Upcoming Screenings

Invasion of the Body Snatchers
October 23rd, 2021

Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1956]


Please join Cultivate Cinema Circle as we screen Don Siegel’s film Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1956].


Event Sponsors:

Venue Information:

Downtown Central Library Auditorium
1 Lafayette Square, Buffalo, NY 14203
(Enter from Clinton Street between Oak and Washington Streets)
716-858-8900 • www.BuffaloLib.org
COVID protocol will be followed.


TrailerSynopsisDirector BioLinks

Extraterrestrial invaders mimic the likeness of humans in an insidious plot to take over Earth. When a doctor discovers pods containing creatures that can assume the physical appearance of anyone they choose, he attempts to destroy them.

Tidbits:

  • National Film Preservation Board – 1994 – National Film Registry

Courtesy of TCM:

The montage department at Warner Bros. gave producer-director Don Siegel the necessary tools to impart his signature economical, action-driven style that made films like “Riot on Cell Block 11” (1954), “Invasion of the Body Snatcher” (1955), “The Killers” (1964), “Dirty Harry” (1971) and “Charley Varrick” (1973) such high water marks in the crime and thriller genres. Though Siegel disavowed any notable style, his films were earmarked by their brisk pace, uncompromising violence, and heroes that frequently followed the same moral path as their villains. Siegel’s strongest pictures were in collaboration with “Harry” star Clint Eastwood, whose own prominence was boosted by his work with the director in “Coogan’s Bluff” (1968) and “Escape from Alcatraz” (1979), among others. There was no denying that Siegel’s four-decade career generated some of the most enjoyable and mature crime dramas to come from Hollywood.

Born in Chicago, IL on Oct. 26, 1912, Don Siegel came from a musical family that included a violinist father. As a young man, Siegel initially trained to be a stage actor. After graduating from Jesus College in Cambridge, England, he began working in the Warner Bros. film library in 1934. Siegel quickly graduated to assistant editor and later assistant head of the insert department before taking control of the studio’s montage department. There, he composed some of the most striking montages for features, including the opening sequence in “Casablanca” (1942), “Now, Voyager” (1942) and “Action in the North Atlantic” (1943). His experience there led to work as a second unit and assistant director on films like “Sergeant York” (1941) and “To Have and Have Not” (1943). Both experiences would prove invaluable to his subsequent career as a director; the montage work taught him to plan his shots with meticulous care, which would in turn allow him greater control over the finished product by limiting the amount of footage available for producers to re-edit his films. The limited time, budget and access to performers afforded to second unit directors taught Siegel the importance of working quickly and accurately, both of which would be hallmarks of his subsequent directorial style.

Features were Siegel’s ultimate goal, but Warner chief Jack Warner refused to let him out of his contract for fear that they would lose his distinctive montage. Warner eventually consented to let Siegel direct a pair of short films; the first, “Star in the Night” (1945), was a modern Western that presented a 20th century take on the Biblical story of Christmas, while “Hitler Lives” (1946) incorporated wartime footage of Nazi leaders with dramatized scenes to underscore its message of vigilance towards postwar Germany and Nazi sympathizers in the United States. Though Siegel was not credited for the latter project, both films won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. “Hitler” would also serve as the seed of a lingering debate in regard to Siegel’s political stance, with some viewing it as a strongly conservative picture, while others taking its message as virulently anti-totalitarianism. Regardless of their themes, both films signaled that Siegel was ready to tackle features, and in 1946, he ended his 14-year relationship with Warner Bros. to freelance as a director for various studios.

Siegel’s first directorial effort was “The Verdict” (1946), an offbeat mystery featuring the fabled screen duo of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. Soon after, he began to craft his signature style through a series of dramas and thrillers, most notably “Night Unto Night” (1949), a unusual feature about the romance between a man (Ronald Reagan) stricken with epilepsy and a woman (Siegel’s wife, actress Vivica Lindfors) contemplating suicide after her divorce. Though Siegel would deny any sense of an individual style, recurrent themes and elements would begin to surface in his work in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Pictures like “The Big Steal” (1949), “Riot in Cell Block 11” (1954) and “Private Hell 36” (1954) were briskly paced, violent affairs, with restless camerawork following his characters rather than dictating their movement. Such an approach lent a realistic feel which heighted the drama and action that were inherent to his films.

Siegel’s editing background also brought a burst of energy to his action scenes; fistfights, car chases and shootouts were delivered in brief but intense explosions of tension and release. Siegel’s heroes also reflected his economical, no-nonsense approach; Robert Mitchum’s Army lieutenant in “Big Steal” and Neville Brand’s inmate in “Cell Block 11” (1954) were tough, single-minded men whose sole purpose in life was to stand by their own personal codes of honor. They avoided the standard societal codes, operating under their own rules, and frequently broke traditional movie tenets in their pursuit of their desires, whether financial, personal or otherwise. Often times, there was very little separating his heroes from his villains. Such an approach endeared Siegel to noir fans, as well as serious students of American cinema like Francois Truffaut, who was an unabashed admirer. For his part, Siegel described himself as a “whore” who simply worked for the profit, and indeed, for every great effort during the 1950s and beyond, there were minor, forgettable efforts like “Hound-Dog Man” (1959), a frivolous, fictionalized biopic of Elvis Presley with Fabian in the lead, and countless television episodes, including “The Doctor” (NBC, 1952-53) and two of the weakest stories on “The Twilight Zone” (CBS, 1959-1964).

Despite the erratic nature of Siegel’s career, he turned out some exceptional films in the late ’50s and 1960s that became favorites for crime and thriller enthusiasts and scholars alike. “Crime in the Streets” (1956) was a gritty urban drama with James Whitmore as a social worker attempting to turn street punks John Cassavetes and Sal Mineo away from a life of crime, while “The Lineup” (1958) afforded character actor Eli Wallach a rare lead as a psychopathic gangster who tracked down and killed tourists who had become unwitting drug mules. He was also adept at war pictures, like the Steve McQueen vehicle “Hell is For Heroes” (1962) and Westerns like “Flaming Star” (1960), which gave Elvis Presley one of his best screen roles as a half-Native American caught between his adopted white family and warring tribes. Siegel also made one of the greatest science fiction films of the 20th century, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956), which depicted the takeover of a small California town by extraterrestrials with the ability to duplicate humans through giant plant-like pods. The film was the center of considerable debate over its allegiance or opposition to the anti-Communist witch hunts of the period, with both sides swearing Siegel’s fealty to their side. For his part, Siegel would later comment that the pods represented the front office at Hollywood studios. In 1959, he made his debut as producer-director on “Edge of Eternity” (1959), and would oversee nine more films during his lengthy career.

Save for “The Killers” (1964), a savage gangster picture with Lee Marvin as an amoral killer and Ronald Reagan in his final screen role as a cruel mob boss, Siegel worked in television for most of the mid-1960s before returning to features with “Madigan” (1968), a downbeat police drama about a New York detective (Richard Widmark) on the trail of a killer who eluded him during a routine bust. The film was particularly trying for the director, who clashed frequently with producer Frank Rosenberg. However, his next film, “Coogan’s Bluff” (1968), marked the beginning of a career revival, as well as a long personal and professional collaboration with its star, Clint Eastwood. At the time, Eastwood was riding the wave of popularity from his Italian westerns with Sergio Leone, and had returned to the United States in search of quality projects. A fan of Siegel’s earlier work, he tapped the older man to direct “Bluff,” a crime drama with Western overtones about an Arizona sheriff (Eastwood) who pursued a psychotic criminal (Don Stroud) through New York.

The new actor/director team soon followed their first hit with “Two Mules for Sister Sara” (1970), a Western with Shirley MacLaine as a prostitute posing as a nun and Eastwood as the drifter who aids her against Mexican soldiers, and “The Beguiled” (1971), a Gothic period piece about a wounded Union soldier (Eastwood) who, after being rescued by the teacher and students at an female boarding school, received a brutal come-uppance after attempting to seduce them. The picture was marked by negative reactions to Eastwood’s weak character and a perceived notion of misogyny, an idea bolstered in part by Siegel’s comment about the film’s depiction of women’s “basic desire to castrate men.” However, the controversy it generated was nothing when compared to the firestorm of criticism that followed their next collaboration, “Dirty Harry” (1971).

A violent crime thriller about a trigger-happy San Francisco detective (Eastwood) whose investigative methods were not dissimilar to the sadistic sniper (Andrew Robinson) he pursued, “Harry” became an iconic role for Eastwood, and one of Siegel’s biggest career hits, but the film was dogged as a right-wing fantasy that celebrated police brutality and fascist responses to violence. Siegel distanced himself from the debate, which actually incurred protests at screenings, though several critics saw the film as an implication of viewers’ own violent urges and knee-jerk responses to acts of brutality. Harry Callahan would return for several more movie adventures, though Siegel would not direct any of them. He would, however, serve as a strong influence on the directorial career of Eastwood, whose own terse cinematic style and focus on the moral ambiguity of his characters reflected Siegel’s worldview.

Siegel’s output slowed in the years following “Harry.” He had been in the movie business for over four decades, and had enjoyed a career that most directors would find envious. He would direct and producer a handful of films in the 1970s, most of which turned a profit and enjoyed respectable box office returns. The cult favorite “Charley Varrick” (1973) starred Walter Matthau as a cagey bank robber who runs afoul of mobsters, and featured one of the most unique chase scenes in film history, with Matthau in a plane pursued by relentless killer Joe Don Baker in a car. “The Shootist” (1976) was an unsentimental Western about an aging gunfighter (John Wayne, in his final screen role) whose attempt to retire was challenged by a vicious criminal (Richard Boone). And “Escape from Alcatraz” (1979) was a tense prison film about the real-life escape from the maximum-security prison by inmate Frank Morris (Eastwood). Though a hit, the picture ended the long relationship between Eastwood and Siegel when the latter took over the production of the film from his star.

In addition to his directing career, Siegel acted in minor roles in several films. He made cameos in many of his own projects, including an elevator passenger in “Coogan’s Bluff” and a pedestrian in “Dirty Harry.” Eastwood cast him in a minor part as a bartender in “Play Misty for Me” (1971), while Philip Kaufman brought him aboard the remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978) as the driver of the cab who struck Kevin McCarthy, the star of Siegel’s version. Siegel would direct two more films, “Rough Cut” (1980) and “Jinxed!” (1982) before retiring in the 1980s. The former was a minor hit for Burt Reynolds as a jewel thief, while the latter was a disastrous comedy for Bette Midler as a Vegas lounge singer who fell for an unlucky card dealer (Ken Wahl). Both stars opened loathed each other during filming, and Midler also clashed with Siegel, who suffered a heart attack during production. The film’s sole positive note was the brief revival it afforded Sam Peckinpah, who was hired by Siegel as second unit director on the film, and as a result, received a final turn as director on “The Osterman Weekend” (1983) before his death. On April 20, 1991, Siegel died from cancer in Nipomo, CA. His body of work underwent several re-evaluations in the years that followed his passing, with his own autobiography, A Siegel Film, published posthumously in 1993, serving as the final word on many of his projects. In 1992, Eastwood dedicated his Oscar-winning Western “Unforgiven” to the two men whose work had the greatest impact on his career: Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.

Filmography:

  • Jinxed! (1982)
  • Rough Cut (1980)
  • Escape From Alcatraz (1979)
  • Telefon (1977)
  • The Shootist (1976)
  • The Black Windmill (1974)
  • Charley Varrick (1973)
  • Dirty Harry (1971)
  • The Beguiled (1971)
  • Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)
  • Madigan (1968)
  • Coogan’s Bluff (1968)
  • The Killers (1964)
  • Hell Is for Heroes (1962)
  • Flaming Star (1960)
  • Edge of Eternity (1959)
  • Hound-Dog Man (1959)
  • The Lineup (1958)
  • The Gun Runners (1958)
  • Spanish Affair (1958)
  • Baby Face Nelson (1957)
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  • Crime in the Streets (1956)
  • An Annapolis Story (1955)
  • Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)
  • Private Hell 36 (1954)
  • No Time for Flowers (1953)
  • Count the Hours (1953)
  • China Venture (1953)
  • The Duel at Silver Creek (1952)
  • Night unto Night (1949)
  • The Big Steal (1949)
  • The Verdict (1946)

Here is a curated selection of links for additional insight/information:

  • “One of the films that has generated the most heated and long-running debates about its political intentions, in Siegel’s oeuvre and in cinema at large, is Invasion of the Body Snatchers…As in much first-class science fiction, the narrative insinuates its potential to be read as a metaphor for issues rooted in contemporary civilisation. To interpret this metaphor has proved an irresistible challenge for swathes of critics and audiences…Perhaps the most useful analysis has been provided by Tracy Knight, who argues that the most captivating fictions, Invasion of the Body Snatchers amongst them, have ‘’Rorschach plots’, fictional inkblots that playfully interact with us and our beliefs. Their ambiguity invites us to project our own interests and biases upon the story in order to wrest meaning from their tantalising lack of explicitness’. The idea of a ‘Rorschach plot’ is of far greater importance in understanding this film, and Siegel’s wider oeuvre, than pinning down the truth of one interpretation over another.” – Deborah Allison, Senses of Cinema (2004) – link
  • “We conclude…by reflecting on what it means that Invasion’s us-versus-them scenario—in Miles’s terms, ‘They’re after all of us!’—is undermined in so many ways. Unlike films whose Others are distinct, like the Rhedosaurus in Eugène Lourié’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) or the gigantic ants in Gordon Douglas’s Them! (1954), Siegel’s aliens are both human and posthuman, us and them, all at once. That’s why we can have multiple, opposing allegorical readings at the same time. Because film analysis is not a question of choosing the correct interpretation but discovering how a film is complex enough to make them all possible—and reveling in what Finney’s Miles calls a story that is ‘full of loose ends and unanswered questions.'” – Rashna Wadia Richards, The Cine-Files (2015) – link
  • “Based on Jack Finney’s novel, Don Siegel’s original black-and-white thriller about aliens taking over unsuspecting humans was a parable of Cold War paranoia. It teases out a pervasive feeling (stoked by right wing propaganda) that the Russians weren’t just coming to take over the United States and grind capitalism into dust, but were already living among unsuspecting patriots, absorbing more of them by the hour.” – Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com (2018) – link

Morocco
November 6th, 2021

Morocco [1930]


Please join Cultivate Cinema Circle as we screen Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich’s Oscar nominated (Best Actress, Director, Cinematography & Art Direction) film Morocco [1930].


