109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

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movielocke
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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#226 Post by movielocke » Mon Jul 16, 2018 10:08 pm

Morocco looks incredible, I must say, the opening track shot. the play of light and shadow, the z axis space of every shot is just incredible, and the clarity of the image and dynamic range of the exposures (speaking as a black and white photographer, not an HDR fanboy) is absolutely jaw dropping. My last viewing of Morrocco was in 2003 or 2004 on a muddy and well worn VHS tape with no contrast or depth to the image at all, visually, this set has knocked my socks off so far.

My last viewing of Shanghai express was an SLP-taped off TCM VHS, so my mind is sort of boggled at what I might expect.

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#227 Post by david hare » Tue Jul 17, 2018 3:31 am

It is absolutely gorgeous!

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Drucker
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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#228 Post by Drucker » Mon Jul 23, 2018 8:48 am

Halfway thru the set, and my second time watching most of these films. Morocco is admittedly a bit slower than the other two, but can you chalk that up to its earliness as a sound film? I can think of other films of this era that can be as stiff at points. There are times when this one feels like one of its contemporaries, but Dietrich's performance elevates the film. I also love dopey Gary Cooper here. Are there other films where he's so obtuse?

My sense is that the films actually seem to get better and richer as they go on, in part because Dietrich gets, more vicious as the films go on? Perhaps that's not the right word. In Morocco and even Dishonored she spends a decent amount of time actively "pursuing" a gentleman. In Shanghai Express however, she plays more games with him. Though they end up together in the end, there is a attitude-ridden coldness to Dietrich. She's willing and eager to play games and drive the man crazy.

If I remember correctly, there's a ton more of that in Blonde Venus and Scarlet Empress. The more Dietrich gets to be Dietrich, the better I suppose. Also, good lord is that PQ on Dishonored stellar.

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#229 Post by Feego » Mon Jul 23, 2018 11:44 am

Drucker wrote:
Mon Jul 23, 2018 8:48 am
I also love dopey Gary Cooper here. Are there other films where he's so obtuse?
This is one of my favorite Gary Cooper appearances in film (I feel that wording might be more appropriate than "performances.") Cooper is not among my favorite actors, and I typically find him utterly lifeless when he's not working with directors who understood how to use him (Capra, Hawks, Mann). Von Sternberg brings out qualities in him I've never seen elsewhere. He's aimless and lost, but in a very desirable way. A man cut off from the rest of the world and caught in a crossroads. This is far from the straight-arrow hero he usually portrayed for less imaginative directors (the exceptions I mentioned earlier found ways of undermining or complicating this characterization). I've never seen him more aloof or sexy. I have yet to delve into this set and it's been a few years since last viewing these films, but I actually thought Morocco was the best at the time, if not necessarily the most spectacular. There's something about the exotic location not representing the geographic Morocco but rather a hazy, romantic state of mind for its main characters that really appealed to me. It's a locale to which emotionally lost people are spirited away, and I think much of its effectiveness is not in anything that Cooper and Dietrich actively do, but in the way von Sternberg captures them.

The ending is an absolute knockout for me as well, and one that makes excellent yet subtle use of sound for an early talkie.
SpoilerShow
On my first viewing, I remember watching as Dietrich joins the other women following their soldiers through the desert. The sound of the desert winds blowing on the soundtrack had a haunting effect, and as I knew the film was about to fade out to "The End," I found myself hoping that the wind sounds would carry through even after the fade-out. As this was from 1930, my hopes weren't high, but it was nirvana when they did just that!

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#230 Post by Drucker » Mon Jul 23, 2018 1:12 pm

Totally on board with your feelings about the ending, which until the recent re-watch was the only thing I could really remember.

