DIETRICH and VON STERNBERG IN HOLLYWOOD: Blu-ray (Paramount 1932-35) Criterion
"Glamour is assurance. It is a kind of knowing that you are all right in every way, mentally and physically and in appearance, and that, whatever the occasion or the situation, you are equal to it."
– Marlene Dietrich
The androgynous aura Marlene Dietrich exuded far outweighs her musical talents. But I think it is important to note that Dietrich, even at height of her sex appeal and popularity, was not cribbing from the classically-trained ilk of chanteuses; rather, the smoke-filled, husky-voiced vintage of Berlin cabaret artistes, all the rage in Europe just prior to WWII. As we steadily move away from this epoch in history - and film-making - Dietrich's appeal grows more 'foreign' to contemporary tastes and sentiments. However, she has this in her favor. She is not a singer. But she remains undiminished as an exotic figure in American pictures; a fantastical, bisexual creation of her own choosing and desires, rebellious to a fault, and impossibly glamorous - perhaps, to another fault; most certainly, belonging to a different time. In her later career, somewhere around the time of Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Dietrich began to reflect a world-weariness for this more fondly recalled youth, as I suspect we all become a little wistful to rekindle only after it is gone and never to be ours again. Time seems to stand still when we are young, even as it suddenly – and quite unexpectedly, betrays us in the end. Yet, for Dietrich, the sacrificing of that highly sexualized persona she had worked so hard to hand-craft and maintain became something of a bittersweet vice to accept in her emeritus years. Time had moved on. It always does. Exoticism is not widely regarded by today's standards. But lest we forget, it is 'today's standards' that are off the mark. Not the other way around.
Because Dietrich was largely a creature of her own fashioning, the lines between lore and history surrounding her life and times has been irrevocably blurred. She would have loved that – history, rewritten to suit her audaciously personal sense of style. Did she meet director, Josef von Sternberg casually at a party, as it has been suggested? Or was it a deliberate orchestration on Dietrich’s part to ensnare the Austrian, knowing that, despite already having a husband and child, her sex appeal could conquer any man? Does any of this really matter? If we are to concur that Dietrich is not a singer, per say, what are we to make of what she could do with a lyric, her gender-bending, sultry appeal, that glycerin-textured skin, stretched across angular features on which Hollywood’s gauzy-diffused lighting so perfectly planed; a real compliment to her listless elegance, dripping with sequins, trimmed in white fur and jewels a la Travis Banton. Impossibly glamorous, Dietrich was the personification of a type of stardom likely to remain unequaled as time continues to erode our illusions about 'greatness', what it means to be great, and how implausible it was that a little known fraulein from Germany should come to be regarded world-wide as one of the most exotic and charismatic performers of the 20th century. Delicious. Absolutely delicious!
That Dietrich’s screen persona, especially in the movies she made for von Sternberg, was oft linked to morally ambiguous women of the world, never to devolve into harsh, wanton or déclassé representations – no, Dietrich’s glacially cool, occasional mercilessness could never be archived under strumpets of the common class, even if they frequently hovered as moths drawn to the harlot’s glow of red light district brothels or harems – is a testament to another, even more cleverly concocted fantasy beyond those footlights. Hence, when Marlene Dietrich died on May 6, 1992 at the age of 90, she was still very much regarded an international emblem of animal magnetism; time alone, quite incapable of weathering her artfully projected unflappable urbanity. Partly because her unapologetic open sexuality was so risqué then (she wore pants at a time when they were frowned upon as suitable attire for women), her razor-sharp wit, teetering on insolence has retained its daring agelessness - the quintessential Weimar-era cabaret artiste, ostensibly a glamor queen for all time. And all of this loveable nonsense began with a little movie made for von Sternberg at UFA: 1930’s The Blue Angel in which the identity we now implicitly identify as being Marlene Dietrich, came rushing full throttle into the spotlight. Although she had been a fixture of German cinema throughout the silent era, nothing from this earlier period prepared audiences for the zeitgeist that was this movie’s minx, Lola-Lola.