Event Sponsors:

Venue Information:

Downtown Central Library Auditorium
1 Lafayette Square, Buffalo, NY 14203
(Enter from Clinton Street between Oak and Washington Streets)
716-858-8900 • www.BuffaloLib.org
COVID protocol will be followed.


TrailerSynopsisActor BioDirector BioLinks

Romance between a legionnaire and a trollop. Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Adolphe Menjou, Ulrich Haupt, Juliette Compton.

Tidbits:

  • Academy Awards – 1931 – Nominee: Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Director, Best Cinematography & Best Art Direction
  • National Board of Review – 1930 – Top Ten Films
  • National Film Preservation Board – 1992 – National Film Registry

“I had no desire to be an film actress, to always play somebody else, to be always beautiful with somebody constantly straightening out your every eyelash. It was always a big bother to me.”

Courtesy of TCM:

Arguably one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the silver screen, actress Marlene Dietrich utilized her cat-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, and halo of blonde curls to capture the imagination of fans both male and female. At once alluring and sexy, Dietrich projected a curious androgyny by casting off societal mores and sometimes dressing as man, wearing trousers, vests and ties. She received her start in her native Germany working as a chorus girl and later performer in silent films, where she caught the attention of director Josef von Sternberg, who became both mentor and lover. It was von Sternberg who introduced Dietrich to America in “Morocco” (1930), a bold and rather scandalous debut that featured the actress dressed in a man’s tuxedo and kissing another woman. She went on to star in a number of hit movies with von Sternberg, including “Shanghai Express” (1932) and “The Scarlett Empress” (1934), before the two broke off their professional and personal relationship. Though one of the highest paid actresses of her day, Dietrich nonetheless made a series of flops like “Angel” (1937) and “Knight Without Armor” (1937) that tagged her as box office poison. Meanwhile, she became actively involved in selling war bonds and performing for the troops during World War II. Dietrich’s film career wound down in the 1950s following noted performances in “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), “Touch of Evil” (1958) and “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961). During this time, she found second life as a stage performer who sold-out houses the world over. But a series of injuries suffered in the mid-1970s forced her retirement while raising charges that she was battling alcoholism. Though she remained in seclusion for the rest of her days, Dietrich left behind a legacy as an alluring screen goddess whose sensual, yet mysterious persona embodied the true definition of movie star.

Born on Dec. 27, 1901 in Schöneberg, Germany, Dietrich was raised with her sister, Elizabeth, in Berlin and Dressau by her father, Louis, a policeman, and her mother, Wilhelmina, a jeweler’s daughter. After her father’s death in 1907, her mother remarried his best friend, Edouard von Losch, who later died on the battlefield in World War I. As a child, Dietrich showed promise as a violinist, attending the Hochschule fur Musik following her attendance in all-girls schools for her primary education. But her dreams of becoming a concert violinist were cut short after she suffered a wrist injury. Luckily she was also interested in theater and dance, which led to auditioning for famed stage impresario Max Reinhardt’s school in Berlin, though she failed to earn a place on her first try. Eventually, Dietrich was accepted, but in the meantime she made her stage debut as a chorus girl in 1921. The following year, she made her first film, “So Sind die Manner” (“The Little Napoleon”) and landed her first lead, opposite William Dieterle in his directorial debut, “Der Mensche am Wege” (“Man by the Roadside”) (1923). It was while working on “Tragödie der Liebe” (“Love Tragedy”) (1923) that Dietrich met actor Rudolf Sieberwhich, whom she married later that year. The two had their only child, Maria Sieberwhich – who later changed her name to Maria Riva – in 1924.

Dietrich continued to appear in German films, including the Alexander Korda-directed “Eine DuBarry von Heute” (“A Modern Dubarry”) (1926) and “Madame Wunscht keine Kinder” (“Madame Wants No Children”) (1926). But despite being married, Dietrich engaged in a seemingly endless string of affairs with both men and women throughout her life. One of the earliest and most beneficial was with Austrian filmmaker, Josef von Sternberg, who had established himself in Hollywood and returned to Germany at the suggestion of actor Emil Jannings to make the country’s first sound feature, “Der Blaue Engel” (“The Blue Angel”) (1929). Casting the lead role of the sexy cabaret star Lola Lola, who could drive men to the most extreme humiliations in the name of love, proved to be a challenge for von Sternberg until he met Dietrich. If ever an actress and a role were right for one another, this was it. But her screen test failed to impress those working for the director, who dismissed her as commonplace. With the cameras rolling, however, there was nothing common about Dietrich, which von Sternberg recognized immediately and prompted a multi-film collaboration that brought out the best in both actress and director. Meanwhile, “Die Blaue Engel” was an international success and led Paramount Pictures to offer Dietrich a contract in the hopes the actress would be their answer to MGM’s great import, Greta Garbo. By the spring of 1930, she arrived in Hollywood.

The first U.S. film between Dietrich and von Sternberg was “Morocco” (1930), a bold debut that featured the actress as cabaret singer Amy Jolly, an independent woman who dressed as a man, locked lips with a woman and referred to her leading man (Gary Cooper) as her girlfriend. Showcasing the actress’ smoldering charisma, made more striking by von Sternberg’s dark-shadowed lighting that brought out her simultaneously alluring and androgynous qualities, “Morocco” was a hit for the studio, netting some $2 million in revenue while firmly establishing Dietrich as an overnight star. The role also earned the actress her only Academy Award nomination of her career. Over the next five years, director and star worked together on what may have been one of the more intriguing collaborations of the Golden Age. Each of their films was manufactured in the studio, despite being set in foreign lands. Von Sternberg, however, used light and shadow to paint visual poetry and conjure an image of a leading lady that was at once alluring and scathing. Whether it was playing a spy dressed in black leather in “Dishonored” (1931) or the glamorous lady of the evening in “Shanghai Express” (1932) or Russian monarch Catherine the Great in “The Scarlett Empress” (1934), Dietrich projected an ineffable allure that turned her into one of the biggest stars of her day. Cultivating a dual appeal, her sultry come-hither eyes basked in heavy makeup and shadow drew in the men, while her penchant for wearing more masculine clothes, including slacks, blazers and ties, made her a hit with women itching for liberation of that kind.

With “The Devil Is a Woman” (1935), a controversial box office flop criticized for its apparent denigration of Spanish people, Dietrich and von Sternberg worked together for the last time. Meanwhile, the delightful Ernst Lubitsch-directed romantic comedy “Desire” (1936) proved a hit and solidified her status as the highest-paid actress in Hollywood before fellow Paramount contract player Carole Lombard usurped her a year later. Dietrich made a smooth segue into her first Technicolor movie, “The Garden of Allah” (1937), a romantic melodrama starring Charles Boyer and produced by David O. Selznick. But her next couple of films, “Angel” (1937) and the notoriously expensive flop “Knight without Armor” (1937), earned the tag of box office poison and led Paramount to buy out the remainder of her contract. Defying the pundits, Dietrich roared back with one of her best performances as the saloon entertainer Frenchy who winkingly crowed “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” in the James Stewart Western, “Destry Rides Again” (1939). But it would be Dietrich’s last brush with her former glamorous glory, which waned in the years prior to World War II despite the actress continuing to make movies. By this time, Dietrich was prolifically engaged in many affairs with famous men and women. Among the many conquests she indulged in over the years were the likes of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, German cabaret singer Margo Lion, George Bernard Shaw, female speedboat racer Marion Carstairs, Yul Brynner, Cuban writer Mercedes de Acosta and President John F. Kennedy. While some affairs lasted decades, others were perfunctory. But almost all were committed while she remained married to Sieberwhich, though the two were long separated by the time of his death in 1976.

Though on top once again, Dietrich – who was put under contract by Universal – made a number of lackluster films, including “Seven Sinners” (1940) and “Pittsburgh” (1942) opposite John Wayne, “Manpower” (1941) with Edward G. Robinson, and “The Lady is Willing” (1942), screwball comedy starring Fred MacMurray. But while her career was flagging, Dietrich was actively involved on the home front with the war effort. A virulent anti-Nazi – reportedly she was disgusted to learn that Adolf Hitler considered her his favorite actress – Dietrich went above and beyond the call of duty, becoming one of the first celebrities to raise war bonds – she went on to sell more than any other star – while going on extended USO tours in 1944-45. Meanwhile, she participated in a series of propaganda broadcasts for the radio that were meant to demoralize enemy troops. When all was done and told, few could point to another celebrity outside of Bob Hope who did more for the boys at war. In 1947, Dietrich was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her efforts, which she considered to be her proudest moment. Following the war, she co-starred opposite Jean Gabin in the unspectacular French crime film “Martin Roumagnac” (1946) before turning in an amusing turn as a gypsy in “Golden Earrings” (1946).

Dietrich went on to deliver an underappreciated performance as a wisecracking and cynical ex-Nazi chanteuse in the Billy Wilder-directed comedy “A Foreign Affair” (1948), one of the director’s more forgotten films. Although she was still a star, Dietrich had become known as “the world’s most glamorous grandmother” after her daughter Maria Riva gave birth. Hollywood has never quite known what to do with actresses of a certain age, particularly those whose careers were based on their looks. Unlike her former rival Garbo, who retired in 1941, Dietrich continued to work despite her reputation as difficult. Still commanding hefty paychecks, she appeared in a variety of projects, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright” (1950) and Fritz Lang’s “Rancho Notorious” (1952). But when Tinseltown failed to provide consistent work, Dietrich turned to the concert stage, spending four years in the mid-‘50s on tour in venues as diverse as Las Vegas hotels and London nightclubs. In fact, her primary source of income came from a long string of stage performances that she continued well into the 1970s, with every increasingly limited onscreen appearances. Her act – which was honed with composer Burt Bacharach – consisted of some of her popular songs, which were sung while wearing elegant gowns, while for the second half of her performance, she would wear a top hat and tails, and sing songs often associated with men.

Despite being a stage sensation, Dietrich appeared sporadically on screen, becoming one of the many performers who made cameo appearances in the Oscar-winning Best Picture “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956). But her film work was questionable at best, as demonstrated with the rather unimpressive Italian comedy-drama, “The Monte Carlo Story” (1957). Dietrich did offer a nice turn as the stylish title character in “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), a courtroom drama directed by Billy Wilder that was widely considered one of his best films. She was also terrific in a small role as the fortune-telling brothel madam who advises corrupt cop Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) that his future was all used up in the director’s film noir classic “Touch of Evil” (1958). Meanwhile, director Stanley Kramer tapped her to portray the widow of a German officer in another superb courtroom drama, “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961), which marked the end of a mini-resurgence that offered audiences a last glimpse of the actress in top form. Aside from a cameo appearance as herself in the Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy, “Paris When It Sizzles” (1964), Dietrich failed to grace the screen again until her final appearances in the German-made romance “Just a Gigolo” (1978).

For much of the 1960s and 1970s, Dietrich headlined concert performances around the world, playing everywhere from Moscow to Jerusalem, where she broke the social taboo of singing songs in German while in Israel. In 1960, her tour of Germany met with some derision from her former countrymen who felt that Dietrich had betrayed them during the war. Later in the decade, she enjoyed a spectacular run on Broadway in 1967 and even earned a Special Tony Award for her performance the following year. The show was later recreated for the television special “Marlene Dietrich: I Wish You Love” (CBS, 1973). It was during this time that her health began to deteriorate, exacerbated by increased use of alcohol and painkillers to ease the pain caused by injury. In 1973, Dietrich required skin grafts after falling off the stage in Washington, D.C., while the following year she fractured her leg. During a performance in Australia in 1975, Dietrich fell off the stage and broke her leg, forcing her to retire. Meanwhile, in 1984, Maximilian Schell – who starred with Dietrich in “Judgment at Nuremberg” – made the fascinating documentary “Marlene,” in which the actress refused to be photographed, though she consented to recorded interviews. By this time, she was living in virtual seclusion in the Paris apartment where she died on May 6, 1992 at the age of 90.