Earlier in this thread David Hare scoffs at the notion of realism in these films, and nowhere is that more effective than in the non-American locales for the films. We're constantly given people crossing borders, who are either traveling or in the military, or are somewhere away from home. In that opening scene of Dietrich on the boat in Morocco, where she seems to appear from nowhere, and we have no idea where she is going...that's a mood that resonates in almost every film in this set. Von Sternberg does such a good job of using the "foreigness" of the films as a character, we sort of believe everything is equally possible. Are there really women who follow military men in the dessert? A counter-revolutionary group holding up trains in China? Austrian spies? There probably is a factual basis for a lot of what VS does, but it plays out so spectacularly as a fantasy that would never work if the films were set in the US.

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#231 Post by Michael Kerpan » Mon Jul 23, 2018 4:24 pm

I very much liked the "slowness" of Morocco -- and also thought Cooper was wonderful in this (not sure whether I prefer him here or in Design for Living).

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#232 Post by david hare » Mon Jul 23, 2018 7:00 pm

Drucker wrote:
Mon Jul 23, 2018 1:12 pm
Totally on board with your feelings about the ending, which until the recent re-watch was the only thing I could really remember.

Earlier in this thread David Hare scoffs at the notion of realism in these films, and nowhere is that more effective than in the non-American locales for the films. We're constantly given people crossing borders, who are either traveling or in the military, or are somewhere away from home. In that opening scene of Dietrich on the boat in Morocco, where she seems to appear from nowhere, and we have no idea where she is going...that's a mood that resonates in almost every film in this set. Von Sternberg does such a good job of using the "foreigness" of the films as a character, we sort of believe everything is equally possible. Are there really women who follow military men in the dessert? A counter-revolutionary group holding up trains in China? Austrian spies? There probably is a factual basis for a lot of what VS does, but it plays out so spectacularly as a fantasy that would never work if the films were set in the US.
Youre absolutely correct in these obervations but I would recall the old Herbert Read (was it?) mantra that “realism” is merely one of seventy six variations of Style. The open air sequence in Venus in which Dietrich gves up the boy is as powerfully moving as the outburst by the young soldier who refuses to shoot her at the end of Dishonored. As Sarris said over and over there is nothing trivial about the relationship between men and women. And the greatest art must pass hurdles of artifice and formal genius to express such profound things in meaningful ways. Jo’s movies are all grounded in imagination and “style”.

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#233 Post by Drucker » Tue Aug 07, 2018 12:34 pm

The second half of this set is a far cry from the first. Having gone through everything, it feels as though the first half of this set really features films that are meant to really be Dietrich vehicles. In hindsight, they really come off, regardless of quality, as being ways to show how sexy and sensual Dietrich can be.

The second bunch of films are far more "traditional" stories as far as I'm concerned. Blonde Venus is remarkable. Marshall is GREAT as usual, the plot works well, we get a more standard Hollywood plot with some beautiful visuals and great suspense. There is redemption at the end. Dietrich for the first time in these films is put in a desperate situation. I liked this film a lot more upon this watch than I did the first time I watched it. I felt that everything really clicked and the film rises to the stakes it sets for itself.

With historical epoch Scarlett Empress I have to say I was a bit let down. I loved this film the first two times I watched it, but not so much this time. The best thing about these films is how empowered Dietrich is. The way she toys with emotions in Shanghai Express is delicious. But she spends half of this film cowering in fear, afraid of what she is allowed to do. The film is also just a bit slower than the rest, and the visual set-pieces don't match up for the lack of execution here. I'm sure there's a huge amount of camp value for those who love that stuff, but there's just a few things that are out of place. The heir to the throne isn't dumb enough. Dietrich's revenge isn't vicious enough. I do however like the queen, as well as Count Alexi, who really rises above the fray here to give us that ridiculous character we expect from these films.

Throwing every trick he's got in this picture, Devil Is A Woman is wonderful. So rich, so over the top. Close-ups of doom galore. The most pathetic man we've seen yet, and Dietrich at her most vicious. An absolutely sumptuous film that's a fitting end to the set.