Newly liberated, Dietrich’s image as a gender-less serpentine sexpot, seducing men and women – both in the audience, and with even more ballsy aplomb, blatantly on the screen – set off a powder keg of debate regarding the corrupting influence of the arts. One can, perhaps, see the inspiration of Garbo in this earliest collaboration with von Sternberg; Dietrich, greatly to have admired the Swedish sphinx, already a household word in Hollywood. Who can say what it was about this blowzy tart, somewhat Teutonic and merciless, that attracted Paramount Studios to offer Dietrich her American contract. Yes, she could speak English – a real plus for Euro-imports. Under von Sternberg’s guidance, and 30 lbs. lighter, Dietrich would continue to craft and reshape an alter ego to overtake and eclipse her past. She took Hollywood’s affinity for blondes in an entirely new direction, heightening the patrician value in her cheekbones and nose; the opacity in those pensive, crystal-blue eyes bordered by penciled-in brows to give even the golden arches at McDonald’s a real run for their money. Dietrich always projected from within the cryptic nature of her visage. She could adopt practically any degree or value of changeable temperament at a glance. She thought everything, felt everything, had likely ‘done’ everything – but kept it all expertly controlled and inside, allowing only flashes of such wicked decadence to periodically escape, and then – only then – when she knew the timing was absolutely right to achieve maximum effect.
Interestingly, while Dietrich’s reputation has remained Teflon-coated and virtually impervious to the malleable nature of time itself, it has all but obscured that of her mentor and Svengali, Austrian-born, Josef von Sternberg whose career straddles the chasm between the silent and sound eras in Hollywood with competing finesse. Virtually all of von Sternberg’s collaborations with Dietrich exhibit what, in hindsight, are his noteworthy trademarks – an arresting grasp of pictorial composition cluttered in bizarre production design, made even more mysterious and erotic with chiaroscuro illumination, and his relentless need for constant camera movement that bequeaths each moment its stark, and rare, terrifying emotional passion. Thematically, von Sternberg’s métier is exposing his characters’ desperation; an eternal conflict of interest between moral integrity, self-sacrifice, and, unbridled lust to be bad – or at least, live dangerously, but with purpose. The von Sternberg/Dietrich collaborations would afford the director two lost opportunities at the Academy Award - Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932). Under von Sternberg’s tutelage, Dietrich honed her craft down to a finite science, intuitively understanding the craftsmanship behind the camera.
Arguably, what the pair achieved in The Blue Angel could never again be duplicated, although Dietrich and von Sternberg would try and try again, collaborating on six more movies; each, hitting the mark with varying degrees of success; virtually, all of them variations on the promiscuous woman makes good. Morocco marked Dietrich’s arrival in Hollywood with real style. She was given top stars, Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou, a superb screenplay by Jules Furthman (adapted from a French best seller by Benno Vigny), and a setting – the desert – to rival the intensity of her own inbred exoticism. Dietrich is Amy Jolly, a husky-voiced cabaret singer who falls madly for a devil-may-care Legionnaire, Tom Brown (Cooper). The relationship is complicated – perhaps, even doomed – because of Brown’s flippant womanizing; also, Amy’s chance encounter with wealthy bon vivant, La Bessière (Menjou) who desires to elevate her social standing by showing Amy the good life in Tom’s absence. Today, Morocco is chiefly remembered for one rather infamous scene; Dietrich, attired in a man’s tuxedo and top hat, aloofly smoking a cigarette during her one-woman nightclub act, gingerly takes a young, admiring woman by the chin, kissing her full on the lips. Androgyny in the cinema was one thing; overt lesbianism, quite another. And while the sequence became a much-lauded highlight, it ruffled more than a few Puritanical feathers.
