love it when The Criterion Collection produces a lavish boxed set containing
multiple features, an abundance of supplements, and a thick and illustrated
booklet. What better collection is there than one featuring the six Hollywood
films made between 1930 and 1935 by Josef von Sternberg and starring the
exquisite Marlene Dietrich? Hats off to producer Issa Clubb for overseeing what
could be one of Criterion’s better products.
adventure-romances showcased a star who immediately defined the word “exotic”—a
German-born, English-speaking, beautiful, sultry, seductress who could act,
sing, and dance. Like Greta Garbo, who had arrived in Hollywood during the
silent era, Marlene Dietrich exhibited a European mystery to American audiences
of the early Depression years. Her self-styled (with the help of her trusted
director, von Sternberg) gender-bending wardrobes and mannerisms, her sometimes
ambiguous but often overt sexuality, and her allure of “knowing something we
didn’t” made her an overnight star… for a while.
documented in the various supplements that appear over the six Blu-ray disks in
the set, Dietrich and von Sternberg enjoyed a successful and acclaimed period
during the Pre-Code days. It seemed, though, that as soon as the Production
Code went into effect in July 1934, the popularity of the star and the
director’s films waned. For the second half of the 1930s, Dietrich, like
several other leading ladies, became what was termed “box-office poison”—that
is, until she made a booming come-back in 1939’s Destry Rides Again.
and von Sternberg first worked together in the 1930 German-produced picture, The Blue Angel, which was filmed in both
the German language and in English. The director, already an established filmmaker
in Hollywood, convinced his studio, Paramount, to bring Dietrich over and sign
her to a multi-picture contract. The young star left Germany on the night The Blue Angel premiered in her native
country. Paramount held the U.S. release back until after the exhibition of her
first official Hollywood production, Morocco
(also 1930). This initial appearance in America proved to be a sensation. The
English-language version of The Blue
Angel was released a month later, and Marlene Dietrich had arrived.
historical importance of the films in Criterion’s new collection can be broken
down into three words—light, shadow, and Marlene. Josef von Sternberg was a
master of visual imagery in motion pictures at a time when black and white
cinematography was evolving as an art form. A cameraman himself, he was one of
the few directors in Hollywood who knew how to light a set and photograph it
(in fact, he is not only the director but also the cinematographer of the sixth
title in this set, The Devil is a Woman).
Von Sternberg’s use of German expressionism—heavy on the shadows, high contrast
between light and dark—did wonders for Marlene Dietrich’s cheekbones. An
actress was likely never photographed so beautifully as in those first few
films—not even Garbo. The greatest pleasure of the Dietrich & von Sternberg
boxed set is the gorgeousness of its images. While von Sternberg certainly had
much to say about how his films were photographed, many kudos must be given to
the other two cinematographers he worked with—Lee Garmes (three titles) and
Bert Glennon (two titles).
six films in the collection are as follows.
Morocco (1930), co-starring
Gary Cooper and Adolphe Menjou, the story takes place during the French
Legionnaire days. Dietrich, as a character based on a real-life cabaret singer,
involves the two men in a love triangle while war wages in the desert. While
most Hollywood early sound films of 1929 and 1930 are very stagey, Morocco avoids this trap with night club
scenes, exterior action, and the mysterious locale of North Africa (although
the picture was shot in Hollywood, of course). One of the best entries in the
collection, Morocco received Academy
Award nominations for Best Actress (Dietrich), Director (von Sternberg), Cinematography,
and Interior Decoration.
Dishonored (1931), co-starring
Victor McLaglen and Warner Oland. Dietrich displays her take on a Mata Hari
character—a spy called “X-27,” who works for Vienna during World War I. She is
assigned to take down an Austrian and a Russian who have hooks in Austrian
Intelligence. While beautifully photographed and featuring a marvelous
performance by Dietrich, Dishonored moves
too slowly—and with a few laborious ten-second cross-fades—to be a total
success. McLaglen is miscast, grinning like a bumpkin too much of the time.
Still, the star and her wardrobes steal the show.
Shanghai Express (1932), co-starring
Clive Brook, Warner Oland, and Anna May Wong. For my money, this one’s the
crown jewel in the collection. The picture employed dozens of Chinese extras
(although white actor Oland is unfortunately cast in one of his many “Oriental”
roles—a sad trend that was all-too-commonplace in Hollywood) to create a
magnificent train-adventure through early 20th Century China.
Dietrich, as “Shanghai Lily,” is at her most beguiling. Anna May Wong, an
actress who deserves her own retrospective, gives Dietrich considerable
competition in scene-stealing. This one received Academy Award nominations for
Best Picture and Director, and Garmes won the well-deserved Cinematography
Blonde Venus (1932), co-starring
Herbert Marshall and Cary Grant. Dietrich plays another nightclub singer who
marries Marshall but carries on an affair with Grant (a bit of a cad in this
early supporting role). Pre-Code decadence and sin is on full display. Dietrich
has some of her better musical numbers in this one.
The Scarlet Empress (1934), co-starring
John Lodge, Sam Jaffe, and Louise Dresser. This title appeared on DVD from the
Criterion Collection some years ago—the Blu-ray is a welcome upgrade. Dietrich
plays Catherine the Great in 18th Century Russia, so the period settings
and costumes are lavish and spectacular. Released just after the Production
Code went into effect, the film somehow squeaked by as a Pre-Code film with an
abundance of erotic imagery and themes.
The Devil is a Woman (1935), co-starring
Lionel Atwill and Cesar Romero. Dietrich herself claimed this title to be her
favorite among the films she made with von Sternberg. Taking place in Spain at
the end of the 19th Century, Dietrich plays a particularly cruel but
seductive femme fatale who sets about
ruining the men who love her. Maybe that’s why she liked it the best. Apparently,
nearly twenty minutes had to be cut from the film by order of the censors,
including a musical number that was instead released as a hit record for
Dietrich (go figure).
six films feature either 2K or 4K digital restorations, with uncompressed
monaural soundtracks. They look fabulous.
spread over the six disks are too many to list, but some of the best are noted
here. The new documentary, Weimar on the
Pacific, with film scholars Gerd Gemünden and Noah
Isenberg, delivers an excellent overview of Dietrich’s career during the period.
A documentary on Dietrich’s status as a feminist icon—and arguably a major
player in the concept of “queer cinema”—and featuring film scholars Mary
Desjardins, Amy Lawrence, and Patricia White—is essential viewing. A non-verbal
video essay by critics Cristina Álvarez López
and Adrian Martin is nearly thirty minutes of breathtaking clips from the films
that showcase von Sternberg’s light/shadow compositions. An interview with film
scholar Homay King on Hollywood’s “Orientalism” and the actress Anna May Wong
is fascinating. Two pieces feature the work of Paramount’s head costume
designer, Travis Banton. There is much more, but the one video interview with
Marlene Dietrich herself must be mentioned. Shot in 1971 for Swedish
television, Dietrich looks marvelous and relates interesting tales—but it’s
obvious that she thinks her two male interviewers are idiots (they are!). She
did not suffer fools lightly.
enclosed booklet contains numerous, terrific photographs, and essays by critics
Imogen Sara Smith, Gary Giddens, and Farran Smith Nehme.
Dietrich & von
Sternberg in Hollywood is a landmark boxed set that is a must for film
historians, lovers of Pre-Code and early Hollywood sound pictures,
cinematography buffs, and fans of the immortal Marlene Dietrich. Highly