Filmography:

  • Entertaining the Troops (1989)
  • Going Hollywood: The War Years (1988)
  • Marlene (1984)
  • Just a Gigolo (1978)
  • Paris When It Sizzles (1964)
  • Black Fox (1962)
  • Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
  • Touch of Evil (1958)
  • The Monte Carlo Story (1957)
  • Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
  • Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
  • Rancho Notorious (1952)
  • No Highway in the Sky (1951)
  • Stage Fright (1950)
  • Jigsaw (1949)
  • A Foreign Affair (1948)
  • Golden Earrings (1947)
  • Martin Roumagnac (1946)
  • Kismet (1944)
  • Follow the Boys (1944)
  • The Lady Is Willing (1942)
  • Pittsburgh (1942)
  • The Spoilers (1942)
  • Manpower (1941)
  • The Flame of New Orleans (1941)
  • Seven Sinners (1940)
  • Destry Rides Again (1939)
  • Knight Without Armor (1937)
  • Angel (1937)
  • Desire (1936)
  • The Garden of Allah (1936)
  • I Loved a Soldier (1936)
  • The Devil Is a Woman (1935)
  • The Scarlet Empress (1934)
  • The Song of Songs (1933)
  • Shanghai Express (1932)
  • Blonde Venus (1932)
  • Dishonored (1931)
  • Morocco (1930)
  • The Blue Angel (1930)
  • Das Schiff der Verlorenen Menschen (1929)
  • Die Frau Nach der Man Sich Sehnt (1929)
  • Prinzessin Olala (1928)
  • Ich kusse ihre Hand, Madame (1928)
  • Cafe Electric (1927)
  • Manon Lescaut (1926)
  • Madame Wunscht keine Kinder (1926)
  • The Joyless Street (1925)
  • Der Mensch Am Wege (1923)
  • Tragodie der Liebe (1923)

“I care nothing about the story, only how it is photographed and presented.”

Courtesy of TCM:

Once considered one of Hollywood’s premier directors during the 1930s, Josef von Sternberg was mainly remembered for his seven films with German actress Marlene Dietrich. But his main contributions were actually to the language of film, particularly his handling of lighting and mise-en-scene. Von Sternberg was first and foremost a master cinematographer whose expressionistic use of light and dark created stunning visuals onscreen that took on a life of their own. He made his mark as a director during the silent era with “The Salvation Hunters” (1925), “Underworld” (1927) and “The Last Command” (1928). Following the failure of “Thunderbolt” (1929), von Sternberg went back to Germany and cast the then-unknown Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel” (1930), which he shot concurrently in English and in his native tongue. The film turned Dietrich into an international star, and with the exotic actress as his muse, rejuvenated his Hollywood career. Von Sternberg directed Dietrich in six more films, most notably “Morocco” (1930), “Blonde Venus” (1932), “The Shanghai Express” (1932) and “The Scarlett Empress” (1934). But once “The Devil is a Woman” (1935) failed at the box office, von Sternberg’s collaboration with Dietrich was over. While he directed a few more films like “Crime and Punishment” (1935) and “The Shanghai Gesture” (1941), von Sternberg’s career diminished. Despite the rather quiet end to his days as a director, von Sternberg’s influence and reputation as the ultimate Svengali remained consequential for generations of filmmakers.

Born on May 29, 1894 in Vienna, Austria, von Sternberg was raised by his father, Moses, a former soldier in the Austrian-Hungarian army who made his way to America was his son was three, and his mother, Serafin. In 1901, his father sent for the family after obtaining work and von Sternberg lived for a time in New York, before going back to Vienna. In 1908, he returned to the States, this time for good, and grew up on Long Island, where he worked as an apprentice at his aunt’s millinery store and as a stock clerk for a lace store. After dropping out of Jamaica High School, von Sternberg found work cleaning and repairing movie prints at the World Film Company in Fort Lee, NJ, where he rose to chief assistant to the director general. He went on to help make training films for the U.S. Army Signal Corps before earning his first credit as an assistant director on “The Mystery of the Yellow Ribbon” (1919), directed by Emile Chautard. In 1923, he moved to Hollywood and was the assistant director on “By Divine Right” (1923), before marking his debut as a director on “The Salvation Hunters” (1925), a successful picture widely considered to be America’s first true independent film.

After joining Paramount Pictures as an assistant director, von Sternberg returned to directing his own films, making pictures like “Exquisite Sinner” (1926), “Underworld” (1927) and “The Last Command” (1928), which starred the great German actor Emil Jannings. It was Jannings who recommended that von Sternberg return to Europe to direct the film version of Heinrich Mann’s “The Blue Angel” (1930). Casting the lead role of the sexy cabaret star Lola Lola, who could drive men to the most extreme humiliations in the name of love, proved to be a challenge for von Sternberg until he met Marlene Dietrich. If ever an actress and a role were right for one another, this was it. But her screen test failed to impress those working for the director, who dismissed her as commonplace. With the cameras rolling, however, there was nothing common about Dietrich – particularly when she sang “Falling in Love Again” to a smitten Jannings – which von Sternberg recognized immediately and which prompted a multi-film collaboration that brought out the best in both actress and director. Though some would claim he would later exert too much of a Svengali-like influence over both her film roles and her personal life. Meanwhile, “Die Blaue Engel” was an international success and helped rejuvenate von Sternberg’s Hollywood career, which faltered after the failure of “Thunderbolt” (1929).

The first U.S. film between von Sternberg and Dietrich was “Morocco” (1930), a bold debut that featured her as cabaret singer Amy Jolly, an independent woman who dressed as a man, locked lips with a woman and referred to her leading man (Gary Cooper) as her girlfriend. Showcasing the actress’ smoldering charisma, made more striking by von Sternberg’s dark-shadowed lighting that brought out her simultaneously alluring and androgynous qualities, “Morocco” was a hit for the studio, netting some $2 million in revenue. Over the next five years, director and star worked together on what may have been one of the more intriguing collaborations of the Golden Age. Each of their films was manufactured in the studio, despite being set in foreign lands. Von Sternberg, however, used light and shadow to paint visual poetry and conjure an image of a leading lady that was at once beautiful and scathing. Whether casting his actress as a spy dressed in black leather in “Dishonored” (1931) or the glamorous lady of the evening in “Shanghai Express” (1932) or Russian monarch Catherine the Great in “The Scarlett Empress” (1934), von Sternberg shaped Dietrich’s ineffable allure that turned her into one of the biggest stars of her day. But with “The Devil Is a Woman” (1935), a controversial box office flop criticized for its apparent denigration of Spanish people, von Sternberg and Dietrich worked together for the last time.

During his post-Dietrich era, von Sternberg directed a handful of projects before his career went into permanent decline. He directed an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” (1935) before launching an attempt to helm “I, Claudius” in 1937, which remained unfinished due to problems with financial backers. After “Sergeant Madden” (1939), starring Wallace Beery, he directed “The Shanghai Gesture” (1941), a delightfully dark film noir of suspense and exoticism in which Gene Tierney, Ona Munson, and Victor Mature together assume the Dietrich persona in this exploration of the denizens of a lurid Shanghai gambling house. It would be another 11 years before he directed his next film, “Macao” (1952), a financial disaster that turned out to be the last he made for Hollywood. He went on to help the Japanese-made war film, “The Saga of Anatahan” (1952), a poetic study of Japanese soldiers isolated on an island at the end of WWII, which the director later cited as his favorite work. Meanwhile, he was one of several directors to work on Howard Hughes’ “Jet Pilot” (1957), which starred John Wayne and took four painful years to make. In 1959, von Sternberg began teaching film courses at the University of California, Los Angeles, where two of his students turned out to be Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of The Doors. Manzarek later cited von Sternberg as the greatest influence on the band and their music. He left his post at UCLA in 1963 and died six years later on Dec. 22, 1969 of a heart attack. He was 75 years old.

Filmography:

  • The Epic That Never Was (I, Claudius) (1965)
  • Jet Pilot (1957)
  • Macao (1952)
  • Anatahan (1952)
  • The Shanghai Gesture (1942)
  • I Take This Woman (1940)
  • Sergeant Madden (1939)
  • I, Claudius (1937)
  • The King Steps Out (1936)
  • Crime and Punishment (1935)
  • The Devil Is a Woman (1935)
  • The Scarlet Empress (1934)
  • Shanghai Express (1932)
  • Blonde Venus (1932)
  • Dishonored (1931)
  • An American Tragedy (1931)
  • Morocco (1930)
  • The Blue Angel (1930)
  • Thunderbolt (1929)
  • The Case of Lena Smith (1929)
  • The Dragnet (1928)
  • The Docks of New York (1928)
  • The Last Command (1928)
  • Underworld (1927)
  • A Woman of the Sea (1926)
  • The Exquisite Sinner (1926)
  • The Masked Bride (1925)
  • Salvation Hunters (1925)

Here is a curated selection of links for additional insight/information:

  • “Sternberg proved that consistency of style is ultimately more convincing than documentary certification. Morocco is the product of a period when movies could still create their own mystique, and if Sternberg’s sets look less real today, his characters ring even more true … he never sacrifices the contemplative aspect of his compositions for easy effects of parody and pathos.” — Andrew Sarris, The Films of Josef von Sternberg [1966]
  • “The Von Sternberg/Dietrich heroine is the object of male desire, but she is not the passive object of a controlling look. Dietrich looks back. She seems to question her objectification, as in the scenes where her response to her on-screen audiences offers a self-referential comment on the relationship of the spectatorial gaze to the spectacle of female exhibitionism. Possession of the performer through the gaze is really nonpossession. In Morocco, Amy Jolly wanders through the nightclub audience; a man attempts to hold her by her clothing. She stops, stares at him, then pulls away. A similar sequence of events occurs in Blonde Venus. The female subverts the power of the male gaze.” – Gaylyn Studlar, Journal of Film and Video [1985] – link
  • If there is a scene in Morocco which everyone remembers, it is the one where Amy first appears before the rowdy patrons of Lo Tinto’s cabaret, the crucible of Morocco. Insolently she confronts them in a man’s clothing and quells their uproar. She sings of love and tears, death and dreams. In a magical moment she takes a flower from a pretty young woman, kisses her full on the lips, then strolls mannishly away. She is simultaneously provocative, alluring and inviolable. This early scene, and others in which von Sternberg makes ironic play with society’s muddled distinctions between sexuality, sensuality and sex roles, are essential for a positive interpretation of the film’s conclusion.” – John Flaus, Senses of Cinema [2014] – link

Dishonored
November 20th, 2021

Dishonored [1931]


Please join Cultivate Cinema Circle as we screen Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich’s film Dishonored [1931].


Event Sponsors:

Venue Information:

Downtown Central Library Auditorium
1 Lafayette Square, Buffalo, NY 14203
(Enter from Clinton Street between Oak and Washington Streets)
716-858-8900 • www.BuffaloLib.org
COVID protocol will be followed.


TrailerSynopsisActor BioDirector BioLinks

Marlene Dietrich as an Austrian spy in a bizarre World War I story, notable for Josef von Sternberg’s stylish direction. Colonel: Victor McLaglen. Von Hindau: Warner Oland. Lieutenant: Barry Norton. Secret Service Head: Gustav von Seyffertitz. Kovrin: Lew Cody. Interesting cast.

Tidbits:

  • National Board of Review – 1931 – Top Ten Films
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is marlenedietrich-1024x576.jpg

“I had no desire to be an film actress, to always play somebody else, to be always beautiful with somebody constantly straightening out your every eyelash. It was always a big bother to me.”

Courtesy of TCM:

Arguably one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the silver screen, actress Marlene Dietrich utilized her cat-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, and halo of blonde curls to capture the imagination of fans both male and female. At once alluring and sexy, Dietrich projected a curious androgyny by casting off societal mores and sometimes dressing as man, wearing trousers, vests and ties. She received her start in her native Germany working as a chorus girl and later performer in silent films, where she caught the attention of director Josef von Sternberg, who became both mentor and lover. It was von Sternberg who introduced Dietrich to America in “Morocco” (1930), a bold and rather scandalous debut that featured the actress dressed in a man’s tuxedo and kissing another woman. She went on to star in a number of hit movies with von Sternberg, including “Shanghai Express” (1932) and “The Scarlett Empress” (1934), before the two broke off their professional and personal relationship. Though one of the highest paid actresses of her day, Dietrich nonetheless made a series of flops like “Angel” (1937) and “Knight Without Armor” (1937) that tagged her as box office poison. Meanwhile, she became actively involved in selling war bonds and performing for the troops during World War II. Dietrich’s film career wound down in the 1950s following noted performances in “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), “Touch of Evil” (1958) and “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961). During this time, she found second life as a stage performer who sold-out houses the world over. But a series of injuries suffered in the mid-1970s forced her retirement while raising charges that she was battling alcoholism. Though she remained in seclusion for the rest of her days, Dietrich left behind a legacy as an alluring screen goddess whose sensual, yet mysterious persona embodied the true definition of movie star.

