I’m always evangelising for Josef Von Sternberg’s autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, which I think is THE movie autobio, acting not only as a life story (probably it could be surpassed easily on this score) but as a Rosetta Stone to the filmmaker’s work. Since I enjoyed Sternberg’s writing so much, it’s odd that I hadn’t realised that there’s more out there:
JVS’s intro to the published script of DER BLAU ENGEL is a treat: concentrated Sternberg. Only a few pages, but packed with nutrition. Here’s the great man, rubbishing his own first talkie, THUNDERBOLT, made just before his German jaunt.
“I had just finished my first sound film, and indifferent work featuring an actor whose temporary fame was sustained by a so-called silent film called UNDERWORLD. The entire cast was inferior, all of them unable to even echo my instructions. There was some good warbling in the death row where most of the action took place, but I looked forward with pleasure to making a sound film in Germany. I was not aware, of course, that Europe had only the most primitive method of adding sound to a quite elaborate camerawork which would cause me a lot of trouble. Incidentally, the silent films had never been silent — a piano tinkled, an organ moaned or an orchestra thundered out music that rarely helped the silent film.”
I like how he omits to name the actor (George Bancroft) out of “tact”, nor the director of the film which shot him to fame (Von Sternberg himself) out of “modesty”. His other inferior actors include the splendid Fay Wray. The reference to warbling on death row may confuse the unwary, but THUNDERBOLT does indeed feature a male voice choir harmonising by the death cell. “I thought I had that quartet broken up,” complains the warden, Tully Marshall, “but I no sooner get rid of one that they send me another.”
“Do you sing tenor?” a prisoner asks Bancroft. “Me? I kill tenors.”
Sternberg is too harsh about this mad bastard of a film. Although my copy of this ultra-rare escapee from oblivion is almost inaudible and invisible, it’s noticeably a strange and memorable piece of work. George Bancroft is an unlikely leading man, it’s true, with his bulbous frame and face, and his oily dog of a hairdo; and his acting style is even stranger than his appearance. Dragging every word out so that you fear he might forget the second syllable of “Goodbye” before he’s finished painstakingly enunciating the first, he nevertheless exudes menace and a certain kind of dilatory gusto. Fay Wray is a little posh for a gangster’s moll, and it’s a shame the poor pic quality prevents us from seeing what Sternberg’s lighting is doing for her (being the palest cast member, she disappears into a white smear). Tully Marshall, memorably seedy as a moth-eaten count in my all-time favourite film, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, is fantastically snarky and craven as the prison warden. Richard Arlen is fine.
Why is Richard Arlen imprisoned in Channel 4 television? His cell has the exact logo.
In some respects the film plays like a remake of UNDERWORLD, with Bancroft as gangster Jim “Thunderbolt” Lang. (In UNDERWORLD he plays gangster Bull Weed. Two names not often found in one individual, as Sternberg said of “Maria Magdalene” Dietrich. George Bancroft may have had the manliest, ugliest character names of an actor! A selection: Blake Greeson; Mug; The Wolf; Cannonball Casey; Bert the Boxman; Lesher Skidmore; Brock Trumbull; Stag Bailey; Elmer Beebe; William Waldo; Dudley ‘Dud’ Garrett; Sheriff Claude Stagg; Major Burdle; Dr Clem Driscoll; Captain Ira “Hell-Ship” Morgan; Enoch Thurman; Two-Gun Nolan; Buck Lockwell; Dan Angus; Lem Tolliver; Windy Miller. Well, I suppose, looking like he does, he was unlikely to ever find himself called Alphonse Maria LeFanu.)
Sternberg starts off with one of his trademark sleazy dives, The Black Cat. It’s a pleasingly multi-racial establishment (uniquely so, for its era) with some superb extras:
Amazing physical performance from the unnamed gum-chewing maitre’d lady.
This guy has no head, just a sort of fat skull, crossed with a football. He’s awesome. His friend, who has plenty of dialogue, delivers it all from behind that structure, for some reason.
The soundscape within The Black Cat is… distinctive. The band plays louder than the actors’ can talk, and every now and then both are interrupted by a shrilly yodelling cackle, adding “atmosphere”. Impressionistically, it’s quite a lot like a real nightclub. I hate nightclubs, except in films.
The plot is by Jules Furthman, who would write several later Sternberg classics from MOROCCO to JET PILOT, with his brother Charles. Jules also worked regularly with Howard Hawks over the years, part of the obscure bond between Sternberg and hawks, two superficially quite dissimilar artists.
The plot: having resolved to kill his ex-girlfriend’s new beau, Thunderbolt is inadvertently betrayed by a stray dog, and sent to death row for his many crimes. He gets to take the dog with him, for added pathos. Resolving to carry out his revenge killing, “poisonal”, he arranges for the beau to be framed for a bank robbery. Then he clears the guy’s name. but this is all part of the most baroque, elaborate vengeance scheme ever, for when the guy steps up to the bars to shake his hand, he’s going to grab him by the throat and –
Dialogue is by Herman Mankiewicz, of CITIZEN KANE fame. Herman once famously engineered his firing from an assignment by writing a scene where Rin Tin Tin the wonder dog carries a baby into a burning building, and here he seems hell-bent on getting fired again, writing staggeringly insane dialogue that attains a kind of crack-brained poetry. (“I was absolutely on the level until me twelfth birthday. And after that… nothing much happened until I was twenty-seven.”) Bancroft spends most of the film trying to guess his jailor’s name, and when he finally learns it — Aloysius — goes to the electric chair laughing merrily.