Morocco is set in the late twenties. Von Sternberg wastes no time setting up his conflict. We meet French Foreign Légionnaire, Private Tom Brown, a notorious scamp. Meanwhile, aboard a ship pulling into port we find disenfranchised nightclub singer, Amy Jolly. The girl has that certain je ne sais quoi an aristocrat like La Bessière cannot resist. The feeling is not mutual, as Amy politely declines La Bessière’s offer to show her the sights and quietly discards his calling card with indifference once he has turned away. La Bessière sees Amy again, as she is headlining a hot act in a local nightclub. Only now, he is in competition with Tom for her affections. The dashing soldier easily captures Amy’s heart. During her performance she unabashedly slips Tom the key to her room. Tom spurns an old lover, the wife of his commanding officer (Eve Southern) to keep their clandestine rendezvous. Alas, he is somewhat disheartened to discover pictures of other men adorning Amy’s boudoir. She denies ever caring enough about any man to keep more than a souvenir close to her heart. Tom confides he is hardly the right man to restore a woman’s fractured faith in men in general, having too many skeletons in his own closet. She agrees and sends him away. As Tom leaves her apartment he encounters Caesar’s wife yet again; Caesar (Ullrich Haupt) bitterly observing them from a darkened corridor.
In the meantime, Amy has decided she would like to get to know Tom better. He instantly leaves Caesar’s wife and she, in turn, hires a couple of hoods to rough him up. This, however, ends badly for the brutes, dispatched by Tom. Adjutant Caesar brings Tom up on charges he has assaulted two innocents in a drunken brawl. Although Amy clears Tom’s name as a witness, Caesar now makes it clear he knows what has been going on between Tom and his wife. Recognizing her affections for Tom, but also harboring deep-rooted feelings for Amy, La Bessière uses his considerable clout to get Tom’s sentence reduced from a court martial to a detention. Tom is marched to the Amalfi Pass with a regiment commanded by Caesar. Meanwhile, La Bessière lavishes jewels on Amy, hoping against hope to win her heart. He even proposes marriage. Overhearing this, Tom departs the city, believing it will be better for all concerned.
En route to the Amalfi Pass, Tom’s company is ambushed. Caesar orders Tom to the front at gunpoint. Alas, his revenge is short-lived as the enemy inadvertently kills Caesar, allowing for Tom’s escape into the mountains. A patient man, La Bessière plies Amy with luxuries she could never afford. He presents her to his friends as his consort even as she continues to pine for Tom. Reluctantly, she accepts his proposal of marriage. News arrives. Tom has been wounded and is in hospital. La Bessière takes Amy to the hospital to visit him, secure in his purpose and believing he has won this war between them. Regrettably, they have been misinformed; Tom, having faked his injuries, turns up at a brothel with a prostitute. Spurned once too often, Amy retreats with La Bessière. But the next afternoon, as Tom’s regiment marches off to the desert, Amy bids her benefactor goodbye, discarding her high-heeled shoes to trek across the burning sands after her lover; their future together uncertain at best.
Despite its exotic landscapes, not a frame of Morocco was actually shot in Morocco; sets, instead built in southern California and interiors photographed on Paramount sound stages. Cinematographer, Lee Garmes carefully lit Dietrich to minimize her bulbous nose, employing a gauze filter to illicit an even more romanticized mood. Although the picture was a colossal hit, with Paramount’s PR machine ramping into high gear to ensure their newest Euro-import caught on with audiences, tension on the set between Gary Cooper and von Sternberg, over the director’s emphasis on Dietrich, made for a generally unpleasant working experience. Paramount, however, could not argue with the results, and thus, Dietrich’s American film career was off and running. Paramount quickly reunited Dietrich and von Sternberg for Dishonored (1931), the sordid tale of a streetwalker cum Mata Hari-esque spy. Daniel Nathan Rubin’s screenplay heavily relied on Mata Hari’s real-life exploits. Von Sternberg objected to the title, as Frau Marie Kolverer – newly rechristened Agent X-27 – was not ‘dishonored’ in the picture but shot by a firing squad because of her loyalties to Russian Captain Kranau (Victor McLaglen). Meanwhile, Dietrich’s initial flurry of screen success had so alarmed MGM’s raja, L.B. Mayer, who saw her as a direct threat to Garbo’s supremacy at the box office, he hastily greenlit Mata Hari for Garbo; the picture released the same year to mostly positive reviews and box office. With Dishonored, Paramount had hoped to reunite Dietrich and Cooper. Alas, as Cooper and von Sternberg expressed their disinterest in stirring old tensions anew, Victor McLaglen was inserted into the cast in Coop’s stead. McLaglen is a fine actor. But he fails to generate the passionate love interest to serve as catalyst for Dietrich’s sensual on-screen affections. As a result, the conflict of interest so integral to the plot is decided missing from Dishonored.
