator fill the halls. It gives this uneasy sense of orthodoxy mixed with German Expressionism, but Von Sternberg utilizes it well. The Scarlett Empress really does feel like an exhibition for his skills as a wizard of mise en scene and environment. The costuming certainly is another extension of this.

Dietrich doesn’t really come into her own until a good hour and 10 minutes into the movie. From thenceforward there’s no stopping her consolidation of power. With his mother on a sharp decline and then on her deathbed, the king (Jaffe) is ready to marry his mistress and cast his wife out as he makes his long-awaited ascension.

But Catherine is no longer that ignorant girl she once was who merely avoided her gawky husband. She now knows how to play the political game — the kind of nepotism a station like hers relies on, and she readily uses all the means at her disposal.

Her feminine wiles mean she has the army in her skirt pocket bent to her whim. One of her greatest allies and lovers is the dashing rapscallion Count Alexei (John David Lodge). She has a secret passageway in the back of her chambers where she can usher her lovers in and out so they realize they aren’t totally indispensable.

What’s intriguing about the movie is not distinct plot points but growing to understand the textures of the world and how they form and shape the people in their midst. The Scarlet Empress becomes as much about how people look and how they carry themselves as much as anything else.

Marlene Dietrich might be altogether unmatched in this department. Purportedly she requested her iconic fur hat to be created especially for her, and it met with some resistance from the costuming department. Whatever the qualms, who could ever doubt her?

She only wears it momentarily. Maybe for a mere scene. Is it too frivolous? Certainly, but as she walks through the chambers inspecting the troops, looking as smart as she ever has, she’s totally inimitable. In that moment, she feels like one of the greatest cinematic royals hands down. Images are powerful. We know that.

It has little to do with policy or even action. All these things come later and that’s why we read our history books. No, here in The Scarlet Empress it’s about posture and presence and all those intangibles making the greats great and all the others merely peons and subsidiaries in the game of life.

Amid the clamoring bells and rapid montage, as she charges up the steps triumphant, flanked by her newfound army, Von Sternberg aids in The Scarlett Empress’s ascension to the epoch and with it the ascension of Marlene Dietrich as a star. It takes someone with true magnetism to fill up such a role promising so much, and she handles it with her usual aplomb. You can’t well forget her. She won’t let you. She embodies the Scarlet Empress. She is Marlene The Great.

4/5 Stars

Dishonored (1931): Marlena Dietrich, The Sultry Spy

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The premise is established in broad strokes. It’s 1915 and the remnants of the Austrian empire are caught up in war. This can only have meaning if we see some of the chaos in front of us. In this case, a prostitute lies dead in the street — with a host of onlookers crowded around — a mysterious mustachioed man eavesdropping and poking about. He’s looking for someone, listening to their conversation.

As the people walk through the streets, the sensation of rain sounds almost tinny and fake but this is part of the marvelous illusion. Because this is Joseph Von Sternberg, the famed spinner of bounteous tales offering so much to their audiences in the form of sensations and palpable milieu.

Eventually, the clandestine man — actually the chief of Austrian secret police — settles on a woman, but not just any woman. It is Marlene Dietrich in all her glory. They settle on a romantic rendezvous.

Not only does Dietrich give us so much, as is her habit, but her apartment itself is cluttered with all the sorts of trinkets that allow us to make sense of a person or at the very least appreciate them more fully.

There’s the piano. Sketches up on the walls. The place where she stashes her shoes. The little dancing figurines suspended from the ceiling. The empty bottle of wine. However, more crucial than anything else she proves her own character — she might live a meretricious lifestyle, and yet she’s a staunch loyalist and a war widow. Her allegiances are unmistakable.

It’s immediately evident Marlene is a woman in a man’s world, but she sure has her pick of the litter. Because everyone is bending over backward to escort her, to be with her, to get to know her. Her new superior is well aware of her assets supplying her a new alias — X-27 — and an assignment of vital importance to her homeland.

There’s a casual nonchalance to her when being propositioned spy work. But this only works if there’s a brazenness in the face of certain danger. She has both in equal measure. It’s true the subject matter plays as surprisingly lithe and modern for Von Sternberg as he casts his muse as a Mata Hari-inspired spy with steely poise and a touch of class. She’s an inscrutable beauty fit to play the game.