Born on Dec. 27, 1901 in Schöneberg, Germany, Dietrich was raised with her sister, Elizabeth, in Berlin and Dressau by her father, Louis, a policeman, and her mother, Wilhelmina, a jeweler’s daughter. After her father’s death in 1907, her mother remarried his best friend, Edouard von Losch, who later died on the battlefield in World War I. As a child, Dietrich showed promise as a violinist, attending the Hochschule fur Musik following her attendance in all-girls schools for her primary education. But her dreams of becoming a concert violinist were cut short after she suffered a wrist injury. Luckily she was also interested in theater and dance, which led to auditioning for famed stage impresario Max Reinhardt’s school in Berlin, though she failed to earn a place on her first try. Eventually, Dietrich was accepted, but in the meantime she made her stage debut as a chorus girl in 1921. The following year, she made her first film, “So Sind die Manner” (“The Little Napoleon”) and landed her first lead, opposite William Dieterle in his directorial debut, “Der Mensche am Wege” (“Man by the Roadside”) (1923). It was while working on “Tragödie der Liebe” (“Love Tragedy”) (1923) that Dietrich met actor Rudolf Sieberwhich, whom she married later that year. The two had their only child, Maria Sieberwhich – who later changed her name to Maria Riva – in 1924.

Dietrich continued to appear in German films, including the Alexander Korda-directed “Eine DuBarry von Heute” (“A Modern Dubarry”) (1926) and “Madame Wunscht keine Kinder” (“Madame Wants No Children”) (1926). But despite being married, Dietrich engaged in a seemingly endless string of affairs with both men and women throughout her life. One of the earliest and most beneficial was with Austrian filmmaker, Josef von Sternberg, who had established himself in Hollywood and returned to Germany at the suggestion of actor Emil Jannings to make the country’s first sound feature, “Der Blaue Engel” (“The Blue Angel”) (1929). Casting the lead role of the sexy cabaret star Lola Lola, who could drive men to the most extreme humiliations in the name of love, proved to be a challenge for von Sternberg until he met Dietrich. If ever an actress and a role were right for one another, this was it. But her screen test failed to impress those working for the director, who dismissed her as commonplace. With the cameras rolling, however, there was nothing common about Dietrich, which von Sternberg recognized immediately and prompted a multi-film collaboration that brought out the best in both actress and director. Meanwhile, “Die Blaue Engel” was an international success and led Paramount Pictures to offer Dietrich a contract in the hopes the actress would be their answer to MGM’s great import, Greta Garbo. By the spring of 1930, she arrived in Hollywood.

The first U.S. film between Dietrich and von Sternberg was “Morocco” (1930), a bold debut that featured the actress as cabaret singer Amy Jolly, an independent woman who dressed as a man, locked lips with a woman and referred to her leading man (Gary Cooper) as her girlfriend. Showcasing the actress’ smoldering charisma, made more striking by von Sternberg’s dark-shadowed lighting that brought out her simultaneously alluring and androgynous qualities, “Morocco” was a hit for the studio, netting some $2 million in revenue while firmly establishing Dietrich as an overnight star. The role also earned the actress her only Academy Award nomination of her career. Over the next five years, director and star worked together on what may have been one of the more intriguing collaborations of the Golden Age. Each of their films was manufactured in the studio, despite being set in foreign lands. Von Sternberg, however, used light and shadow to paint visual poetry and conjure an image of a leading lady that was at once alluring and scathing. Whether it was playing a spy dressed in black leather in “Dishonored” (1931) or the glamorous lady of the evening in “Shanghai Express” (1932) or Russian monarch Catherine the Great in “The Scarlett Empress” (1934), Dietrich projected an ineffable allure that turned her into one of the biggest stars of her day. Cultivating a dual appeal, her sultry come-hither eyes basked in heavy makeup and shadow drew in the men, while her penchant for wearing more masculine clothes, including slacks, blazers and ties, made her a hit with women itching for liberation of that kind.

With “The Devil Is a Woman” (1935), a controversial box office flop criticized for its apparent denigration of Spanish people, Dietrich and von Sternberg worked together for the last time. Meanwhile, the delightful Ernst Lubitsch-directed romantic comedy “Desire” (1936) proved a hit and solidified her status as the highest-paid actress in Hollywood before fellow Paramount contract player Carole Lombard usurped her a year later. Dietrich made a smooth segue into her first Technicolor movie, “The Garden of Allah” (1937), a romantic melodrama starring Charles Boyer and produced by David O. Selznick. But her next couple of films, “Angel” (1937) and the notoriously expensive flop “Knight without Armor” (1937), earned the tag of box office poison and led Paramount to buy out the remainder of her contract. Defying the pundits, Dietrich roared back with one of her best performances as the saloon entertainer Frenchy who winkingly crowed “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” in the James Stewart Western, “Destry Rides Again” (1939). But it would be Dietrich’s last brush with her former glamorous glory, which waned in the years prior to World War II despite the actress continuing to make movies. By this time, Dietrich was prolifically engaged in many affairs with famous men and women. Among the many conquests she indulged in over the years were the likes of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, German cabaret singer Margo Lion, George Bernard Shaw, female speedboat racer Marion Carstairs, Yul Brynner, Cuban writer Mercedes de Acosta and President John F. Kennedy. While some affairs lasted decades, others were perfunctory. But almost all were committed while she remained married to Sieberwhich, though the two were long separated by the time of his death in 1976.

Though on top once again, Dietrich – who was put under contract by Universal – made a number of lackluster films, including “Seven Sinners” (1940) and “Pittsburgh” (1942) opposite John Wayne, “Manpower” (1941) with Edward G. Robinson, and “The Lady is Willing” (1942), screwball comedy starring Fred MacMurray. But while her career was flagging, Dietrich was actively involved on the home front with the war effort. A virulent anti-Nazi – reportedly she was disgusted to learn that Adolf Hitler considered her his favorite actress – Dietrich went above and beyond the call of duty, becoming one of the first celebrities to raise war bonds – she went on to sell more than any other star – while going on extended USO tours in 1944-45. Meanwhile, she participated in a series of propaganda broadcasts for the radio that were meant to demoralize enemy troops. When all was done and told, few could point to another celebrity outside of Bob Hope who did more for the boys at war. In 1947, Dietrich was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her efforts, which she considered to be her proudest moment. Following the war, she co-starred opposite Jean Gabin in the unspectacular French crime film “Martin Roumagnac” (1946) before turning in an amusing turn as a gypsy in “Golden Earrings” (1946).

Dietrich went on to deliver an underappreciated performance as a wisecracking and cynical ex-Nazi chanteuse in the Billy Wilder-directed comedy “A Foreign Affair” (1948), one of the director’s more forgotten films. Although she was still a star, Dietrich had become known as “the world’s most glamorous grandmother” after her daughter Maria Riva gave birth. Hollywood has never quite known what to do with actresses of a certain age, particularly those whose careers were based on their looks. Unlike her former rival Garbo, who retired in 1941, Dietrich continued to work despite her reputation as difficult. Still commanding hefty paychecks, she appeared in a variety of projects, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright” (1950) and Fritz Lang’s “Rancho Notorious” (1952). But when Tinseltown failed to provide consistent work, Dietrich turned to the concert stage, spending four years in the mid-‘50s on tour in venues as diverse as Las Vegas hotels and London nightclubs. In fact, her primary source of income came from a long string of stage performances that she continued well into the 1970s, with every increasingly limited onscreen appearances. Her act – which was honed with composer Burt Bacharach – consisted of some of her popular songs, which were sung while wearing elegant gowns, while for the second half of her performance, she would wear a top hat and tails, and sing songs often associated with men.

Despite being a stage sensation, Dietrich appeared sporadically on screen, becoming one of the many performers who made cameo appearances in the Oscar-winning Best Picture “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956). But her film work was questionable at best, as demonstrated with the rather unimpressive Italian comedy-drama, “The Monte Carlo Story” (1957). Dietrich did offer a nice turn as the stylish title character in “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), a courtroom drama directed by Billy Wilder that was widely considered one of his best films. She was also terrific in a small role as the fortune-telling brothel madam who advises corrupt cop Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) that his future was all used up in the director’s film noir classic “Touch of Evil” (1958). Meanwhile, director Stanley Kramer tapped her to portray the widow of a German officer in another superb courtroom drama, “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961), which marked the end of a mini-resurgence that offered audiences a last glimpse of the actress in top form. Aside from a cameo appearance as herself in the Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy, “Paris When It Sizzles” (1964), Dietrich failed to grace the screen again until her final appearances in the German-made romance “Just a Gigolo” (1978).

For much of the 1960s and 1970s, Dietrich headlined concert performances around the world, playing everywhere from Moscow to Jerusalem, where she broke the social taboo of singing songs in German while in Israel. In 1960, her tour of Germany met with some derision from her former countrymen who felt that Dietrich had betrayed them during the war. Later in the decade, she enjoyed a spectacular run on Broadway in 1967 and even earned a Special Tony Award for her performance the following year. The show was later recreated for the television special “Marlene Dietrich: I Wish You Love” (CBS, 1973). It was during this time that her health began to deteriorate, exacerbated by increased use of alcohol and painkillers to ease the pain caused by injury. In 1973, Dietrich required skin grafts after falling off the stage in Washington, D.C., while the following year she fractured her leg. During a performance in Australia in 1975, Dietrich fell off the stage and broke her leg, forcing her to retire. Meanwhile, in 1984, Maximilian Schell – who starred with Dietrich in “Judgment at Nuremberg” – made the fascinating documentary “Marlene,” in which the actress refused to be photographed, though she consented to recorded interviews. By this time, she was living in virtual seclusion in the Paris apartment where she died on May 6, 1992 at the age of 90.

Filmography:

  • Entertaining the Troops (1989)
  • Going Hollywood: The War Years (1988)
  • Marlene (1984)
  • Just a Gigolo (1978)
  • Paris When It Sizzles (1964)
  • Black Fox (1962)
  • Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
  • Touch of Evil (1958)
  • The Monte Carlo Story (1957)
  • Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
  • Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
  • Rancho Notorious (1952)
  • No Highway in the Sky (1951)
  • Stage Fright (1950)
  • Jigsaw (1949)
  • A Foreign Affair (1948)
  • Golden Earrings (1947)
  • Martin Roumagnac (1946)
  • Kismet (1944)
  • Follow the Boys (1944)
  • The Lady Is Willing (1942)
  • Pittsburgh (1942)
  • The Spoilers (1942)
  • Manpower (1941)
  • The Flame of New Orleans (1941)
  • Seven Sinners (1940)
  • Destry Rides Again (1939)
  • Knight Without Armor (1937)
  • Angel (1937)
  • Desire (1936)
  • The Garden of Allah (1936)
  • I Loved a Soldier (1936)
  • The Devil Is a Woman (1935)
  • The Scarlet Empress (1934)
  • The Song of Songs (1933)
  • Shanghai Express (1932)
  • Blonde Venus (1932)
  • Dishonored (1931)
  • Morocco (1930)
  • The Blue Angel (1930)
  • Das Schiff der Verlorenen Menschen (1929)
  • Die Frau Nach der Man Sich Sehnt (1929)
  • Prinzessin Olala (1928)
  • Ich kusse ihre Hand, Madame (1928)
  • Cafe Electric (1927)
  • Manon Lescaut (1926)
  • Madame Wunscht keine Kinder (1926)
  • The Joyless Street (1925)
  • Der Mensch Am Wege (1923)
  • Tragodie der Liebe (1923)

“I care nothing about the story, only how it is photographed and presented.”

Courtesy of TCM:

Once considered one of Hollywood’s premier directors during the 1930s, Josef von Sternberg was mainly remembered for his seven films with German actress Marlene Dietrich. But his main contributions were actually to the language of film, particularly his handling of lighting and mise-en-scene. Von Sternberg was first and foremost a master cinematographer whose expressionistic use of light and dark created stunning visuals onscreen that took on a life of their own. He made his mark as a director during the silent era with “The Salvation Hunters” (1925), “Underworld” (1927) and “The Last Command” (1928). Following the failure of “Thunderbolt” (1929), von Sternberg went back to Germany and cast the then-unknown Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel” (1930), which he shot concurrently in English and in his native tongue. The film turned Dietrich into an international star, and with the exotic actress as his muse, rejuvenated his Hollywood career. Von Sternberg directed Dietrich in six more films, most notably “Morocco” (1930), “Blonde Venus” (1932), “The Shanghai Express” (1932) and “The Scarlett Empress” (1934). But once “The Devil is a Woman” (1935) failed at the box office, von Sternberg’s collaboration with Dietrich was over. While he directed a few more films like “Crime and Punishment” (1935) and “The Shanghai Gesture” (1941), von Sternberg’s career diminished. Despite the rather quiet end to his days as a director, von Sternberg’s influence and reputation as the ultimate Svengali remained consequential for generations of filmmakers.

Born on May 29, 1894 in Vienna, Austria, von Sternberg was raised by his father, Moses, a former soldier in the Austrian-Hungarian army who made his way to America was his son was three, and his mother, Serafin. In 1901, his father sent for the family after obtaining work and von Sternberg lived for a time in New York, before going back to Vienna. In 1908, he returned to the States, this time for good, and grew up on Long Island, where he worked as an apprentice at his aunt’s millinery store and as a stock clerk for a lace store. After dropping out of Jamaica High School, von Sternberg found work cleaning and repairing movie prints at the World Film Company in Fort Lee, NJ, where he rose to chief assistant to the director general. He went on to help make training films for the U.S. Army Signal Corps before earning his first credit as an assistant director on “The Mystery of the Yellow Ribbon” (1919), directed by Emile Chautard. In 1923, he moved to Hollywood and was the assistant director on “By Divine Right” (1923), before marking his debut as a director on “The Salvation Hunters” (1925), a successful picture widely considered to be America’s first true independent film.

