Archive for Josef Von Sternberg

The Sunday Intertitle: A Marvelous Second Husband

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2018 by dcairns

What I need is the John Baxter’s Josef Von Sternberg biography, but it seems to not exist — online searches prove futile. Like it’s been unwritten out of existence. If I had a copy, I’d be looking into the rumour of his involvement in CHILDREN OF DIVORCE (1927), which is credited to Frank Lloyd. Sternberg himself, speaking to Kevin Brownlow I believe it was, plausibly and emphatically denied any involvement.* If anyone out there has a copy of Baxter’s bio, please check the index for me.

I decided to watch the film, an elegant if soapy melodrama starring Clara Bow, Esther Ralston and Gary Cooper, to see if I could detect any trace of the Sternbergian. This task was complicated by the fact that Frank Lloyd, while no visual genius or poet of kitsch, was no slouch either, and seems quite capable of coming up with a few baroque moments of his own. He has a fine, elegant style, for a Glaswegian.

The film’s first dramatic image occurs in the Parisian orphanage where two of the titular COD wind up. The mini-Clara is frightened about spending her first night amid these expressionistic shadows, as what COD wouldn’t be? This doesn’t particularly scream “Sternberg!” but it does scream “storyboard!” It’s more reminiscent of the kind of thing William Cameron Menzies would come up with. And indeed the film has no credits for production designer or art director, so who knows? Though he wasn’t at Paramount at this time. Sternberg, a bold artist with a cucalorus, MIGHT have crafted an image like this (note how the checkerboard flooring runs out, at an odd angle), but if he did it’s the only trace of his touch visible in the whole opening prologue.

Travis Banton’s sleek gowns provide most of the style for the film’s middle. Banton was a major Sternberg collaborator, dressing Dietrich in all her movies with the auteur, but he basically dressed all of Paramount so his presence here proves nothing. Clara and Gary also appear without their gowns in a memorable moment when he comes out of the shower and is shocked — shocked! — to find her in his bed.

As the film starts getting properly tragic towards the end, the lighting gets bold again. But it’s hard to believe Sternberg would have done two shots for wildly different sections of the film, and then walked, or that they reshot all his other stuff and left these moments. I feel Lloyd is simply doing what Hollywood directors did — reaching for more extreme stylisation at moments of extreme emotion. What Sternberg did was something else — I’m not even sure how to describe it, but his stylisation is constant and his extreme emotional moments tend to involve desire and masochism. He doesn’t stylise these moments further (things are already pretty baroque) but he lavishes upon them a peculiarly intense ATTENTION.

 

This psychological track-in, which makes us feel the emotion growing within Bow, is atypical of Lloyd, of the twenties, or Paramount and equally atypical of Sternberg. It’s terrific. I’m thinking it’s Lloyd, but who knows?

 

And this one is equally unusual, and unlike the track-in, would still be unusual today. As Clara stares at her reflection in despair, it sort of MISTS UP. I think it’s probably a gauzy substance over the lens rendered opaque by a little targeted light, something of that kind. It’s a bit like the trick in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO when Omar is cold and emotional in the frozen house, if you recall. This would be a striking effect for anybody to come up with. The film has two cinematographers (a clue that it had two directors? Not necessarily). Norbert Brodine was a bit of a special effects wiz (DELUGE, TOPPER, ONE MILLION BC). Victor Milner’s work was extremely elegant but less experimental. Anyway, this is a wonderful effect but we can’t really say with certainty who came up with it. I’ve been meaning to see more Lloyd and this moment makes the idea seem urgently tempting.

*No! Apparently Sternberg claimed 50% of this film as his own. In which case, all these grace notes are likely his, after all.

Advertisements

A fabulous speck on the Earth’s surface

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2018 by dcairns

Well, that’s what the opening voice-over tells us MACAO is. Quite why it should want to say that, I’m sure I don’t know. But this is less a Josef Von Sternberg film than it is a Howard Hughes production, with all the mental derangement that implies. The “plot” involves Robert Mitchum being mistaken for a police investigator, who is really William Bendix — but we never really find out who Mitchum is, do we? Nobody in particular, it seems. Then there’s Jane Russell as a lounge singer, and nasty casino owner Brad Dexter, a notably colourless heavy, and crooked local cop Thomas Gomez.

Hughes declared in an internal memo that his films at RKO would be about two things, “fucking and fighting.” But really they all seem to be out convoluted webs of betrayal, usually reaching a point where the hero and heroine should hate each other, but instead end up together as per Hollywood tradition. It all gets extremely convoluted without you caring what happens to anybody in the least. Sternberg’s JET PILOT is an extreme example of this, with John Wayne and Janet Leigh’s “romantic” sparring intensified by the fact that they’re meant to be representatives of the US and USSR military. That movie was greatly compromised by Hughes to the point that by the time it opened, RKO was defunct and all the planes were out of date. MACAO fared even worse: “instead of fingers in that pie,” reported Sternberg, “a whole army of clowns rushed to immerse various parts of their anatomies in it. Their names do not appear in the list of credits.”

Nicholas Ray was uncredited second director, apparently responsible for a lot of the Gloria Grahame bits (he married her and at least we got IN A LONELY PLACE out of that). He claimed he tried to achieve a Sternberg look, but most of this film is flat and prosaic, despite the exotic sound stage setting. But every ten minutes or so a shot sings out, mostly in the casino, often dreamy tracking shots that aren’t going anywhere in particular. In fact, it seems a rule in this movie that the more beautiful the shot, the less it has to do with its surroundings, the greater the sense of its having been dropped in as a random cutaway. But there’s almost nothing to cut away FROM.

And here is our fragment of cinematic beauty for today: the phantom tombola of Philip Ahn.

She’s Up!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on May 4, 2018 by dcairns

My SCARLET EMPRESS piece is live at The Chiseler. Great response to this one on Twitter — thanks to @CriterionDaily for publicising it.

So, we’re more than halfway through the Sternberg-Dietrich canon (out of sequence), with THE BLUE ANGEL, SHANGHAI EXPRESS and THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN still to come. Hell will have no surprises!

Cinephiles everywhere should be ordering Criterion’s forthcoming box set of all six Paramount films (and they should already own THE BLUE ANGEL in some format or other).