Perhaps unnerved as to how Dietrich’s bird of paradise would exist in a contemporary setting, Dishonored is set even further back in history; 1915, to be exact. After witnessing the suicide of a working girl, Dietrich’s saucy Maria vows never to fall into similar dark despair. She is seconded into the spy biz by the nameless Chief of Austrian Secret Service (Gustav von Seyffertitz) whom she, at first, has arrested, but then willfully follows to her own detriment. The Chief offers Maria a generous compensation that she declines. As a true patriot, she will perform her duties for Austria as Agent X-27. Her assignment is to expose two suspected moles lurking in their midst: turncoat General von Hindau (Warren Oland) and Captain Kranau, a Russian intelligence officer. Using her sex appeal to ensnare both men, X-27 cleverly outfoxes von Hindau into revealing he has been using cigarettes to smuggle coded messages to the Russians. His cover blown, von Hindau commits suicide. After some more cloak and dagger, X-27, disguised as a simple-minded chambermaid, also subdues Kranau.
X-27 anesthetizes Colonel Kovrin’s (Lew Cody) grave concerns with regards to employing cheap liquor and sex play as viable techniques in her spy game, translating his plan of attack into a seemingly innocuous piano composition she intends to reveal to her superiors. Regrettably, Kranau is not so easily fooled, intercepting the sheet music and burning it in the fireplace. Captured by Kranau, X-27 again plies her feminine wiles to launch a successful escape back to Austria. Having committed Kovrin’s plans to memory and revealing them to her superiors, the Russian invasion is thwarted and Kranau is taken prisoner. Alas, there remains a streak of honor in X-27, who affords Kranau the same opportunity to make his escape back to Russia. Although the Chief can understand his agent’s motivations, he cannot prevent the convened tribunal from rendering its verdict in this crime of passion. X-27 has outlived her use. She is put to death by a firing squad.
Although popular with audiences, Dishonored was not nearly as big a success at the box office and Paramount, hoping to capitalize on the Dietrich-persona created in The Blue Angel, hastily rushed Blonde Venus (1932) into production. Although the picture sports several parallels with this predecessor, Blonde Venus is yet another attempt on von Sternberg’s part to expand Dietrich’s erotic screen chemistry, illustrating the point that even a ‘good woman’ could be ‘bad’, given the right circumstances. Concocting yet another tumultuous lover’s triangle for this picture presented a minor quandary, despite the casting of Herbert Marshall and Cary Grant as polar opposite love interests; Marshall, as ill-stricken, Ned Faraday and husband to Helen (Dietrich) and Grant, a not altogether ne’er-do-well/playboy, Nick Townsend. It remains something of a curiosity that von Sternberg elects to kick off the picture with a truncated prologue, depicting several students, including Ned, on a walking tour in Germany. The men stumble upon a small group of girls skinny-dipping in a pond; Ned, flirting with Helen, who is not amused. We leap ahead by seven years; Ned and Helen long ago wed with a seven-year-old son, Johnny (Dickie Moore) and living in a squalid little apartment in New York.
Ned, a chemist by trade, has inadvertently poisoned himself with radium. Without a highly experimental and very expensive treatment he will surely die. So, Helen goes back to work in the only profession she knows; nightclub singer. Lying to her husband about having received an advance on her salary from her boss, Dan O’Connor (Robert Emmett O’Connor), when in reality, the $1500 required for Ned’s treatment has come from Nick Townsend, an ardent admirer who frequents her act, Ned departs for Germany to begin his recuperation; blissfully unaware his wife has already begun to fall for Nick. After some months, Ned returns, learns the truth and threatens Helen. She, in turn, flees with Johnny; the pair on the run as she continues to find work in sleezier and sleezier nightclubs across the country, always being tailed by Detective Wilson (Sidney Toler). Eventually, Wilson catches up to Helen. She relinquishes custody of Johnny to his father and falls on hard times, winding up in a flop house. Returning home, the sadder but wiser Helen is reunited with her son, whom she quietly serenades with a music box. Realizing he has never stopped loving his wife, Ned reconciles with Helen.