After joining Paramount Pictures as an assistant director, von Sternberg returned to directing his own films, making pictures like “Exquisite Sinner” (1926), “Underworld” (1927) and “The Last Command” (1928), which starred the great German actor Emil Jannings. It was Jannings who recommended that von Sternberg return to Europe to direct the film version of Heinrich Mann’s “The Blue Angel” (1930). Casting the lead role of the sexy cabaret star Lola Lola, who could drive men to the most extreme humiliations in the name of love, proved to be a challenge for von Sternberg until he met Marlene Dietrich. If ever an actress and a role were right for one another, this was it. But her screen test failed to impress those working for the director, who dismissed her as commonplace. With the cameras rolling, however, there was nothing common about Dietrich – particularly when she sang “Falling in Love Again” to a smitten Jannings – which von Sternberg recognized immediately and which prompted a multi-film collaboration that brought out the best in both actress and director. Though some would claim he would later exert too much of a Svengali-like influence over both her film roles and her personal life. Meanwhile, “Die Blaue Engel” was an international success and helped rejuvenate von Sternberg’s Hollywood career, which faltered after the failure of “Thunderbolt” (1929).

The first U.S. film between von Sternberg and Dietrich was “Morocco” (1930), a bold debut that featured her as cabaret singer Amy Jolly, an independent woman who dressed as a man, locked lips with a woman and referred to her leading man (Gary Cooper) as her girlfriend. Showcasing the actress’ smoldering charisma, made more striking by von Sternberg’s dark-shadowed lighting that brought out her simultaneously alluring and androgynous qualities, “Morocco” was a hit for the studio, netting some $2 million in revenue. Over the next five years, director and star worked together on what may have been one of the more intriguing collaborations of the Golden Age. Each of their films was manufactured in the studio, despite being set in foreign lands. Von Sternberg, however, used light and shadow to paint visual poetry and conjure an image of a leading lady that was at once beautiful and scathing. Whether casting his actress as a spy dressed in black leather in “Dishonored” (1931) or the glamorous lady of the evening in “Shanghai Express” (1932) or Russian monarch Catherine the Great in “The Scarlett Empress” (1934), von Sternberg shaped Dietrich’s ineffable allure that turned her into one of the biggest stars of her day. But with “The Devil Is a Woman” (1935), a controversial box office flop criticized for its apparent denigration of Spanish people, von Sternberg and Dietrich worked together for the last time.

During his post-Dietrich era, von Sternberg directed a handful of projects before his career went into permanent decline. He directed an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” (1935) before launching an attempt to helm “I, Claudius” in 1937, which remained unfinished due to problems with financial backers. After “Sergeant Madden” (1939), starring Wallace Beery, he directed “The Shanghai Gesture” (1941), a delightfully dark film noir of suspense and exoticism in which Gene Tierney, Ona Munson, and Victor Mature together assume the Dietrich persona in this exploration of the denizens of a lurid Shanghai gambling house. It would be another 11 years before he directed his next film, “Macao” (1952), a financial disaster that turned out to be the last he made for Hollywood. He went on to help the Japanese-made war film, “The Saga of Anatahan” (1952), a poetic study of Japanese soldiers isolated on an island at the end of WWII, which the director later cited as his favorite work. Meanwhile, he was one of several directors to work on Howard Hughes’ “Jet Pilot” (1957), which starred John Wayne and took four painful years to make. In 1959, von Sternberg began teaching film courses at the University of California, Los Angeles, where two of his students turned out to be Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of The Doors. Manzarek later cited von Sternberg as the greatest influence on the band and their music. He left his post at UCLA in 1963 and died six years later on Dec. 22, 1969 of a heart attack. He was 75 years old.

Filmography:

  • The Epic That Never Was (I, Claudius) (1965)
  • Jet Pilot (1957)
  • Macao (1952)
  • Anatahan (1952)
  • The Shanghai Gesture (1942)
  • I Take This Woman (1940)
  • Sergeant Madden (1939)
  • I, Claudius (1937)
  • The King Steps Out (1936)
  • Crime and Punishment (1935)
  • The Devil Is a Woman (1935)
  • The Scarlet Empress (1934)
  • Shanghai Express (1932)
  • Blonde Venus (1932)
  • Dishonored (1931)
  • An American Tragedy (1931)
  • Morocco (1930)
  • The Blue Angel (1930)
  • Thunderbolt (1929)
  • The Case of Lena Smith (1929)
  • The Dragnet (1928)
  • The Docks of New York (1928)
  • The Last Command (1928)
  • Underworld (1927)
  • A Woman of the Sea (1926)
  • The Exquisite Sinner (1926)
  • The Masked Bride (1925)
  • Salvation Hunters (1925)

Here is a curated selection of links for additional insight/information:

  • “The rise of the great movie stars is almost always a story of collaboration with great directors. The film career of Marlene Dietrich burst into enduring prominence in 1930, with Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel, and they made six more films together, including Dishonored, from 1931, in which Dietrich’s onscreen persona became refined to a degree of breathtaking precision, and expanded to a historical—even a philosophical—scope. Dishonored, set during the First World War, is a story of danger and death; it’s a war film in which the crucial battles are psychological ones that are fought in back rooms. Dietrich plays a spy, or, rather, a prostitute who becomes a spy—Agent X-27, to be specific; she boldly and slyly uses her powers of seduction to expose enemy spies and extract their secrets. It’s also a sort of musical, in which Dietrich deploys the music-hall artistry that’s essential to The Blue Angel and gives it a deliriously political angle.” – Richard Brody, The New Yorker [2017] – link
  • “Film is a collaborative medium, or so people say, unless by ‘people’ we mean Josef von Sternberg. To become a director is, more often than not, to reveal yourself as a control freak, but von Sternberg was the original micromanager, and his arrogance was legendary. Even long after his career was over, he was reluctant to discuss colleagues. Screenwriter Jules Furthman was responsible for much of the script of Shanghai Express, but von Sternberg always maintained that the entire treatment was one page written by story creator Harry Hervey. Von Sternberg biographer John Baxter cites the gifted Paramount art director Hans Dreier as a major stylistic influence, taking the director from a realistic approach to the “veiled sensuality” he would develop over the course of his career—and adds drily, ‘It goes without saying that [Dreier] receives no mention in Fun in a Chinese Laundry,’ von Sternberg’s notoriously cranky memoir…As von Sternberg’s vision grew and expanded, so did Dreier’s, to include things like the vast courtyard in which X-27 breathes her last in Dishonored. Its walls are so tall they seem to belong to Mad King Ludwig’s castle, and the bricks are also enormous and sculpted, the better to contrast with the slender beauty facing the firing squad.” – Farran Smith Nehme, Current [2018] – link

Shanghai Express
December 4th, 2021

Shanghai Express [1932]


Please join Cultivate Cinema Circle as we screen Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich’s Oscar winning (Best Cinematography) film Shanghai Express [1932].


Event Sponsors:

Venue Information:

Downtown Central Library Auditorium
1 Lafayette Square, Buffalo, NY 14203
(Enter from Clinton Street between Oak and Washington Streets)
716-858-8900 • www.BuffaloLib.org
COVID protocol will be followed.


TrailerSynopsisActor BioDirector BioLinks

Political intrigue, murder, espionage and romance aboard a train during the Chinese Civil War. A Best Picture nominee.

Tidbits:

  • Academy Awards – 1932 – Winner: Best Cinematography
  • Academy Awards – 1932 – Nominee: Best Picture & Best Director
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is marlenedietrich-1024x576.jpg

“I had no desire to be an film actress, to always play somebody else, to be always beautiful with somebody constantly straightening out your every eyelash. It was always a big bother to me.”

Courtesy of TCM:

Arguably one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the silver screen, actress Marlene Dietrich utilized her cat-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, and halo of blonde curls to capture the imagination of fans both male and female. At once alluring and sexy, Dietrich projected a curious androgyny by casting off societal mores and sometimes dressing as man, wearing trousers, vests and ties. She received her start in her native Germany working as a chorus girl and later performer in silent films, where she caught the attention of director Josef von Sternberg, who became both mentor and lover. It was von Sternberg who introduced Dietrich to America in “Morocco” (1930), a bold and rather scandalous debut that featured the actress dressed in a man’s tuxedo and kissing another woman. She went on to star in a number of hit movies with von Sternberg, including “Shanghai Express” (1932) and “The Scarlett Empress” (1934), before the two broke off their professional and personal relationship. Though one of the highest paid actresses of her day, Dietrich nonetheless made a series of flops like “Angel” (1937) and “Knight Without Armor” (1937) that tagged her as box office poison. Meanwhile, she became actively involved in selling war bonds and performing for the troops during World War II. Dietrich’s film career wound down in the 1950s following noted performances in “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), “Touch of Evil” (1958) and “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961). During this time, she found second life as a stage performer who sold-out houses the world over. But a series of injuries suffered in the mid-1970s forced her retirement while raising charges that she was battling alcoholism. Though she remained in seclusion for the rest of her days, Dietrich left behind a legacy as an alluring screen goddess whose sensual, yet mysterious persona embodied the true definition of movie star.

Born on Dec. 27, 1901 in Schöneberg, Germany, Dietrich was raised with her sister, Elizabeth, in Berlin and Dressau by her father, Louis, a policeman, and her mother, Wilhelmina, a jeweler’s daughter. After her father’s death in 1907, her mother remarried his best friend, Edouard von Losch, who later died on the battlefield in World War I. As a child, Dietrich showed promise as a violinist, attending the Hochschule fur Musik following her attendance in all-girls schools for her primary education. But her dreams of becoming a concert violinist were cut short after she suffered a wrist injury. Luckily she was also interested in theater and dance, which led to auditioning for famed stage impresario Max Reinhardt’s school in Berlin, though she failed to earn a place on her first try. Eventually, Dietrich was accepted, but in the meantime she made her stage debut as a chorus girl in 1921. The following year, she made her first film, “So Sind die Manner” (“The Little Napoleon”) and landed her first lead, opposite William Dieterle in his directorial debut, “Der Mensche am Wege” (“Man by the Roadside”) (1923). It was while working on “Tragödie der Liebe” (“Love Tragedy”) (1923) that Dietrich met actor Rudolf Sieberwhich, whom she married later that year. The two had their only child, Maria Sieberwhich – who later changed her name to Maria Riva – in 1924.

Dietrich continued to appear in German films, including the Alexander Korda-directed “Eine DuBarry von Heute” (“A Modern Dubarry”) (1926) and “Madame Wunscht keine Kinder” (“Madame Wants No Children”) (1926). But despite being married, Dietrich engaged in a seemingly endless string of affairs with both men and women throughout her life. One of the earliest and most beneficial was with Austrian filmmaker, Josef von Sternberg, who had established himself in Hollywood and returned to Germany at the suggestion of actor Emil Jannings to make the country’s first sound feature, “Der Blaue Engel” (“The Blue Angel”) (1929). Casting the lead role of the sexy cabaret star Lola Lola, who could drive men to the most extreme humiliations in the name of love, proved to be a challenge for von Sternberg until he met Dietrich. If ever an actress and a role were right for one another, this was it. But her screen test failed to impress those working for the director, who dismissed her as commonplace. With the cameras rolling, however, there was nothing common about Dietrich, which von Sternberg recognized immediately and prompted a multi-film collaboration that brought out the best in both actress and director. Meanwhile, “Die Blaue Engel” was an international success and led Paramount Pictures to offer Dietrich a contract in the hopes the actress would be their answer to MGM’s great import, Greta Garbo. By the spring of 1930, she arrived in Hollywood.

The first U.S. film between Dietrich and von Sternberg was “Morocco” (1930), a bold debut that featured the actress as cabaret singer Amy Jolly, an independent woman who dressed as a man, locked lips with a woman and referred to her leading man (Gary Cooper) as her girlfriend. Showcasing the actress’ smoldering charisma, made more striking by von Sternberg’s dark-shadowed lighting that brought out her simultaneously alluring and androgynous qualities, “Morocco” was a hit for the studio, netting some $2 million in revenue while firmly establishing Dietrich as an overnight star. The role also earned the actress her only Academy Award nomination of her career. Over the next five years, director and star worked together on what may have been one of the more intriguing collaborations of the Golden Age. Each of their films was manufactured in the studio, despite being set in foreign lands. Von Sternberg, however, used light and shadow to paint visual poetry and conjure an image of a leading lady that was at once alluring and scathing. Whether it was playing a spy dressed in black leather in “Dishonored” (1931) or the glamorous lady of the evening in “Shanghai Express” (1932) or Russian monarch Catherine the Great in “The Scarlett Empress” (1934), Dietrich projected an ineffable allure that turned her into one of the biggest stars of her day. Cultivating a dual appeal, her sultry come-hither eyes basked in heavy makeup and shadow drew in the men, while her penchant for wearing more masculine clothes, including slacks, blazers and ties, made her a hit with women itching for liberation of that kind.