What’s lovely is how everything is delivered in between the lines. Heroes. Villains. Friends. Enemies. What’s the difference? For these people, it’s their business and so they find time for romance whatever the scenario might be. There are no hard feelings because the current climate has bred this kind of immediacy. Nothing beyond the here and now can matter. One must make the most of the moment.

Dietrich is brilliant at the masquerade party. It’s our first chance to see her in her new regalia — plumed and sequined, teeth smiling from under her disguise — and she’s only one of a myriad. It’s the most gloriously decadent party I’ve ever seen. You’ll have to see for yourself if it’s hyperbole or not.

However, X-27 has other business to attend to. Her first mark is Warner Oland a high-ranking General who’s also subsequently purported to be a turncoat. She must use the art of seduction to implicate him. But he’s not the only one.

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Captain Kranau (Victor MacLagen) was also present at the party and equally taken with the woman’s allure. He’s a Russian Agent playing the same game of cat and mouse she is. In the service, of Ford, MacLagen always felt broadly Irish. Here he seems toned down and well-fitted for the role if only for the fact he hardly tries to upstage Marlene. It’s better not to have Coop. She needs no equal in this picture and it’s true no one can outdo her. This is her story more than anyone else’s.

What more can be said as they joust back and forth globetrotting across borders and meeting under all varying degrees of circumstances? X-27 does her finest impression of a cleaning woman and a kitty cat all in one sequence. He finally has her cornered. We think this spells the end and yet she riggles free. Her wealth of secrets transcribed into music and memorized. She wins another round.

This is what becomes so riveting because the movie is constructed out of these kinds of jocular bits of leisure, but they are a pretense or a visual projection or smokescreen over a very harsh even cutthroat subject matter. He tells her in one interchange, “the more you cheat the more you lie, the more exciting you become.” It’s like a harbinger of Bond decades later.

However, lest anyone misconstrue his intentions, Von Sternberg is vehemently critical of unyielding military protocol. In fact, in a gut-wrenching final scene, it makes a young soldier blubber. He witnesses the utter cruelty of war when it comes to the rule of spy and counter-spy. Still, Marlene takes it with her usual poise — stalwart to the end — and frankly, she’s unforgettable. As she waits out her final days, her last requests are authentic to her character from the beginning. She requests her piano and the black dress she used to wear in her previous life. These are her identity. This is her uniform.

The ultimate irony of the movie is its title. Against the vociferous objects of Von Sternberg, the studio settled on “Dishonored.” But this cut-and-dry analysis of her station in life fails to understand the intent of the entire film. It’s tantamount to saying Sophie Scholl was dishonored in standing up to the Nazis or that the figure of Christ was dishonored for standing up for what he believed in, what he was called to. In X-27’s case, her guiding light was love — even love precipitated in momentary encounters — it can still be a driving source behind any human heart.

We have a fair amount of modern spy movies now anchored by female stars. Their main objective seems to be an exhibition in showing women as powerful entities, capable of kicking butt. This is fine, but sometimes there is no illusion left. No added depth of character. Dietrich is unparalleled, feeling exciting and aloof until the very last frame. We want more of her not less, but she leaves us while she’s still ahead. What a run she had with Von Sternberg, in her third picture following The Blue Angel and Morocco, with still more to come.

It’s less heralded but might just be the best of the lot. It comes quietly and then ambushes you with all its many assets — thoroughly exquisite to look at and also thematically resonate. What’s more, it has a genuine sense of fun and intrigue which isn’t always the easiest combination to come by. Its range of surprises is the kind you relish as a moviegoer. They stay with you.

4.5/5 Stars

Shanghai Gesture (1941)

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Josef Von Sternberg always seemed preoccupied with telling stories involving places that he indubitably knew little about but therein lies the allure. He could develop the Moroccos, the Shanghais, the Macaos into places imbued with far more meaning than they probably ever could have in real life.

Because he is hardly working in reality but with the inventions of his own mind and he was a master when it came to setting the scene and texturing atmospherics. He was a world maker and one of the finest craftsmen in Hollywood exoticism.

The opening prologue juxtaposes the seedy underworld that we are about to witness to the last remnants of the Tower of Babel where Man coalesced in his indiscretions before being scattered over the ends of the earth. It proves to be a rather odd analogy as the film revolves around a velodrome of gambling — a pit of worldly devices that the camera slowly descends on.

Visually it’s the inverse of babel as our eye is led to sink into this world of Mother Gin Sling’s establishment, joining the ranks of Rick’s Cafe, the Cantina, and countless others in the pantheon of dubious melting pots of humanity captured on the screen.