Critics were not at all impressed with Blonde Venus, despite a few marveling at the return of Dietrich to her cabaret roots. She performs several numbers as part of Helen’s nightclub act, including the scintillating ‘Hot Voodoo’ and ‘I Couldn’t Be Annoyed’ in her trademarked men’s tuxedo. Perhaps marginally concerned the von Sternberg/Dietrich ship of dreams had already run out of steam, Paramount elected to give the pairing one last chance to redeem themselves at the box office. The result was Shanghai Express (1932), again written by Jules Furthman, loosely basing his script on several stories; chiefly, Harry Hervey’s ‘Sky Over China’ while borrowing elemental structure from Guy de Maupassant's ‘Boule de Suif’, and, a real-life incident from 1923 involving the capture of the Shanghai to Beijing Express by a Shandong warlord who successfully ransomed off all of its passengers. This time, however, the results were beyond what anyone might have expected; the combination of Orientalism, exoticism and Dietrich, once more relegated to playing the unrepentant prostitute, Madeleine (a.k.a. Shanghai Lily), Shanghai Express out-grossed every other collaboration, ringing registers to the tune of $3.7 million. In later years, Paramount would remake this picture twice; first, as 1942’s Night Plane from Chungking, then again in 1951 as Peking Express.
Shanghai Express is an atmospheric masterpiece, set in war-torn China circa 1931. When colleagues of British Captain Donald ‘Doc’ Harvey (Clive Brook) discover he is bound for a trip with the notorious courtesan, Shanghai Lily he becomes the envy of every officer. Indeed, Lil’ has a reputation. Unhappy circumstance for Harvey, Lil’ happens to be a stage name – the prostitute in question actually Harvey’s former flame, Madeleine. Even after all this time the couples’ mutual feelings for each other has not cooled. Indeed, Harvey finds himself falling in love with Madeleine all over again. At present, Madeleine is sharing a compartment aboard the Shanghai Express with another working girl, Hui Fei (Anna May Wong, in a rare ‘featured’ role). Mr. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), a Christian missionary condemns these ‘fallen women’. Also, along for the journey are Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette), an incorrigible gambler, and, opium dealer, Eric Baum (Gustav von Seyffertitz), boarding house keeper, Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale), French officer Major Lenard (Emile Chautard) and a shadowy Eurasian, Henry Chang (Warner Oland) who, in time, will reveal himself to be a powerful warlord.
After Chinese soldiers apprehend a rebel agent aboard the train, Chang lights upon the notion to take one of the more valued passengers hostage in trade for the return of his aide. As a skilled brain surgeon, was bound for Shanghai to perform a delicate operation on the Governor-General, Harvey becomes Chang’s bartering tool. Meanwhile Chang tempts Shanghai Lily. She claims to have reformed, and Chang instead rapes Hui Fei. Lil’ offers herself in exchange for Harvey. Chang willingly agrees, much to Harvey’s chagrin. He is quite unaware her sacrifice is meant to save him. Meanwhile, Hui Fei returns to Chang, feigning another flagrante delicto, but instead murdering him with a dagger. Carmichael deduces Lil’s nobility. But she swears him to silence as she is testing to see if Harvey’s love and faith in her will go hand in glove. Discovering the truth for himself, and also, Chang’s body lying on the floor, Harvey ushers Lil’ and Hui Fei aboard the Shanghai Express before anyone is the wiser. As the train pulls from station, Lil’ offers herself exclusively to Harvey but only if he will fully reciprocate in turn. Unable to deny his passion for her any longer, Harvey agrees. The two lovers embrace and the train departs for its final destination.
