Marlene Dietrich and Joseph Sternberg were one of the great Actor-director Hollywood matchings. Of the six films they made, in order of American release, MOROCCO did extremely well at the box office and established Dietrich as a star. The English Language version of THE BLUE ANGEL then solidified her star status. DISHONORED was a great success—The final Piano and firing squad sequence is incredible—and SHANGHAI EXPRESS was their greatest box office success and was the film that turned Marlene Dietrich into DIETRICH. BLONDE VENUS wasn’t a failure but was a definite box office disappointment so, she went off to do SONG OF SONGS and Sternberg AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY. Neither film did well. They reunited with SCARLET EMPRESS which pretty much dropped dead at the box office and their final film together, THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN was an unmitigated disaster that was banned in Spain for political reasons. Of the five Dietrich-Von Sternbergs these three are the ones that impressed me the most. Again, this is exclusively a personal reaction.
Their biggest failure, THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN is, in my humble opinion, the most beautiful—emphasis on beautiful—black and white film ever made. Since the film was taken out of release because of the backlash from Spain, the print I saw was pristine so it is probably the best preserved of the six Sternberg Dietrich films. In terms of visual lushness the film can sand beside any color film made in the 30s and 40s. In addition Dietrich is absolutely stunning; as beautiful as she has ever been and the films use of music wonderful. It’s not my favorite of the six but when I showed it to my wife she looked at me and said that it puts most color films of the period to shame and should be shown to everyone so that they—raised on color TV and films—can see how great B&W could be in the hands of someone who knows what to do with it. As director Henry Hathaway put it, in terms of photography and film making, Sternberg forgot more than what most Hollywood directors knew and Mr. Hathaway was not easy with his compliments.
The print of the Scarlet Empress from the Criterion Collection disk I have is the best print of the film I’ve seen. They used the best materials available but it appeared not to be an inter-positive or even an original release print but a generation or so further down. The problem being that Von Sternberg’s B&W photography is so incredible that at its best—DEVIL IS A WOMAN for example—it rivals color for richness of image. Yet despite the limitations of the print I saw, SCARLET remains a visual feast and one of the most incredible looking to come out of Golden Age Hollywood. No other film even comes close. The sets are that remarkable with the Wedding Sequence, the gathering of the troops and many of the films set piecesl taking one’s breath away.
What I also found really interesting was Sternberg’s use of an almost monotonic dialogue delivery in an effort to achieve a form of acting naturalism. It didn’t work all the time but when it did work it was great. Louise Dressler give the performance of her career as The Empress Elizabeth and Sam Jaffe as Peter is unforgettable. He defines madness. The scene in which he spits on Elizabeth’s dead body in her coffin is truly remarkable. Even more so when one realized that just a few years later Jaffe would play the High Lama in LOST HORIZON—goodness itself. It’s hard to believe this is the same actor and then of course there is Gunga Din. A pity that he didn’t make more films. Our Loss.
John Lodge (later Governor Connecticut and Ambassador to Spain) has sixties shoulder length hair. Sternberg keeps him stoic using that monotonic dialogue delivery and in the process Lodge is transformed into a true screen presence. He is pure macho to Dietrich ultra-femininity. I could not take my eyes off him and that’s even in scenes with Dietrich. If you look at any of his other film work you can see here how much a director can influence a performance.
The music, the film’s presentation of Machiavellian court intrigue, with a woman functioning within it and triumphing in a man’s world using the limited tools given her, provides the film its real power. Then of course there is Marlene Dietrich. Calling what Sternberg did with her as the height of Hollywood glamour is an understatement. In scene after scene she took my breath away. She would later reinvent herself as a dame in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN but at this stage of her career, the woman and what Sternberg did with her defined theHollywood glamour. On screen the woman was one of a kind and like Garbo became a single name star.
This is my favorite Dietrich-Sternberg movie but not for the reason that you might think. Not for the Hot Voodoo number which, when I first saw it, I couldn’t believe what I was watching never having seen anything like it a movie. Not for Dietrich stunning in her White Tux, not for all the amazing shots and incredible photography. For me the film rings true when Dietrich interacts with her little son, Dickie Moore. Little boy Moore would talk to her in the film and Dietrich would answer to him in the casual way that a real mother would interact with a child. For me it was real and not the sort of Hollywood gushy stuff we often see in mother and child scenes. This is why the scene where her child is taken away— Dietrich’s almost in physical pain—holds such power. The real love story in BLONDE VENUS is not Grant-Dietrich or Marshall -Dietrich it is Dickie more son to his mother Marlene Dietrich. One can criticize the awkward plot twists and some other little things that don’t seem to work here and there but none can mars my appreciation for what, for me, is as genuinely moving film.
POSTERS AND LOBBY CARD FOR THE OTHER AMERICAN DIETRICH STERNBERGS