With “The Devil Is a Woman” (1935), a controversial box office flop criticized for its apparent denigration of Spanish people, Dietrich and von Sternberg worked together for the last time. Meanwhile, the delightful Ernst Lubitsch-directed romantic comedy “Desire” (1936) proved a hit and solidified her status as the highest-paid actress in Hollywood before fellow Paramount contract player Carole Lombard usurped her a year later. Dietrich made a smooth segue into her first Technicolor movie, “The Garden of Allah” (1937), a romantic melodrama starring Charles Boyer and produced by David O. Selznick. But her next couple of films, “Angel” (1937) and the notoriously expensive flop “Knight without Armor” (1937), earned the tag of box office poison and led Paramount to buy out the remainder of her contract. Defying the pundits, Dietrich roared back with one of her best performances as the saloon entertainer Frenchy who winkingly crowed “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” in the James Stewart Western, “Destry Rides Again” (1939). But it would be Dietrich’s last brush with her former glamorous glory, which waned in the years prior to World War II despite the actress continuing to make movies. By this time, Dietrich was prolifically engaged in many affairs with famous men and women. Among the many conquests she indulged in over the years were the likes of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, German cabaret singer Margo Lion, George Bernard Shaw, female speedboat racer Marion Carstairs, Yul Brynner, Cuban writer Mercedes de Acosta and President John F. Kennedy. While some affairs lasted decades, others were perfunctory. But almost all were committed while she remained married to Sieberwhich, though the two were long separated by the time of his death in 1976.

Though on top once again, Dietrich – who was put under contract by Universal – made a number of lackluster films, including “Seven Sinners” (1940) and “Pittsburgh” (1942) opposite John Wayne, “Manpower” (1941) with Edward G. Robinson, and “The Lady is Willing” (1942), screwball comedy starring Fred MacMurray. But while her career was flagging, Dietrich was actively involved on the home front with the war effort. A virulent anti-Nazi – reportedly she was disgusted to learn that Adolf Hitler considered her his favorite actress – Dietrich went above and beyond the call of duty, becoming one of the first celebrities to raise war bonds – she went on to sell more than any other star – while going on extended USO tours in 1944-45. Meanwhile, she participated in a series of propaganda broadcasts for the radio that were meant to demoralize enemy troops. When all was done and told, few could point to another celebrity outside of Bob Hope who did more for the boys at war. In 1947, Dietrich was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her efforts, which she considered to be her proudest moment. Following the war, she co-starred opposite Jean Gabin in the unspectacular French crime film “Martin Roumagnac” (1946) before turning in an amusing turn as a gypsy in “Golden Earrings” (1946).

Dietrich went on to deliver an underappreciated performance as a wisecracking and cynical ex-Nazi chanteuse in the Billy Wilder-directed comedy “A Foreign Affair” (1948), one of the director’s more forgotten films. Although she was still a star, Dietrich had become known as “the world’s most glamorous grandmother” after her daughter Maria Riva gave birth. Hollywood has never quite known what to do with actresses of a certain age, particularly those whose careers were based on their looks. Unlike her former rival Garbo, who retired in 1941, Dietrich continued to work despite her reputation as difficult. Still commanding hefty paychecks, she appeared in a variety of projects, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright” (1950) and Fritz Lang’s “Rancho Notorious” (1952). But when Tinseltown failed to provide consistent work, Dietrich turned to the concert stage, spending four years in the mid-‘50s on tour in venues as diverse as Las Vegas hotels and London nightclubs. In fact, her primary source of income came from a long string of stage performances that she continued well into the 1970s, with every increasingly limited onscreen appearances. Her act – which was honed with composer Burt Bacharach – consisted of some of her popular songs, which were sung while wearing elegant gowns, while for the second half of her performance, she would wear a top hat and tails, and sing songs often associated with men.

Despite being a stage sensation, Dietrich appeared sporadically on screen, becoming one of the many performers who made cameo appearances in the Oscar-winning Best Picture “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956). But her film work was questionable at best, as demonstrated with the rather unimpressive Italian comedy-drama, “The Monte Carlo Story” (1957). Dietrich did offer a nice turn as the stylish title character in “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), a courtroom drama directed by Billy Wilder that was widely considered one of his best films. She was also terrific in a small role as the fortune-telling brothel madam who advises corrupt cop Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) that his future was all used up in the director’s film noir classic “Touch of Evil” (1958). Meanwhile, director Stanley Kramer tapped her to portray the widow of a German officer in another superb courtroom drama, “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961), which marked the end of a mini-resurgence that offered audiences a last glimpse of the actress in top form. Aside from a cameo appearance as herself in the Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy, “Paris When It Sizzles” (1964), Dietrich failed to grace the screen again until her final appearances in the German-made romance “Just a Gigolo” (1978).

For much of the 1960s and 1970s, Dietrich headlined concert performances around the world, playing everywhere from Moscow to Jerusalem, where she broke the social taboo of singing songs in German while in Israel. In 1960, her tour of Germany met with some derision from her former countrymen who felt that Dietrich had betrayed them during the war. Later in the decade, she enjoyed a spectacular run on Broadway in 1967 and even earned a Special Tony Award for her performance the following year. The show was later recreated for the television special “Marlene Dietrich: I Wish You Love” (CBS, 1973). It was during this time that her health began to deteriorate, exacerbated by increased use of alcohol and painkillers to ease the pain caused by injury. In 1973, Dietrich required skin grafts after falling off the stage in Washington, D.C., while the following year she fractured her leg. During a performance in Australia in 1975, Dietrich fell off the stage and broke her leg, forcing her to retire. Meanwhile, in 1984, Maximilian Schell – who starred with Dietrich in “Judgment at Nuremberg” – made the fascinating documentary “Marlene,” in which the actress refused to be photographed, though she consented to recorded interviews. By this time, she was living in virtual seclusion in the Paris apartment where she died on May 6, 1992 at the age of 90.

Filmography:

  • Entertaining the Troops (1989)
  • Going Hollywood: The War Years (1988)
  • Marlene (1984)
  • Just a Gigolo (1978)
  • Paris When It Sizzles (1964)
  • Black Fox (1962)
  • Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
  • Touch of Evil (1958)
  • The Monte Carlo Story (1957)
  • Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
  • Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
  • Rancho Notorious (1952)
  • No Highway in the Sky (1951)
  • Stage Fright (1950)
  • Jigsaw (1949)
  • A Foreign Affair (1948)
  • Golden Earrings (1947)
  • Martin Roumagnac (1946)
  • Kismet (1944)
  • Follow the Boys (1944)
  • The Lady Is Willing (1942)
  • Pittsburgh (1942)
  • The Spoilers (1942)
  • Manpower (1941)
  • The Flame of New Orleans (1941)
  • Seven Sinners (1940)
  • Destry Rides Again (1939)
  • Knight Without Armor (1937)
  • Angel (1937)
  • Desire (1936)
  • The Garden of Allah (1936)
  • I Loved a Soldier (1936)
  • The Devil Is a Woman (1935)
  • The Scarlet Empress (1934)
  • The Song of Songs (1933)
  • Shanghai Express (1932)
  • Blonde Venus (1932)
  • Dishonored (1931)
  • Morocco (1930)
  • The Blue Angel (1930)
  • Das Schiff der Verlorenen Menschen (1929)
  • Die Frau Nach der Man Sich Sehnt (1929)
  • Prinzessin Olala (1928)
  • Ich kusse ihre Hand, Madame (1928)
  • Cafe Electric (1927)
  • Manon Lescaut (1926)
  • Madame Wunscht keine Kinder (1926)
  • The Joyless Street (1925)
  • Der Mensch Am Wege (1923)
  • Tragodie der Liebe (1923)

“I care nothing about the story, only how it is photographed and presented.”

Courtesy of TCM:

Once considered one of Hollywood’s premier directors during the 1930s, Josef von Sternberg was mainly remembered for his seven films with German actress Marlene Dietrich. But his main contributions were actually to the language of film, particularly his handling of lighting and mise-en-scene. Von Sternberg was first and foremost a master cinematographer whose expressionistic use of light and dark created stunning visuals onscreen that took on a life of their own. He made his mark as a director during the silent era with “The Salvation Hunters” (1925), “Underworld” (1927) and “The Last Command” (1928). Following the failure of “Thunderbolt” (1929), von Sternberg went back to Germany and cast the then-unknown Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel” (1930), which he shot concurrently in English and in his native tongue. The film turned Dietrich into an international star, and with the exotic actress as his muse, rejuvenated his Hollywood career. Von Sternberg directed Dietrich in six more films, most notably “Morocco” (1930), “Blonde Venus” (1932), “The Shanghai Express” (1932) and “The Scarlett Empress” (1934). But once “The Devil is a Woman” (1935) failed at the box office, von Sternberg’s collaboration with Dietrich was over. While he directed a few more films like “Crime and Punishment” (1935) and “The Shanghai Gesture” (1941), von Sternberg’s career diminished. Despite the rather quiet end to his days as a director, von Sternberg’s influence and reputation as the ultimate Svengali remained consequential for generations of filmmakers.

Born on May 29, 1894 in Vienna, Austria, von Sternberg was raised by his father, Moses, a former soldier in the Austrian-Hungarian army who made his way to America was his son was three, and his mother, Serafin. In 1901, his father sent for the family after obtaining work and von Sternberg lived for a time in New York, before going back to Vienna. In 1908, he returned to the States, this time for good, and grew up on Long Island, where he worked as an apprentice at his aunt’s millinery store and as a stock clerk for a lace store. After dropping out of Jamaica High School, von Sternberg found work cleaning and repairing movie prints at the World Film Company in Fort Lee, NJ, where he rose to chief assistant to the director general. He went on to help make training films for the U.S. Army Signal Corps before earning his first credit as an assistant director on “The Mystery of the Yellow Ribbon” (1919), directed by Emile Chautard. In 1923, he moved to Hollywood and was the assistant director on “By Divine Right” (1923), before marking his debut as a director on “The Salvation Hunters” (1925), a successful picture widely considered to be America’s first true independent film.

After joining Paramount Pictures as an assistant director, von Sternberg returned to directing his own films, making pictures like “Exquisite Sinner” (1926), “Underworld” (1927) and “The Last Command” (1928), which starred the great German actor Emil Jannings. It was Jannings who recommended that von Sternberg return to Europe to direct the film version of Heinrich Mann’s “The Blue Angel” (1930). Casting the lead role of the sexy cabaret star Lola Lola, who could drive men to the most extreme humiliations in the name of love, proved to be a challenge for von Sternberg until he met Marlene Dietrich. If ever an actress and a role were right for one another, this was it. But her screen test failed to impress those working for the director, who dismissed her as commonplace. With the cameras rolling, however, there was nothing common about Dietrich – particularly when she sang “Falling in Love Again” to a smitten Jannings – which von Sternberg recognized immediately and which prompted a multi-film collaboration that brought out the best in both actress and director. Though some would claim he would later exert too much of a Svengali-like influence over both her film roles and her personal life. Meanwhile, “Die Blaue Engel” was an international success and helped rejuvenate von Sternberg’s Hollywood career, which faltered after the failure of “Thunderbolt” (1929).

The first U.S. film between von Sternberg and Dietrich was “Morocco” (1930), a bold debut that featured her as cabaret singer Amy Jolly, an independent woman who dressed as a man, locked lips with a woman and referred to her leading man (Gary Cooper) as her girlfriend. Showcasing the actress’ smoldering charisma, made more striking by von Sternberg’s dark-shadowed lighting that brought out her simultaneously alluring and androgynous qualities, “Morocco” was a hit for the studio, netting some $2 million in revenue. Over the next five years, director and star worked together on what may have been one of the more intriguing collaborations of the Golden Age. Each of their films was manufactured in the studio, despite being set in foreign lands. Von Sternberg, however, used light and shadow to paint visual poetry and conjure an image of a leading lady that was at once beautiful and scathing. Whether casting his actress as a spy dressed in black leather in “Dishonored” (1931) or the glamorous lady of the evening in “Shanghai Express” (1932) or Russian monarch Catherine the Great in “The Scarlett Empress” (1934), von Sternberg shaped Dietrich’s ineffable allure that turned her into one of the biggest stars of her day. But with “The Devil Is a Woman” (1935), a controversial box office flop criticized for its apparent denigration of Spanish people, von Sternberg and Dietrich worked together for the last time.

During his post-Dietrich era, von Sternberg directed a handful of projects before his career went into permanent decline. He directed an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” (1935) before launching an attempt to helm “I, Claudius” in 1937, which remained unfinished due to problems with financial backers. After “Sergeant Madden” (1939), starring Wallace Beery, he directed “The Shanghai Gesture” (1941), a delightfully dark film noir of suspense and exoticism in which Gene Tierney, Ona Munson, and Victor Mature together assume the Dietrich persona in this exploration of the denizens of a lurid Shanghai gambling house. It would be another 11 years before he directed his next film, “Macao” (1952), a financial disaster that turned out to be the last he made for Hollywood. He went on to help the Japanese-made war film, “The Saga of Anatahan” (1952), a poetic study of Japanese soldiers isolated on an island at the end of WWII, which the director later cited as his favorite work. Meanwhile, he was one of several directors to work on Howard Hughes’ “Jet Pilot” (1957), which starred John Wayne and took four painful years to make. In 1959, von Sternberg began teaching film courses at the University of California, Los Angeles, where two of his students turned out to be Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of The Doors. Manzarek later cited von Sternberg as the greatest influence on the band and their music. He left his post at UCLA in 1963 and died six years later on Dec. 22, 1969 of a heart attack. He was 75 years old.