The von Sternberg/Dietrich collaboration reached its zenith with Shanghai Express and, after a minor hiatus, The Scarlet Empress (1934); a movie so suggestive in its sexual content, it became one of the cause célèbre for the Catholic League of Decency to press Hollywood, at long last, into fully adopting its Production Code of Ethics. Although denounced by the critics as a self-indulgent (and costly) excursion, The Scarlet Empress today has achieved notoriety for its truly bizarre and spookily lit, almost impressionist depiction of Imperial Russia – a court populated by so many oddball performances it evolves a disturbing and poisonous splendor of madness, pure style and calculation. Hans Dreier’s art direction evokes a hypnotic hyperrealism steeped in moral ambiguity, decadence and decay. The plywood palace walls lined in shimmering icons, depict leering saints, lit by flickering candlelight. The antechambers and throne room are cluttered with life-size plaster gargoyles sculpted in the Orthodox tradition. There is a sense of dread and foreboding almost from the instance Princess Sophia Frederica (Dietrich) departs the relative – if stifling – safety of her decidedly conservative home to ascend the throne as a new bride for the socially invalided Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe, at his wild-eyed/paranoiac best).
Rechristened Catherine II, Dietrich transforms herself from doe-eyed innocent to sexually-starved dominatrix, driven to succeed by her ambitious revenge against the lusty and raven-haired hunk, Count Alexei (John Davis Lodge). Regrettably, the alliance envisioned by Sophia’s enterprising mother, Joanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp (Olive Tell) and the caustic and haughty Empress Elizabeth (Louise Dresser) is not to be. Peter is a half-witted, mentally abusive reprobate. As he has no passion for his wife, and she definitely prefers the Count, the couple remains childless, much to Elizabeth’s displeasure. Soon, however, it is revealed to Catherine that Alexei, apart from his general womanizing, is also Elizabeth’s consort. Disgusted by this turn of events, for she truly loved him, Catherine rebuffs both her husband and lover, taking up with any number of handsome suitors from the Empress’ Royal Guard. Seventeen years of sexual debauchery pass, culminating in the slow, sad death of Elizabeth. Almost immediately afterward, Peter takes steps against his wife. However, he has underestimated the power of his soldier’s allegiance to Catherine. Moreover, virtually everyone at court has recognized by now that to promote a manifestly crazy individual to the throne would prove a national disaster. Peter is self-destructive and vengeful. As such, the guards rebel on Catherine’s behalf. She is successful at executing a palace coup. Peter is deposed and Catherine ascends to the throne, forever after to be known as Catherine the Great.
Although neither could have known it at the time, the sun had already set on the Dietrich/von Sternberg era; the tremendous commercial and financial failure of The Scarlet Empress souring Paramount on von Sternberg in particular. In fact, the studio released von Sternberg from his commitment to make a picture of their choosing. Paramount firmly believed The Scarlet Empress’ failure lay in the director’s weighty visual layering of artifice on a rather wafer-thin narrative. Worse for von Sternberg was the curdling of his usually stellar working relationship with his star. Master and mate frequently clashed on the set, von Sternberg heavily invested in the look of the film as a whole, with Dietrich’s performance coming in a distant second. Von Sternberg knew Dietrich still had cache at the box office. Perhaps, in a curious ‘last ditch’ effort to shore up his own sagging reputation, he cast her in The Devil Is a Woman (1935) the following year. While Dietrich reluctantly agreed to the picture, by the end of its shooting schedule she had regained her admiration for the man, ostensibly, to have made her a Hollywood icon and household name. Bedecked in Travis Banton’s sumptuously preposterous gowns, Dietrich once more proved no one could quite outdo her sense of style. More is the pity then The Devil Is a Woman turned out to be yet another weak-kneed romance, this one adapted from an obscure 1898 novel, La Femme et le pantin by Pierre Louÿs. John Dos Passos’ screenplay cast Dietrich as yet another woman of ill-repute; Concha Perez – a real man-eater. Having devoured the reputation of Capt. Don Pasqual Costelar, Concha has moved on to Antonio Galvan (Cesar Romero); an elegant reprobate already on the run from the law.