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109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#234 Post by Werewolf by Night » Tue Aug 21, 2018 2:39 pm

I'm making my way through the set this week and thought I'd share some quick thoughts on the supplements:

Interviews:
• Janet Bergstrom (skip it - it's way too long and she mostly recaps what happens in particular scenes and makes some fairly obvious Film Appreciation 101 comments)
• Homay King (watch it - she's got some great insights and details to impart, particularly about Shanghai Express, orientalism, and Sternberg's complete lack of interest in historical accuracy)
• Director Josef von Sternberg’s son, Nicholas (maybe watch it - it's mostly warm personal recollections)
• Deutsche Kinemathek curator Silke Ronneburg (there are a couple of these, actually. Maybe watch them. She speaks in German, volubly and swiftly, but she shows off a lot of cool stuff from Dietrich's personal archives, including her wardrobe)
• Costume designer and historian Deborah Nadoolman Landis (watch it - it's short, and she's extremely enthusiastic and knowledgable. Plus, she's Mrs. John Landis and she designed Michael Jackson's iconic red jacket from the "Thriller" video)

New documentary about actor Marlene Dietrich’s German origins, featuring film scholars Gerd Gemünden and Noah Isenberg (watch it - it's very informative and engaging. You learn a lot about emigré Hollywood)

New documentary on Dietrich’s status as a feminist icon, featuring film scholars Mary Desjardins, Amy Lawrence, and Patricia White (watch it maybe - depends on your tolerance for feminist film criticism and queer theory. I mostly enjoyed it, though)

The Légionnaire and the Lady, a 1936 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Morocco, featuring Dietrich and actor Clark Gable (unless this is your first Criterion purchase, you should already know if you like these or not)

New video essay by critics Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin (skip it - Sorry Adrian Martin fans, but this is awful. It's seriously just a half-hour clip-reel [ooh, look, here are several shots of Dietrich walking through doors] interspersed with on-screen text quotes in academese. But if you like kogonada's videographic criticism, you'll probably like this, too)

The Fashion Side of Hollywood, a 1935 publicity short featuring Dietrich and costume designer Travis Banton (watch it - very entertaining, full of clips of costume and lighting tests, and you'll get a lot of smiles out of Kathleen Howard's narration. I spent the whole evening repeating her finishing-school pronunciation of "chiffon" (SHEE-faww) in my head and grinning. Directed by Sternberg, apparently)

Television interview with Dietrich from 1971 (a must watch - Dietrich comes off as warm, vulnerable, humble, hardworking, admiring of the achievements of others. It’s the perfect counter-narrative to the chilly, forbidding image of her constructed by Sternberg and even some of the other supplements)

"If It Isn't Pain" (song deleted from The Devil is a Woman - audio only) - (listen, I guess. It's 2 1/2 minutes long)
Last edited by Werewolf by Night on Tue Aug 21, 2018 2:39 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#235 Post by Michael Kerpan » Tue Aug 21, 2018 3:01 pm

Werewolf by Night wrote:
Tue Aug 21, 2018 2:39 pm
Television interview with Dietrich from 1971 (haven't watched this one yet - will update when I have)
I thought this was quite interesting.

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#236 Post by domino harvey » Tue Aug 21, 2018 3:06 pm

I'm a fan of Adrian Martin's commentaries and not the video essays he makes with his partner. I haven't seen this one, but I've seen enough other ones to skip it

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#237 Post by cdnchris » Tue Aug 21, 2018 3:47 pm

I actually didn't mind the Martin essay, in theory at least. But it was way too long for being simply a collection of clips.

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#238 Post by zedz » Tue Aug 21, 2018 3:56 pm

I've just made my way through the extras on this set, and I'd agree with Michael and the Werewolf's assessments. The Swedish TV interview is mostly revealing for Dietrich's gentle persona, something of an unusual and refreshing vibe for a celebrity interview. It also has an intro where a very stiff elderly Swede says to another very stiff elderly Swede, "Well, this is very exciting, Sven."