Filmography:

  • The Epic That Never Was (I, Claudius) (1965)
  • Jet Pilot (1957)
  • Macao (1952)
  • Anatahan (1952)
  • The Shanghai Gesture (1942)
  • I Take This Woman (1940)
  • Sergeant Madden (1939)
  • I, Claudius (1937)
  • The King Steps Out (1936)
  • Crime and Punishment (1935)
  • The Devil Is a Woman (1935)
  • The Scarlet Empress (1934)
  • Shanghai Express (1932)
  • Blonde Venus (1932)
  • Dishonored (1931)
  • An American Tragedy (1931)
  • Morocco (1930)
  • The Blue Angel (1930)
  • Thunderbolt (1929)
  • The Case of Lena Smith (1929)
  • The Dragnet (1928)
  • The Docks of New York (1928)
  • The Last Command (1928)
  • Underworld (1927)
  • A Woman of the Sea (1926)
  • The Exquisite Sinner (1926)
  • The Masked Bride (1925)
  • Salvation Hunters (1925)

Here is a curated selection of links for additional insight/information:

  • “Von Sternberg, who was forever looking for new kinds of stylisation, said that he intended everything in Shanghai Express to have the rhythm of a train. He clearly meant it: the bizarre stop-go cadences of the dialogue delivery are the most blatantly non-naturalistic element, but the overall design and dramatic pacing are equally extraordinary. The plot concerns an evacuation from Peking to Shanghai, but it’s in every sense a vehicle for something else: a parade of deceptive appearances and identities, centering on the Boule de Suif notion of a prostitute with more honour than those around her. Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily hasn’t aged a day, but Clive Brook’s stiff-upper-lip British officer (her former lover) now looks like a virtual caricature of the type. None the less, the sincerity and emotional depth with which Sternberg invests their relationship is quite enough to transcend mere style or fashion.” – Tony Rayns, Time Out [2006] – link
  • “In the Pre-Code era, before the Hays/Breen Office clamped down on precisely the sort of moral ambiguity that Shanghai Express displays, Sternberg’s dictatorial approach to the cinema – my way or the highway – resulted in a string of artistic and box-office triumphs. The film was a huge hit with the public, grossing $3,700,000 US in its initial engagements in the United States alone. That’s in 1932 dollars; adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $55 million today. So, here’s a film that has it both ways; a completely personal vision that nevertheless struck a reverberating chord with a public desperate to escape the darkest days of the Depression for a world of fantasy and romance, exoticism and danger. This, for me at least, is Sternberg’s most resonant film, and one that I doubt you’ll forget. All aboard, then, for the Shanghai Express!” – Wheeler Winston Dixon, Senses of Cinema [2012] – link
  • “Dietrich is an extreme case—not just because she simultaneously emphasized the erotic and the ridiculous in sexuality, but because it is unclear how far this was her projection. Although she seemed self-possessed, tantalizing the feelings she aroused with her very indifference, it is possible that, more than any other great star, she was a cinematic invention—a message understood by viewers but not by herself. Was that knowingness the product of her mind, the vision of an audience, or the light laid on her skin by Josef von Sternberg?” – David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film [2014]

The Scarlet Empress December 18th, 2021

The Scarlet Empress [1934]


Please join Cultivate Cinema Circle as we screen Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich’s film The Scarlet Empress [1934].


Event Sponsors:

Venue Information:

Downtown Central Library Auditorium
1 Lafayette Square, Buffalo, NY 14203
(Enter from Clinton Street between Oak and Washington Streets)
716-858-8900 • www.BuffaloLib.org
COVID protocol will be followed.


TrailerSynopsisActor BioDirector BioLinks

Josef von Sternberg’s stylized look at Catherine the Great (Marlene Dietrich). Louise Dresser, Sam Jaffe, C. Aubrey Smith, John Lodge, Olive Tell, Ruthelma Stevens.

Tidbits:

  • National Board of Review – 1934 – Top Foreign Films
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is marlenedietrich-1024x576.jpg

“I had no desire to be an film actress, to always play somebody else, to be always beautiful with somebody constantly straightening out your every eyelash. It was always a big bother to me.”

Courtesy of TCM:

Arguably one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the silver screen, actress Marlene Dietrich utilized her cat-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, and halo of blonde curls to capture the imagination of fans both male and female. At once alluring and sexy, Dietrich projected a curious androgyny by casting off societal mores and sometimes dressing as man, wearing trousers, vests and ties. She received her start in her native Germany working as a chorus girl and later performer in silent films, where she caught the attention of director Josef von Sternberg, who became both mentor and lover. It was von Sternberg who introduced Dietrich to America in “Morocco” (1930), a bold and rather scandalous debut that featured the actress dressed in a man’s tuxedo and kissing another woman. She went on to star in a number of hit movies with von Sternberg, including “Shanghai Express” (1932) and “The Scarlett Empress” (1934), before the two broke off their professional and personal relationship. Though one of the highest paid actresses of her day, Dietrich nonetheless made a series of flops like “Angel” (1937) and “Knight Without Armor” (1937) that tagged her as box office poison. Meanwhile, she became actively involved in selling war bonds and performing for the troops during World War II. Dietrich’s film career wound down in the 1950s following noted performances in “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), “Touch of Evil” (1958) and “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961). During this time, she found second life as a stage performer who sold-out houses the world over. But a series of injuries suffered in the mid-1970s forced her retirement while raising charges that she was battling alcoholism. Though she remained in seclusion for the rest of her days, Dietrich left behind a legacy as an alluring screen goddess whose sensual, yet mysterious persona embodied the true definition of movie star.

Born on Dec. 27, 1901 in Schöneberg, Germany, Dietrich was raised with her sister, Elizabeth, in Berlin and Dressau by her father, Louis, a policeman, and her mother, Wilhelmina, a jeweler’s daughter. After her father’s death in 1907, her mother remarried his best friend, Edouard von Losch, who later died on the battlefield in World War I. As a child, Dietrich showed promise as a violinist, attending the Hochschule fur Musik following her attendance in all-girls schools for her primary education. But her dreams of becoming a concert violinist were cut short after she suffered a wrist injury. Luckily she was also interested in theater and dance, which led to auditioning for famed stage impresario Max Reinhardt’s school in Berlin, though she failed to earn a place on her first try. Eventually, Dietrich was accepted, but in the meantime she made her stage debut as a chorus girl in 1921. The following year, she made her first film, “So Sind die Manner” (“The Little Napoleon”) and landed her first lead, opposite William Dieterle in his directorial debut, “Der Mensche am Wege” (“Man by the Roadside”) (1923). It was while working on “Tragödie der Liebe” (“Love Tragedy”) (1923) that Dietrich met actor Rudolf Sieberwhich, whom she married later that year. The two had their only child, Maria Sieberwhich – who later changed her name to Maria Riva – in 1924.

Dietrich continued to appear in German films, including the Alexander Korda-directed “Eine DuBarry von Heute” (“A Modern Dubarry”) (1926) and “Madame Wunscht keine Kinder” (“Madame Wants No Children”) (1926). But despite being married, Dietrich engaged in a seemingly endless string of affairs with both men and women throughout her life. One of the earliest and most beneficial was with Austrian filmmaker, Josef von Sternberg, who had established himself in Hollywood and returned to Germany at the suggestion of actor Emil Jannings to make the country’s first sound feature, “Der Blaue Engel” (“The Blue Angel”) (1929). Casting the lead role of the sexy cabaret star Lola Lola, who could drive men to the most extreme humiliations in the name of love, proved to be a challenge for von Sternberg until he met Dietrich. If ever an actress and a role were right for one another, this was it. But her screen test failed to impress those working for the director, who dismissed her as commonplace. With the cameras rolling, however, there was nothing common about Dietrich, which von Sternberg recognized immediately and prompted a multi-film collaboration that brought out the best in both actress and director. Meanwhile, “Die Blaue Engel” was an international success and led Paramount Pictures to offer Dietrich a contract in the hopes the actress would be their answer to MGM’s great import, Greta Garbo. By the spring of 1930, she arrived in Hollywood.

The first U.S. film between Dietrich and von Sternberg was “Morocco” (1930), a bold debut that featured the actress as cabaret singer Amy Jolly, an independent woman who dressed as a man, locked lips with a woman and referred to her leading man (Gary Cooper) as her girlfriend. Showcasing the actress’ smoldering charisma, made more striking by von Sternberg’s dark-shadowed lighting that brought out her simultaneously alluring and androgynous qualities, “Morocco” was a hit for the studio, netting some $2 million in revenue while firmly establishing Dietrich as an overnight star. The role also earned the actress her only Academy Award nomination of her career. Over the next five years, director and star worked together on what may have been one of the more intriguing collaborations of the Golden Age. Each of their films was manufactured in the studio, despite being set in foreign lands. Von Sternberg, however, used light and shadow to paint visual poetry and conjure an image of a leading lady that was at once alluring and scathing. Whether it was playing a spy dressed in black leather in “Dishonored” (1931) or the glamorous lady of the evening in “Shanghai Express” (1932) or Russian monarch Catherine the Great in “The Scarlett Empress” (1934), Dietrich projected an ineffable allure that turned her into one of the biggest stars of her day. Cultivating a dual appeal, her sultry come-hither eyes basked in heavy makeup and shadow drew in the men, while her penchant for wearing more masculine clothes, including slacks, blazers and ties, made her a hit with women itching for liberation of that kind.

With “The Devil Is a Woman” (1935), a controversial box office flop criticized for its apparent denigration of Spanish people, Dietrich and von Sternberg worked together for the last time. Meanwhile, the delightful Ernst Lubitsch-directed romantic comedy “Desire” (1936) proved a hit and solidified her status as the highest-paid actress in Hollywood before fellow Paramount contract player Carole Lombard usurped her a year later. Dietrich made a smooth segue into her first Technicolor movie, “The Garden of Allah” (1937), a romantic melodrama starring Charles Boyer and produced by David O. Selznick. But her next couple of films, “Angel” (1937) and the notoriously expensive flop “Knight without Armor” (1937), earned the tag of box office poison and led Paramount to buy out the remainder of her contract. Defying the pundits, Dietrich roared back with one of her best performances as the saloon entertainer Frenchy who winkingly crowed “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” in the James Stewart Western, “Destry Rides Again” (1939). But it would be Dietrich’s last brush with her former glamorous glory, which waned in the years prior to World War II despite the actress continuing to make movies. By this time, Dietrich was prolifically engaged in many affairs with famous men and women. Among the many conquests she indulged in over the years were the likes of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, German cabaret singer Margo Lion, George Bernard Shaw, female speedboat racer Marion Carstairs, Yul Brynner, Cuban writer Mercedes de Acosta and President John F. Kennedy. While some affairs lasted decades, others were perfunctory. But almost all were committed while she remained married to Sieberwhich, though the two were long separated by the time of his death in 1976.

Though on top once again, Dietrich – who was put under contract by Universal – made a number of lackluster films, including “Seven Sinners” (1940) and “Pittsburgh” (1942) opposite John Wayne, “Manpower” (1941) with Edward G. Robinson, and “The Lady is Willing” (1942), screwball comedy starring Fred MacMurray. But while her career was flagging, Dietrich was actively involved on the home front with the war effort. A virulent anti-Nazi – reportedly she was disgusted to learn that Adolf Hitler considered her his favorite actress – Dietrich went above and beyond the call of duty, becoming one of the first celebrities to raise war bonds – she went on to sell more than any other star – while going on extended USO tours in 1944-45. Meanwhile, she participated in a series of propaganda broadcasts for the radio that were meant to demoralize enemy troops. When all was done and told, few could point to another celebrity outside of Bob Hope who did more for the boys at war. In 1947, Dietrich was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her efforts, which she considered to be her proudest moment. Following the war, she co-starred opposite Jean Gabin in the unspectacular French crime film “Martin Roumagnac” (1946) before turning in an amusing turn as a gypsy in “Golden Earrings” (1946).

Dietrich went on to deliver an underappreciated performance as a wisecracking and cynical ex-Nazi chanteuse in the Billy Wilder-directed comedy “A Foreign Affair” (1948), one of the director’s more forgotten films. Although she was still a star, Dietrich had become known as “the world’s most glamorous grandmother” after her daughter Maria Riva gave birth. Hollywood has never quite known what to do with actresses of a certain age, particularly those whose careers were based on their looks. Unlike her former rival Garbo, who retired in 1941, Dietrich continued to work despite her reputation as difficult. Still commanding hefty paychecks, she appeared in a variety of projects, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright” (1950) and Fritz Lang’s “Rancho Notorious” (1952). But when Tinseltown failed to provide consistent work, Dietrich turned to the concert stage, spending four years in the mid-‘50s on tour in venues as diverse as Las Vegas hotels and London nightclubs. In fact, her primary source of income came from a long string of stage performances that she continued well into the 1970s, with every increasingly limited onscreen appearances. Her act – which was honed with composer Burt Bacharach – consisted of some of her popular songs, which were sung while wearing elegant gowns, while for the second half of her performance, she would wear a top hat and tails, and sing songs often associated with men.