The first third of our story is relayed in flashback by Pasqual to Antonio as a cautionary tale after the disgraced Captain observes Concha’s brief tease and seduction of Antonio during Seville’s Carnival. Concha is a social climber, resplendent but heartless, who used Pasqual and a slew of other lovers without remorse to advance her standing in ‘polite’ society. The narcissistic Antonio’s bourgeois revolutionary activities have made him a wanted man. Still, he is willing to gamble his freedom on a night’s indiscretions with this hypnotic beauty of ill-repute. As a younger man, Pasqual was just as foolhardy, allowing himself to be subjected to all sorts of humiliations and ridicule in his fruitless pursuit of this devastatingly handsome peasant girl. Now, a middle-aged aristocrat, the Captain denies he continues to harbor a deep-seeded lust for the woman who did him wrong. The seriousness of this toxic love triangle is offset by von Sternberg’s intermittent departures to Governor Don Paquito (Edward Everett Horton), a despotic commandant of Seville’s police force, responsible for maintaining order during the Carnival.
Meanwhile, Antonio decides to keep his rendezvous with Concha. He tests the validity of Don Pasqual’s recollections by confronting Concha with the past. But only moments into his search for the truth an impassioned letter from Pasqual arrives by courier. So, Pasqual has not forgotten Concha. Now, his admonishment of her seems to register as just plain jealousy. Antonio is drawn to defend her honor – such as it is. Don Pasqual arrives, accusing Antonio of not keeping his promise to steer clear of Concha. She defends Antonio. Don Pasqual demands satisfaction. A duel is thus arranged. But Pasqual cannot bring himself to kill Antonio and is himself wounded. As duels have been outlawed in Spain, the police arrive and arrest Antonio, whom they have been looking for any way. Don Pasqual is taken to hospital. Desperate to spare her lover the hangman’s noose, Concha pleads her case to Governor Paquito, and obtains his authorization for Antonio’s escape to Paris. As a farewell gesture of her gratitude, Concha visits Don Pasqual in hospital to thank him for sparing Antonio’s life. The couple makes their way across the border without incident. Alas, as the train prepares to depart Concha informs the station master she is not boarding. A bewildered Antonio looks on from the moving train as she instead announces her intention to remain behind with Don Pasqual who is certainly dying.
Having suffered a terrible year, profits at an all-time low ebb, Paramount, under new leadership from Ernest Lubitsch, announced von Sternberg’s contract would not be renewed. Furthermore, The Devil is a Woman was rather unceremoniously dumped on the market without any build-up or publicity, all but ensuring it would quickly fade into obscurity and not make money. Von Sternberg had been agitated with Lubitsch for changing his original title, ‘Caprice Espagnol’ to The Devil is A Woman; the former, to have referenced Russian composer, Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol, of which several orchestral selections survived and are interpolated throughout this movie. Lubitsch also shortened the picture by nearly 17 minutes. Lost in the shuffle was ‘If It Isn’t Pain It Isn’t Love’ – a sensual ballad sung by Concha. If Paramount was uncertain of the Dietrich/von Sternberg staying power, they were as unprepared for the glowing praise heaped upon the picture by the critics, many of who thought it the best of their many outings – save, The Blue Angel. Alas, such uber-sophistication was lost on audiences. Worse, von Sternberg’s depiction of Spain and its government as dandified fops strained U.S./Spanish relations. The U.S. State Department pleaded with Paramount to stage a private burning of the master negative for the benefit of the Spanish Ambassador in Washington D.C. Indeed, this was done and widely covered in the European press. Even so, The Devil is a Woman played domestically and overseas until it became clear the picture’s continuation in any form could lead to a complete disintegration of U.S./Spain trade agreements. Under duress, studio chief, Adolph Zukor pulled the film from circulation.
Despite the finality associated with it, as the picture ended von Sternberg’s alliance with Dietrich and Paramount with a leaden thud, The Devil is a Woman’s reputation as a grisly and unadorned parable, for man’s eternal humiliation in the battle of the sexes, wrought an intricate tapestry of pathos and amusement. In years then yet to follow, the picture would come to be regarded as a somewhat cynical, if autobiographical account of von Sternberg’s involved relationship with Dietrich, with Atwell and Romero as the cruelly martyred symbols of passion’s futility. While Dietrich’s film career would survive the end of this era, von Sternberg’s reputation in Hollywood never recovered. Given two more opportunities to redeem himself, von Sternberg’s attention to detail failed to catch on without Dietrich as his muse. Save The Shanghai Gesture (1941) and a brief featurette, von Sternberg’s influence as a premiere artiste faded into obscurity. As the years passed he seemed impossibly lost to the ages and, after the mid-1950’s, withdrew entirely from making pictures to teach courses at the University of Southern California. A heart attack claimed him in 1969, age 75. As for Dietrich…she was to spectacularly morph with the times.