The Martin extra was so bad and lazy that after five minutes I was saying to myself "Somebody actually got paid for this?" The shocking twist at the end turned that into "Adrian Martin got paid for this!?" I generally dislike this kind of taxonomic auteurism intensely. It's facile and swamped in confirmation bias. (There was a hilariously stupid essay in an MoC release once which argued that the moon in The Woman in the Moon was round because Fritz Lang had a thing for circles.) There are a couple of insightful juxtapositions in the overlong mishmash, but they're surrounded by so much junk scholarship they feel like stopped-clock coincidence.

The extras really peter out on the later discs and could have been better deployed (That Hollywood and Fashion film directly relates to The Devil Is a Woman, yet it's placed on the Blonde Venus disc), and it's disappointing that there aren't more film-specific extras. Lots of good general information, but they tend to condense the films into one indistinguishable mass rather than teasing out what makes them unique. The Shanghai Express / Orientalism extra is an exception and it works really well. Criterion seriously couldn't find anybody who wanted to talk about The Scarlet Empress?

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#239 Post by GoodOldNeon » Tue Aug 21, 2018 5:34 pm

Was The Fashion Side of Hollywood actually directed by von Sternberg? IMDB says yes, with an unsourced bit of trivia saying this was the last time Dietrich and von Sternberg worked together, but of course there is no director credit in the film itself.

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109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#240 Post by Werewolf by Night » Tue Aug 21, 2018 5:49 pm

zedz wrote:
Tue Aug 21, 2018 3:56 pm
The extras really peter out on the later discs and could have been better deployed (That Hollywood and Fashion film directly relates to The Devil Is a Woman, yet it's placed on the Blonde Venus disc), and it's disappointing that there aren't more film-specific extras.
I was trying to figure out the rationale for the placement of the extras on each disc. I understand, for example, wanting to put all the costume-related extras together, but not whey they appear on Blonde Venus (in which Dietrich wears a single costume for about half the running time. Or why more extras do not appear on the disc with the shortest feature (The Devil is a Woman).

I do appreciate that the extras are, for the most part, well-curated. It's easy to get through a single feature and the supplements on the same disc in an evening, and I appreciate that. I'm simply not interested in an exhaustive catalog of supplements (especially ones that point out the obvious). But the fact that they couldn't get someone like Guy Maddin to rhapsodize on video about The Scarlet Empress for fifteen minutes seems like a gross omission.

I do hope they include Homay King on more future releases, though. She seems like she'd be a fabulous professor to take a class with.
Last edited by Werewolf by Night on Tue Aug 21, 2018 5:49 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#241 Post by Werewolf by Night » Tue Aug 21, 2018 5:57 pm

GoodOldNeon wrote:
Tue Aug 21, 2018 5:34 pm
Was The Fashion Side of Hollywood actually directed by von Sternberg? IMDB says yes, with an unsourced bit of trivia saying this was the last time Dietrich and von Sternberg worked together, but of course there is no director credit in the film itself.
Given that nothing on the disc or packaging credits Sternberg with having directed it, I'd venture to guess that there's no documentation available to suggest that he did. But I'm sure he would let no one else conduct his lighting and costume tests, and that's about half of what the short consists of, so I suppose you could say he probably directed at least some of it. How's that for a definitive answer?

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#242 Post by whaleallright » Tue Aug 21, 2018 6:02 pm

domino harvey wrote:
Tue Aug 21, 2018 3:06 pm
I'm a fan of Adrian Martin's commentaries and not the video essays he makes with his partner. I haven't seen this one, but I've seen enough other ones to skip it
I have to say, Adrian Martin seems a decently articulate repackager of received auteurist wisdom, and a kind of self-appointed keeper of the "mise en scène criticism" flame, but not much more. I've never read or heard anything by him that amounted to an insight or revelation, or even an unfamiliar historical observation. For an example beyond his vapid comments on the Sternberg set, his video essays on Hou Hsiao Hsien's films are pretty much what any mildly cineliterate person could come up with after reading a few basic essays on Hou (that is, much of it is highly derivative of better writing on Hou). There are lots of people like this in academia, but none as seemingly ubiquitous as Martin. Indeed, there aren't many film critics of international renown who have, to my eyes, written so much and said so little. His heart seems to be in the right place, and nothing of what I've read is particularly objectionable, but neither is it interesting. I'm willing to believe there's stuff he's put out there that's more original than what I've encountered, but count me as a skeptic.