We meet a fair many of the individuals who play a small part in her operation including Dr. Omar (Victor Mature) and Poppy Smith (Gene Tierney), a young provocative beauty looking for a good time and a glimpse of the notorious proprietor.  Then our friendly neighborhood dragon lady (Ona Munson) makes an appearance and things are in full swing.

The kind Doctor easily distracted by an attractive young woman, lets himself get wrapped up with Poppy while still sharing drinks with Ms. Dixie Pomeroy. But this is only a minor spat.

The main problem is Mother Gin Sling’s who has been ordered to relinquish her property and move her establishment to the Chinese sector which is far less profitable. But being the conniving magnate that she is, she’s not about to go down without a fight before the New Year.

She will host a little dinner party inviting many prominent guests including Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston). All of this feels fairly straightforward and mundane though there is an obvious sense that dark secrets are being veiled in shadows to be revealed at the most advantageous moment.

Though it never truly grips us with a substantial climax, the film’s laurels rest mostly on its setting and the breadth of its character reservoir. It always makes me sad to see Marcel Dalio relegated to a roulette man following the work he commanded in the films of Jean Renoir. Meanwhile, Eric Blore always delights me even in his smallest, most insignificant appearances. In this picture, he plays the Bookkeeper. There’s not much to be said about his cruciality to the plot but he’s delightful all the same.

The feisty Phyllis Brooks delivers an acerbic and spirited performance as the chorus girl that comes with a lot of panache even if it feels so at odds with the world she has fallen into. Perhaps that’s the point.

But rather remarkably her screen presence is only surpassed by Gene Tierney in a seemingly uncharacteristic role — though I admit that the assertion is made with a certain degree of foresight glancing over the extent of her career.

In Laura (1944),  Tierney played a character who was a femme fatale without ever trying to be — men simply got drawn under her spell but in Shanghai Gesture, there’s a markedly different glint in her eye. It’s probably the same glint that would make her so deliciously evil in Leave Her to Heaven (1945). But no matter, she’s a conceited and ungrateful woman with a compulsive nature for the roulette wheel. Thus, her main companion is not Dr. Omar but gambler’s fallacy.

While there are some enjoyable performances, the aforementioned providing perfect specimens, the holes or inadequacies of the cast in certain areas is also an obvious weak point. Yellowface and other types of whitewashing are not just a matter of bad taste they simply take the world of the film and make it feel a little bit hokey when you think of the alternatives.

It really is a shame that at the very least Anna May Wong couldn’t have donned the role of Mother Gin Sling, especially because she appeared prominently in Shanghai Express (1932). Some might consider this as a spiritual sequel to von Sternberg’s earlier film barring the absence of two of its finest assets, namely Marlene Dietrich and Wong.

True, once again even if she was cast, there could be another digression on perpetuating negative stereotypes but if you don’t even have a part, to begin with, that’s a whole different problem. No disrespect to Ona Munson whatsoever but she seems woefully miscast. Anna May Wong would have at least been a step in the right direction.

There’s also the issue of the Hays Code which called for a markedly different script and numerous rewrites. Much of the content changes were for its earthier more debauched aspects, but another crucial change was Dr. Omar replacing a character named Prince Oshima.

Instead of the plastic piece of eye candy Victor Mature, we could have had someone maybe a little more authentic like a Keye Luke, Philip Ahn, or Richard Loo. And I’m not being very discriminating about acting styles just the fact that these men are actually Asian (not even Japanese) and they had some prominence in Hollywood. Just not enough to wind up in a film such as this — set in Asia — though completely enveloped in Hollywood’s own distillation of reality. Not even von Sternberg could save the film in that capacity with his production values. Still, fezzes are cool. It’s an undisputed fact. But if I had to make a personal preference I would take Greenstreet in Casablanca (1942) to Victor Mature here.

3.5/5 Stars

Morocco (1930)

Gary_Cooper_and_Marlene_Dietrich_in_Morocco_trailer_2.jpgBefore the exoticism of Casablanca, Algiers, or even Road to Morroco, there was Josef Von Sternberg’s just plain Morocco but it’s hardly a run-of-the-mill romance. Far from it.

Although it involves soldiers, it’s also hardly a war film but instead set against a backdrop that presents an exotic love affair as only Sternberg could. With a sultry Marlene Dietrich matched with a particularly cheeky Gary Cooper, it instantly looks to be an interesting dynamic because they couldn’t be more different.