Despite negative press, as much afforded for her German heritage as regarding a lackluster spate of movies that marginally kept her reputation afloat throughout the mid-1940’s, Dietrich would rise again in such notable productions as 1959’s Witness for the Prosecution and 1961’s Judgment at Nuremberg. She also reestablished herself as a one-woman stage performer. During the war, Dietrich had counteracted rumors she was a Nazi sympathizer by redoubling her efforts to entertain American troops and raise money for war bonds, making it clear to the world she despised the socio-political climate of Adolf Hitler’s Germany, famously going on record, “The German people and I no longer speak the same language.” Understandably, there was a backlash to her comments in Germany; Dietrich, an obscured figure there even after the war and until the mid-1960’s when she returned to her native land, embraced as a cultural icon for her audacity and forthrightness. Declining health prematurely forced Dietrich to retire, although she was to make the most of a cameo in 1979’s Just a Gigolo, opposite David Bowie. That same year her autobiography was published, followed in 1984 by Maximilian Schell’s glowing documentary/tribute to her life and career, simply titled ‘Marlene’ for which she provided an ongoing narration but absolutely refused to appear before the cameras. On May 6, 1992, Dietrich died in Paris, age 90 – her epic funeral attended by more than 1,500 mourners, many of them heads of state, depositing white wildflowers and roses on her closed casket. Time, always a cruel task master to our corruptible bodies, has nevertheless been exceedingly kind to Dietrich’s reputation as a movie icon. She endures as few of her vintage have since; an indominable figurehead for the liberated woman.
And now, with Criterion’s release of Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood, movie lovers everywhere get to experience 6 of their 7 screen collaborations that made Dietrich one of the most beguiling international figures of 20th century cinema. Every film in this collection has been provided the utmost care; remastered in 2K from surviving archival sources currently housed at Universal Studios. The results, alas, are quite uneven. Owing to less than perfect materials, Morocco’s 1080p transfer is quite weak; sporting a washed-out B&W image that frequently is blurry and dull. It is a pity one of the best movies in this collection looks so poor. While Universal has done what it can to stabilize the image, occasionally everything is so out of focus with blown out contrast that it even obscures fine facial details in medium and long shots. The other transgressor here is Shanghai Express; fraught with intermittent edge enhancement. It’s not quite as egregious, but it is present and accounted for – curiously so – as, by now, such baked in digital anomalies ought to have become a thing of the past when remastering movies for Blu-ray.
The rest of the movies in this set offer fairly impressive imagery; marked by solid contrast, a light smattering of film grain looking very indigenous to its source, and some gorgeous fine detail. The PCM 2.0 mono on all these discs is adequate, with minor hiss and pop heard only during quiescent moments. Criterion pads this set with some fairly fascinating extras; newly produced featurettes covering the Von Sternberg/Dietrich alliance, the movies in general, and finally, the fascinating and formidable ‘collection’ of artifacts, costumes and props Dietrich managed to save from her movies throughout her lifetime, later donated to a Berlin museum by her daughter, Maria. We also get vintage radio programs and interviews to augment our appreciation. Last but not least, is Criterion’s handsomely produced booklet of essays on Dietrich and von Sternberg. Bottom line: given the age and improper storage of these elements over time, what has survived is noteworthy. For any historian or film lover, this is pure box office gold waiting to be mined. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Morocco – 4
Dishonored – 3.5
Blonde Venus – 3.5
Shanghai Express – 5+
The Scarlet Empress – 4.5
The Devil is a Woman – 3
Morocco – 2.5
Dishonored – 4
Blonde Venus – 4
Shanghai Express – 3.5
The Scarlet Empress – 4.5
The Devil is a Woman – 4.5