Shanghai Express (1932): Sternberg-Dietrich

Shanghai Express: 1932

Depression era adiences found it especially difficult to appreciate Sternberg’s notion of desires and that love can be unconditional, 

Shanghai Express was successful almost despite itself–it was misperceived by the public as more of an adventure than.

“This is the Shanghai Express. Everybody must talk like a train,” Von Sternberg said when asked why all the actors spoke in even monotone.

The feature’s theme, as in most of Sternberg’s films, is a probe into the nature of deception and desire. This spectacle pitted Dietrich against Clive Brook, a romantic struggle in which neither can prevail.

Sternberg strips the train’s passengers of their carefully crafted masks to reveal their petty or sordid existences.

Dietrich’s enigmatic character, Shanghai Lily, reflects Sternberg’s personal involvement with his star-lover.  Scriptwriter Jules Furthman offered Dietrich with the poignant admission, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”

Sternberg honored former filmmaker and early mentor Émile Chautard by casting him as the bemused Major Lenard.

With Shanghai Express, Sternberg exhibits complete mastery over every element of the production: décor, photography, sound and acting.

Lee Garmes served as cinematographer on this film, winning an Oscar, and both Sternberg and the movie were nominated in their respective categories, but did not win.

Blonde Venus (1932)

When Sternberg began Blonde Venus, Paramount finances were in jeopardy. Profits had plummeted due to decline in theatre attendance among working class moviegoers. Fearing bankruptcy, the executives tightened control over their films.

Dietrich’s forthright portrayals of demi-mondes (Dishonored, Shanghai Express) were discarded in favor of a more American (read domestic) heroine.

Producer B. P. Schulberg was hoping to cash in on the success of Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations to help the studio’s finances.

Sternberg’s story for Blonde Venus and the screenplay by Furthman and S.K.Lauren center on a fallen woman, who’s ultimately forgiven by her long suffering husband.

Ending Problems

The narrative exhibited the “sordid self-sacrifice” that marked Hollywood’s  female performers. When Sternberg declined to alter the ending, Paramount put the project on hold and threatened him with lawsuit. Dietrich joined Sternberg in defying the New York executives. Minor adjustments were made to satisfy the studio, but Sternberg’s compromises did not translate into critical or box-office success.

Paramount’s tolerated the duo’s defiance due to the profits generated by Shanghai Express, over $3 million.

Blonde Venus opens with the idealized courtship and marriage of Dietrich and mild-mannered chemist Herbert Marshall. Quickly ensconced as a Brooklyn housewife and burdened with impish son Dickie Moore, she becomes a mistress to politico and nightclub gangster Cary Grant when her husband requires expensive medical treatment for radiation.

The plot grows increasingly improbable as Dietrich resurrects her theatrical career that takes to exotic locations around the world, accompanied by her little boy.

Nominally, the movie is about the devotion of a mother for her child, a subject close to Sternberg due to his own traumatic childhood and harsh experiences as a transient laborer in his youth.

With Blonde Venus, Sternberg reached his apogee stylistically, making a film of great visual beauty achieved through multiple layers of evocative décor where style displaces and transcends characterizations.

The episodic narrative, disparate locales and unimpressive supporting cast are major faults for mainstream critics.

Blonde Venus’s “camp” derives from the outrageous, extremely stylized “Hot Voodoo” nightclub sequence, when Dietrich assumes the role of the beast and emerges from an ape costume.

Though moderately profitable, the movie’s mixed critical reaction lessened the studio’s commitment to the eccentricities of the Sternberg-Dietrich collaboration.

At odds with Paramount and their individual contracts expired, Sternberg and Dietrich conceived of forming an independent company in Germany.

Sternberg had no objections when Dietrich was scheduled to star in Rouben Mamoulian’s The Song of Songs (1933). When Dietrich balked at the assignment, Paramount quickly sued her for losses. Courtroom testimony revealed she was preparing to abscond to Berlin to pursue work with Sternberg. Paramount prevailed in court, and Dietrich was required to complete the film.

But when the National Socialists gained power in January 1933, Sternberg returned to Hollywood in April 1933. Abandoning plans for independent filmmaking, Sternberg and Dietrich reluctantly signed a two-film contract with the studio in May 1933.