She, a radiant German beauty with an evocative pair of eyes to go with a somewhat sullen demeanor. He, America’s ruggedly handsome ideal of what a man should be. And it in Sternberg’s film neither of them is what we’re used to.

He’s a renegade soldier in the French Foreign Legion. She’s a cabaret singer (that hasn’t changed) but she also manages to be French, not German. Somehow it’s easy enough to disregard because it’s not necessary to get caught up on the particulars.

All that matters is that they both find themselves in Morocco. He is traipsing through town with his division and spends some free time taking in her floor show along with the rest of the rowdy masses. Neither one of them has found someone good enough for them — they’re equal of sorts. He’s a gentleman cad if you will and she’s hardly an upstanding woman, making a living in a dance hall but there’s more to her. It’s hinted that she once had love, perhaps.

It takes so long for them to actually speak to each other but they’re flirting from the first moment they lay eyes on each other. They say so much through simple expressions all throughout the cabaret show. Things proceed like so. She slips him a flower, then an apple, and finally a key. At this point, he gets the drift and we do too.

Later that evening he winds up at her flat and they spend their most substantial time together. It’s full of odd exchanges, meandering conversations that run the risk of sounding aloof. In fact, their entire relationship is replete with oddities.

Another man (Adolph Menjou) is smitten with Amy but he’s never driven to jealousy. He’s good-natured and generous in all circumstances. People like him must only drift through the high societies.

She holds onto some wistful longing for the tall dashing Legionnaire who drifted through her life. But she’s slow to act. Meanwhile, he hardly seems to take it as a blow to his love life when she resigns to stay behind. After all, he’s quite the ladies’ man. He probably doesn’t need another woman. He’s always got several draped over each arm.

Morocco is a film interesting for the spaces that it creates and not necessarily for the story it develops. Visually, by the hands of the director and then simultaneously by Cooper and Dietrich as they work through their scenes both together and apart. Though it might in some ways lack emotional heft, its stars are still two invariably compelling romantic stars of the cinema.

Somehow it still manages to be quite lithe and risque when put up next to its contemporaries. It exudes a certain mischievousness of the Pre-Code Era. It’s not so much licentiousness and debauchery but it wishes to suggest as much. It can be implied without actually going through all the trouble of showing it.

Dietrich sums it up perfectly in her little diddy about Eve (What am I bid for my apple/ the truth that made Adam so wise? On the historic night/ when he took a bite/ they discovered a new paradise). In essence, the world got a lot more exciting when sex and deceit were brought into the equation. Maybe she misses the implications the Fall of Man but that’s precisely the point. Still more Pre-Code sauciness case and point.

In the final moments, where Dietrich abandons her heels and goes slinking across the sand chasing after her man, it feels less like a romantic crescendo or even a tragic turn and more like a ploy by the director to make his leading lady the focal point of his story one last time. She is granted the final bit of limelight. Because in many ways Gary Cooper could not win when it came to upstaging Marlene Dietrich orchestrated by her devoted partner/director Sternberg. Thus, Morocco turns out to be a rather curious love story different than some of the more typical Hollywood fare.

4/5 Stars

Shanghai Express (1932)

shanghaiex2The same year as Grand Hotel there came another film, that while still boasting an ensemble cast felt far more intimate. In its day it was christened “Grand Hotel on wheels” and its narrative does unravel aboard a train. However, Josef von Sternberg’s film opens with a faceless atmosphere spilling over with the bustling commotion of a railway station. It takes a few moments to lock onto the characters we will be making the journey with, but we won’t soon forget them.

The always reputable Eugene Palette, perpetually gambling his way to Shanghai. The invalid opium dealer is rather an annoying fellow, and the man of faith appears conventionally narrow-minded, although he does make a turn for the better. Warner Oland takes on a more menacing iteration of his Charlie Chan character, while Anna May Wong gets a well-deserved role as a fellow passenger who shares a room with the famed Shanghai Lilly, the fastest lady in the East. Yes, Marlene Dietrich is Lilly, a woman of notorious reputation, but she also carries a distant, wistful love affair in her memories. The train to Shanghai brings all that hurtling back in the form of Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brooks).