Despite being a stage sensation, Dietrich appeared sporadically on screen, becoming one of the many performers who made cameo appearances in the Oscar-winning Best Picture “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956). But her film work was questionable at best, as demonstrated with the rather unimpressive Italian comedy-drama, “The Monte Carlo Story” (1957). Dietrich did offer a nice turn as the stylish title character in “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), a courtroom drama directed by Billy Wilder that was widely considered one of his best films. She was also terrific in a small role as the fortune-telling brothel madam who advises corrupt cop Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) that his future was all used up in the director’s film noir classic “Touch of Evil” (1958). Meanwhile, director Stanley Kramer tapped her to portray the widow of a German officer in another superb courtroom drama, “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961), which marked the end of a mini-resurgence that offered audiences a last glimpse of the actress in top form. Aside from a cameo appearance as herself in the Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy, “Paris When It Sizzles” (1964), Dietrich failed to grace the screen again until her final appearances in the German-made romance “Just a Gigolo” (1978).

For much of the 1960s and 1970s, Dietrich headlined concert performances around the world, playing everywhere from Moscow to Jerusalem, where she broke the social taboo of singing songs in German while in Israel. In 1960, her tour of Germany met with some derision from her former countrymen who felt that Dietrich had betrayed them during the war. Later in the decade, she enjoyed a spectacular run on Broadway in 1967 and even earned a Special Tony Award for her performance the following year. The show was later recreated for the television special “Marlene Dietrich: I Wish You Love” (CBS, 1973). It was during this time that her health began to deteriorate, exacerbated by increased use of alcohol and painkillers to ease the pain caused by injury. In 1973, Dietrich required skin grafts after falling off the stage in Washington, D.C., while the following year she fractured her leg. During a performance in Australia in 1975, Dietrich fell off the stage and broke her leg, forcing her to retire. Meanwhile, in 1984, Maximilian Schell – who starred with Dietrich in “Judgment at Nuremberg” – made the fascinating documentary “Marlene,” in which the actress refused to be photographed, though she consented to recorded interviews. By this time, she was living in virtual seclusion in the Paris apartment where she died on May 6, 1992 at the age of 90.

Filmography:

  • Entertaining the Troops (1989)
  • Going Hollywood: The War Years (1988)
  • Marlene (1984)
  • Just a Gigolo (1978)
  • Paris When It Sizzles (1964)
  • Black Fox (1962)
  • Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
  • Touch of Evil (1958)
  • The Monte Carlo Story (1957)
  • Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
  • Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
  • Rancho Notorious (1952)
  • No Highway in the Sky (1951)
  • Stage Fright (1950)
  • Jigsaw (1949)
  • A Foreign Affair (1948)
  • Golden Earrings (1947)
  • Martin Roumagnac (1946)
  • Kismet (1944)
  • Follow the Boys (1944)
  • The Lady Is Willing (1942)
  • Pittsburgh (1942)
  • The Spoilers (1942)
  • Manpower (1941)
  • The Flame of New Orleans (1941)
  • Seven Sinners (1940)
  • Destry Rides Again (1939)
  • Knight Without Armor (1937)
  • Angel (1937)
  • Desire (1936)
  • The Garden of Allah (1936)
  • I Loved a Soldier (1936)
  • The Devil Is a Woman (1935)
  • The Scarlet Empress (1934)
  • The Song of Songs (1933)
  • Shanghai Express (1932)
  • Blonde Venus (1932)
  • Dishonored (1931)
  • Morocco (1930)
  • The Blue Angel (1930)
  • Das Schiff der Verlorenen Menschen (1929)
  • Die Frau Nach der Man Sich Sehnt (1929)
  • Prinzessin Olala (1928)
  • Ich kusse ihre Hand, Madame (1928)
  • Cafe Electric (1927)
  • Manon Lescaut (1926)
  • Madame Wunscht keine Kinder (1926)
  • The Joyless Street (1925)
  • Der Mensch Am Wege (1923)
  • Tragodie der Liebe (1923)

“I care nothing about the story, only how it is photographed and presented.”

Courtesy of TCM:

Once considered one of Hollywood’s premier directors during the 1930s, Josef von Sternberg was mainly remembered for his seven films with German actress Marlene Dietrich. But his main contributions were actually to the language of film, particularly his handling of lighting and mise-en-scene. Von Sternberg was first and foremost a master cinematographer whose expressionistic use of light and dark created stunning visuals onscreen that took on a life of their own. He made his mark as a director during the silent era with “The Salvation Hunters” (1925), “Underworld” (1927) and “The Last Command” (1928). Following the failure of “Thunderbolt” (1929), von Sternberg went back to Germany and cast the then-unknown Marlene Dietrich in “The Blue Angel” (1930), which he shot concurrently in English and in his native tongue. The film turned Dietrich into an international star, and with the exotic actress as his muse, rejuvenated his Hollywood career. Von Sternberg directed Dietrich in six more films, most notably “Morocco” (1930), “Blonde Venus” (1932), “The Shanghai Express” (1932) and “The Scarlett Empress” (1934). But once “The Devil is a Woman” (1935) failed at the box office, von Sternberg’s collaboration with Dietrich was over. While he directed a few more films like “Crime and Punishment” (1935) and “The Shanghai Gesture” (1941), von Sternberg’s career diminished. Despite the rather quiet end to his days as a director, von Sternberg’s influence and reputation as the ultimate Svengali remained consequential for generations of filmmakers.

Born on May 29, 1894 in Vienna, Austria, von Sternberg was raised by his father, Moses, a former soldier in the Austrian-Hungarian army who made his way to America was his son was three, and his mother, Serafin. In 1901, his father sent for the family after obtaining work and von Sternberg lived for a time in New York, before going back to Vienna. In 1908, he returned to the States, this time for good, and grew up on Long Island, where he worked as an apprentice at his aunt’s millinery store and as a stock clerk for a lace store. After dropping out of Jamaica High School, von Sternberg found work cleaning and repairing movie prints at the World Film Company in Fort Lee, NJ, where he rose to chief assistant to the director general. He went on to help make training films for the U.S. Army Signal Corps before earning his first credit as an assistant director on “The Mystery of the Yellow Ribbon” (1919), directed by Emile Chautard. In 1923, he moved to Hollywood and was the assistant director on “By Divine Right” (1923), before marking his debut as a director on “The Salvation Hunters” (1925), a successful picture widely considered to be America’s first true independent film.

After joining Paramount Pictures as an assistant director, von Sternberg returned to directing his own films, making pictures like “Exquisite Sinner” (1926), “Underworld” (1927) and “The Last Command” (1928), which starred the great German actor Emil Jannings. It was Jannings who recommended that von Sternberg return to Europe to direct the film version of Heinrich Mann’s “The Blue Angel” (1930). Casting the lead role of the sexy cabaret star Lola Lola, who could drive men to the most extreme humiliations in the name of love, proved to be a challenge for von Sternberg until he met Marlene Dietrich. If ever an actress and a role were right for one another, this was it. But her screen test failed to impress those working for the director, who dismissed her as commonplace. With the cameras rolling, however, there was nothing common about Dietrich – particularly when she sang “Falling in Love Again” to a smitten Jannings – which von Sternberg recognized immediately and which prompted a multi-film collaboration that brought out the best in both actress and director. Though some would claim he would later exert too much of a Svengali-like influence over both her film roles and her personal life. Meanwhile, “Die Blaue Engel” was an international success and helped rejuvenate von Sternberg’s Hollywood career, which faltered after the failure of “Thunderbolt” (1929).

The first U.S. film between von Sternberg and Dietrich was “Morocco” (1930), a bold debut that featured her as cabaret singer Amy Jolly, an independent woman who dressed as a man, locked lips with a woman and referred to her leading man (Gary Cooper) as her girlfriend. Showcasing the actress’ smoldering charisma, made more striking by von Sternberg’s dark-shadowed lighting that brought out her simultaneously alluring and androgynous qualities, “Morocco” was a hit for the studio, netting some $2 million in revenue. Over the next five years, director and star worked together on what may have been one of the more intriguing collaborations of the Golden Age. Each of their films was manufactured in the studio, despite being set in foreign lands. Von Sternberg, however, used light and shadow to paint visual poetry and conjure an image of a leading lady that was at once beautiful and scathing. Whether casting his actress as a spy dressed in black leather in “Dishonored” (1931) or the glamorous lady of the evening in “Shanghai Express” (1932) or Russian monarch Catherine the Great in “The Scarlett Empress” (1934), von Sternberg shaped Dietrich’s ineffable allure that turned her into one of the biggest stars of her day. But with “The Devil Is a Woman” (1935), a controversial box office flop criticized for its apparent denigration of Spanish people, von Sternberg and Dietrich worked together for the last time.

During his post-Dietrich era, von Sternberg directed a handful of projects before his career went into permanent decline. He directed an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” (1935) before launching an attempt to helm “I, Claudius” in 1937, which remained unfinished due to problems with financial backers. After “Sergeant Madden” (1939), starring Wallace Beery, he directed “The Shanghai Gesture” (1941), a delightfully dark film noir of suspense and exoticism in which Gene Tierney, Ona Munson, and Victor Mature together assume the Dietrich persona in this exploration of the denizens of a lurid Shanghai gambling house. It would be another 11 years before he directed his next film, “Macao” (1952), a financial disaster that turned out to be the last he made for Hollywood. He went on to help the Japanese-made war film, “The Saga of Anatahan” (1952), a poetic study of Japanese soldiers isolated on an island at the end of WWII, which the director later cited as his favorite work. Meanwhile, he was one of several directors to work on Howard Hughes’ “Jet Pilot” (1957), which starred John Wayne and took four painful years to make. In 1959, von Sternberg began teaching film courses at the University of California, Los Angeles, where two of his students turned out to be Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of The Doors. Manzarek later cited von Sternberg as the greatest influence on the band and their music. He left his post at UCLA in 1963 and died six years later on Dec. 22, 1969 of a heart attack. He was 75 years old.

Filmography:

  • The Epic That Never Was (I, Claudius) (1965)
  • Jet Pilot (1957)
  • Macao (1952)
  • Anatahan (1952)
  • The Shanghai Gesture (1942)
  • I Take This Woman (1940)
  • Sergeant Madden (1939)
  • I, Claudius (1937)
  • The King Steps Out (1936)
  • Crime and Punishment (1935)
  • The Devil Is a Woman (1935)
  • The Scarlet Empress (1934)
  • Shanghai Express (1932)
  • Blonde Venus (1932)
  • Dishonored (1931)
  • An American Tragedy (1931)
  • Morocco (1930)
  • The Blue Angel (1930)
  • Thunderbolt (1929)
  • The Case of Lena Smith (1929)
  • The Dragnet (1928)
  • The Docks of New York (1928)
  • The Last Command (1928)
  • Underworld (1927)
  • A Woman of the Sea (1926)
  • The Exquisite Sinner (1926)
  • The Masked Bride (1925)
  • Salvation Hunters (1925)

Here is a curated selection of links for additional insight/information:

  • “Cossacks gallop furiously through this picture and Miss Marlene Dietrich is photographed in as many ways and from almost as many angles as a Warner Brothers chorus ensemble. Not much story and less history.” – Ann Ross, Maclean’s [1934]
  • The Scarlet Empress had been unavailable for years…Ostensibly it is about the marriage of the young and innocent Sophia Frederica to the mad Grand Duke Peter of Russia, and the insurrection which resulted in her becoming the new Empress Catherine. Looking at it today, one is continually puzzled (and delighted) by Sternberg’s ambivalent attitudes towards the material. Surely nobody could have doubted that he was sending it up (‘those ideas are old-fashioned—this is the eighteenth century’ proclaims the ardent, black-wigged Count Alexei to the pouting young Catherine). Yet Sternberg’s insolent wit was the last thing commented on at the time. Strange, too, how these comic anachronisms are made to alternate with set-pieces played solely for their dramatic or exotic appeal; all dialogue ceases and Sternberg constructs a sequence ‘painted with light’ which fully confirms his reputation as one of cinema’s great visual stylists.” – John Gillett, Sight & Sound [1965]
  • “‘It is a relentless excursion into style,’ Josef von Sternberg said of his The Scarlet Empress. That’s putting it mildly. Here is a film so crammed with style, so surrounded by it and weighted down with it, that the actors peer out from the display like children in a toy store. The film tells the story of Catherine the Great as a bizarre visual extravaganza, combining twisted sexuality and bold bawdy humor as if Mel Brooks had collaborated with the Marquis de Sade…As drama, The Scarlet Empress makes no sense, nor does it attempt to. This is not a resource for history class. Its primary subject is von Sternberg’s erotic obsession with Dietrich, whom he objectified in a series of movies that made her face one of the immortal icons of the cinema. Whether she could act was beside the point for him; it would have been a distraction.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times [2006] – link