Sternberg-Dietrich Collaborations

Sternberg-Dietrich Hollywood Collaborations: 1930–1935

Sternberg and Dietrich would joined forces to make six brilliant and controversial films for Paramount: Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil is a Woman (1935).

The stories are typically set in exotic locales, including Saharan Africa, World War I Austria, revolutionary China, Imperial Russia, and fin-de-siècle Spain.

Sternberg’s strategy of extreme aestheticism is expressed in these richly stylized works, both in theme and style.

The actors in various guises represent figures from Sternberg’s “emotional biography.”  Sternberg, indifferent to the studio publicity or to his movies’ commercial success, enjoyed control over these pictures.

Seeking to cash in on the immense success of The Blue Angel, though not yet released to American audiences, Paramount launched the Hollywood production of Morocco, an intrigue-romance starring Gary Cooper, Dietrich and Adolphe Menjou.

The promotional campaign declared Dietrich “the woman all women want to see,” providing salacious hints about her private life and adding to the star’s glamor and notoriety. The fan press inserted an erotic component into her collaboration with Sternberg, encouraging Trilby-Svengali analogies. The publicity tended to distract from the merits of the five movies that would follow and overshadowed the significance of Sternberg’s cinematic output.

Morocco serves as Sternberg’s exploration of Dietrich’s ability to convey his own obsession with “feminine mystique,” one that allowed for sexual interplay blurring the distinction between male and female gender stereotypes.

Sternberg demonstrates his fluency in the visual vocabulary of love: Dietrich dresses in drag and kisses a pretty female; Cooper flourishes a ladies fan and places a rose behind his ear.

The commercial success of Morocco led to both Sternberg and Dietrich being granted with contracts for three more films, and substantial increases in pay.

Critically, too, Morocco scored, earning four Oscar nominations, though winning oine.

Dishonored, Sternberg’s second Hollywood film featuring Dietrich opposite Victor McLaglen was completed before Morocco was released.

A film of considerable levity but slight works, this espionage-thriller dealt with th issues of spy-versus-spy deception and desire.

The feature closes with the military execution of Dietrich’s Agent X-27 (based on Dutch spy Mata Hari), the love-struck femme fatale, a scene that balances gallantry and ghoulishness.

An American Tragedy (1931)

The Sternberg-Dietrich feature Dishonored did not perform at the box-office, and Paramount New York executives sought for a vehicle to commercially exploit the “mystique and glamor” of the Sternberg-Dietrich productions.

While Dietrich was visiting her husband, Rudolf Sieber and their daughter Maria Riva in Europe during the winter of 1930–31, Paramount hired Sternberg to film an adaption of novelist Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.

The production was initially under the direction of Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, whose deterministic treatment of the novel was rejected by Paramount. Eisenstein withdrew from the project, but the studio, which had heavily invested in the production, authorized a complete revision.

While retaining Dreiser’s basic plot and dialogue, Sternberg eliminated its contemporary sociological underpinnings to present a tale of a sexually obsessed middle-class youth (Phillips Holmes) whose deceptions lead to the death of a poor factory girl (Sylvia Sidney).

Author Dreiser was outraged at Sternberg’s failure to adhere to his themes in the adaptation and sued Paramount to stop distribution of the movie, but he lost his case.

Images of water abound in the film and serve as a motif signaling Holmes’ motivations and fate.

The photography by Lee Garmes added visual polish to the production. However, Sternberg’s role as replacement director curbed his artistic contribution, and subsequently the film was compromised.

Sternberg expressed indifference to the mixed critical success it received and later banished the picture from his oeuvre.

When Dietrich returned to Hollywood in April 1931, Sternberg had been established as a top-ranking director at Paramount.

In the next three years, the richest phase of his career, he directed four of his greatest films, beginning with Shanghai Express.