Sternberg prepared to make The Scarlett Empress, an exercise in style that antagonized Paramount and marked the end of his creative phase there.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

The Scarlet Empress, an historical drama concerning the rise of Catherine the Great of Russia, had been adapted to film on several occasions by American and European directors when Sternberg began organizing the project.[187] In this, his penultimate film starring Dietrich, Sternberg abandoned contemporary America as a subject and contrived a fantastical 18th-century Imperial Russia, “grotesque and spectacular”, stupefying contemporary audiences with its stylistic excesses.[188][189]
The narrative follows the rise of the child Sophia “Sophie” Frederica through adolescence to become Empress of Russia, with special emphasis on her sexual awakening and her inexorable sexual and political conquests.[190][191] Sternberg’s decision to examine the erotic decadence among 18th-century Russian nobility was partly an attempt to blindside censors, as historical dramas ipso facto were granted a measure of decorum and gravity.[192][193] The sheer sumptuousness of the sets and décor obscure the allegorical nature of the film: the transformation of the director and star into pawns controlled by the corporate powers that exalt ambition and wealth, “a nightmare vision of the American dream.”[194][195]
The film portrays 18th-century Russian nobility as developmentally arrested and sexually infantile, a disturbed and grotesque portrayal of Sternberg’s own childhood experiences, linking eroticism and sadism. The opening sequence examines the young Sophia (later Catherine II) early sexual awareness, conflating eroticism and torture, that serves as a harbinger of the sadism that she will indulge in as an empress.[196] Whereas Blonde Venus portrayed Dietrich as a candidate for mother love, the maternal figures in The Scarlet Empress make a mockery of any pretense to such idealizations.[197] Dietrich is reduced to a fantastic and helpless clothes horse, bereft of any dramatic function.[198]

Despite withholding the film for eight months, to avoid competition with United Artists film The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934), starring Elisabeth Bergner, the movie was dismissed by critics and the public. Americans facing the Depression were in no mood for self-indulgent filmmaking.  The film’s failure among was a blow to Sternberg’s reputation.

Sternberg embarked on the final film of his contract at Paramount, which was realigning in management (the decline of producer Schulberg, Sternberg’s main supporter), and the rise of Ernst Lubitsch. As his personal relationship with Dietrich deteriorated, the studio determined that her professional career would proceed independently. The incoming production manager Lubitsch granted Sternberg full control over his final film with Marlene Dietrich, The Devil is a Woman.

The Devil is a Woman (1935)

The Devil is a Woman is Sternberg’s tribute to his collaborator and muse Marlene Dietrich, reflecting on their five-year professional and personal association.

The movie is a spectacle of an individual’s conspicuous loss of prestige and authority as the price for surrendering to a sexual obsession. Sternberg employed all his sophisticated methods, and officially handled the cinematography.

Based on the 1908 novel by Pierre Louÿs, The Woman and the Puppet unfolds in Spain’s carnival at the end of the 19th century. A love triangle pits the young revolutionary Antonio (Cesar Romero) against the middle-aged former military officer Don Pasqual (Lionel Atwill) in contest for the love of the beautiful demi-mondaine Concha (Dietrich). Despite the colorful setting, the film has a dark, brooding quality. The contest ends in a duel where Don Pasqual is wounded, perhaps mortally (it’s never made explicit).

Sternberg cast leading man Atwill, who is the director’s double in facial appearance, short stature, stern countenance, proud bearing, verbal mannerisms and immaculate attire.  This deliberate self-portraiture serves as commentary on the decline of his career as well as his loss of Dietrich as lover. The sharp exchanges between Concha and Pasqual are filled with bitter recriminations. Sternberg carefully applies layer upon layer of décor to create effects. His outstanding control over the visual integrity is manifest in every element.

In the March 1935 premiere of The Devil is a Woman, Paramount announced that Sternberg’s contract would not be renewed.  Anticipating his termination, the director declared before the film’s release: “Miss Dietrich and I have progressed as far as possible … if we continued, we would get into a pattern that would be harmful to both of us.” The Devil is a Woman cost Sternberg his reputation, and he would never again enjoy the control or prestige conferred on him at Paramount.

The Spanish government protested the film’s purported disparagement of “the Spanish armed forces,” an insult to the Spanish people. The objectionable scenes depict Civil Guards as inept at controlling carnival merrymakers, and a shot of a policeman drinking alcohol in a café. Paramount president Adolph Zukor agreed to suppress the picture in order to protect US-Spain trade agreements, and Paramount film distribution in Spain.