All this is set against the backdrop of a Chinese nation fraught with unrest. When the engine isn’t impeded by a stray cow or chicken, Chinese soldiers board it to apprehend an enemy agent. But that’s just the beginning. The rebels retaliate by holding up the train as well and questioning all the passengers on their financial and political capital. It’s a tense sequence of events that has no simple resolution.

shanghaiex1It is in these moments that are two female heroines must act. Hui Fei (Anna May Wong) so that she might defend the honor of herself and her country. Lilly so that she might express the great, expansive depths of the love she still holds for “Doc.”

Shanghai Express exhibits a simplistic view of religious faith as well love, but perhaps that’s actually one of its strengths. It suggests that faith and love go hand and hand whether it be Christianity or romantic relationships. It’s true that there’s no greater act of love than someone laying down their life or putting their life on the line for friends. There’s nothing overly melodramatic here, but everyone ends up where they are supposed to and justice is dealt. It’s an eventful, passionate, perilous train ride indeed.

Ironically enough, this is a film for the masses that completely disregards their class in favor of the first class club car. Except you could make the argument that they rather preferred the sumptuous extravagance of the upper classes to their own Depression-filled lives. Movies most certainly were the grandest of escapes from reality. Shanghai Express undoubtedly quenched their desire. At the same time, it’s simultaneously a story of exotic intrigue and human drama that blends the prodigal and the personal in high fashion.

To its credit, the film makes comment on Warner Oland’s complete lack of ability to look Asian, although he does fall into some other stereotypical potholes. Also, it acknowledges the preconceived expectations of Asian women that Anna May Wong resoundingly rebuts with her performance. She represents everything pushing back against the Yellow Face of Oland’s numerous portrayals. The effort by Asians to get more complex, multidimensional, and sympathetic. The path is still yet to be fully paved, and representation in media for any class or race is never going to be fully realized. We can never expect it to be perfect or overly politically correct. Because humanity is inherently broken and always and forever incorrect.

You can certainly say that Marlene Dietrich unequivocally overshadowed the career of her longtime lover and collaborator Joseph von Sternberg, but Shanghai Express belongs to both of them. He as her director. She as his muse. Despite, its meager running time, it’s a fine achievement and an enduring Pre-Code classic. 

4/5 Stars

The Blue Angel (1930)

blueangel1The Blue Angel is the name of a nightclub and it turns out to be a very fateful nightclub indeed. It just takes us a while to figure out why. Although Josef Von Sternberg’s film is known, rightly so, for making a star out of Marlene Dietrich — in the first of their 6 collaborations — this early German sound film is nevertheless about the decline and fall of Emil Janning’s character. Immanuel Rath begins as a professor at the local college, and although his pupils are unruly, he commands the utmost respect. He sees it as his prerogative, and he is quick to bring order and discipline to these young lads. But boys will be boys and they become corrupted by the beautiful cabaret singer Lola-Lola (Marlene Dietrich). One evening the professor drops into the seedy joint to look out for some of his troublemakers and talk with the proprietor. Of course, he unwittingly ends up meeting the gorgeous girl backstage and returns the following evening with a seemingly very flimsy excuse.

Ironically, his boys are not the only one who take a liking to her. The once restrained and reserved man of learning begins to change. He becomes a man obsessed and infatuated beyond the point of logic. But what does he care? He enjoys being in Lola’s company and the idea of a marriage proposal makes complete sense in the reverie that he is swimming in. So they do get married. The professor leaves all the common sense behind and goes on the road traveling with his wife and their promoter.

blueangel2But by this point, he is a sorry figure, so pitiful and bedraggled in every way. He reluctantly parades himself in front of audiences as a clown just to make some money for him and his wife. It is, of course, inevitable that he return back to his old stomping ground, and it does eventually happen. He reluctantly goes onstage and it is difficult to watch this final chapter. Lola is no longer his. He’s completely ruined. Completely destroyed. Oh how far the man has fallen, as he winds up keeled over on top of his former desk in the gymnasium.

I think I enjoyed Emil Janning’s in The Last Laugh more and yet to its credit The Blue Angel does not cop out in the end. It has a tragic trajectory that in some ways feels like a precursor to such noir as Scarlet Street and Nightmare Alley. It’s understandable how Dietrich became a star because stars have the capability of drawing your attention. Janning’s gives a wonderful performance certainly, but the allure of Dietrich is too much to discount. She steals the show just like she steals the Professor’s heart. We’re just “Falling in Love Again and we Can’t Help It.”

4/5 Stars