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#243 Post by domino harvey » Tue Aug 21, 2018 6:08 pm

You mention none of his commentaries, the thing I specifically praised him for. Have you heard any of those? His track for Le gai savoir is the best ever recorded for a Godard film and full of insights into one of the most difficult and user unfriendly movies imaginable, though all of his Godard commentaries are excellent.

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#244 Post by whaleallright » Tue Aug 21, 2018 6:12 pm

That's good to hear! I'll try that one.

I've been encountering his written essays for 15 years or more, but the only of his commentaries I've listened to straight through are, to my recollection, those for Alice in the Cities, There's Always Tomorrow, and Good Morning, all of which struck me as being sort-of decent introductions to the received wisdom on the films/filmmakers (not all of which is wrong!) but little more. A fresh perspective on Sirk's melodramas, for example, is really needed, and he didn't offer it...

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#245 Post by domino harvey » Tue Aug 21, 2018 6:16 pm

I haven't heard any of those, so I can't comment, but I thought, apart from his Godard commentaries, his commentary on Les cousins is also excellent at providing a non-fawning and objective look at Chabrol's career. I think he does his research and gets hired for films that are not necessarily his favorites, which leads to varying quality, and may account for him regurgitating common wisdom on something like Sirk rather than coming to his own conclusions as in his Godard tracks

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#246 Post by zedz » Tue Aug 21, 2018 6:58 pm

I think Martin is particularly good at summing up current scholarship on particular filmmakers and films. As Domino says, he does his research and is meticulous about crediting his sources. The issues I sometimes have with his commentaries is that he a) often seem reluctant to critique the work of other academics, even when it seems dodgy or counter to his own position, and b) sometimes doesn't get beyond summing up current scholarship. When he's venturing critically on his own I find him a lot more interesting.

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#247 Post by Werewolf by Night » Tue Aug 21, 2018 10:29 pm

I added my thoughts on the TV interview above. Good stuff. Dietrich’s warmth reminded me of an anecdote about her from Rosemary Clooney’s autobiography. The two were good friends (and recorded a couple songs together). When Clooney was divorcing José Ferrer and fell into a deep depression, Dietrich would come over to make dinner and clean Clooney’s house for her. She particularly enjoyed scrubbing the floors, which she found relaxing. I had sort of a hard time believing that when reading it in print, but Dietrich absolutely comes across in this interview as someone who would do that for a good friend.

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#248 Post by zedz » Tue Aug 21, 2018 10:36 pm

Werewolf by Night wrote:
Tue Aug 21, 2018 10:29 pm
I added my thoughts on the TV interview above. Good stuff. Dietrich’s warmth reminded me of an anecdote about her from Rosemary Clooney’s autobiography. The two were good friends (and recorded a couple songs together). When Clooney was divorcing José Ferrer and fell into a deep depression, Dietrich would come over to make dinner and clean Clooney’s house for her. She particularly enjoyed scrubbing the floors, which she found relaxing. I had sort of a hard time believing that when reading it in print, but Dietrich absolutely comes across in this interview as someone who would do that for a good friend.
I hadn't heard that anecdote, but I had heard a similar one (was it from Orson Welles?) that Dietrich was happiest when she was just being a down-to-earth Hausfrau, cooking dinner for friends or doing housework.

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#249 Post by david hare » Wed Aug 22, 2018 12:40 am

zedz wrote:
Tue Aug 21, 2018 3:56 pm
Criterion seriously couldn't find anybody who wanted to talk about The Scarlet Empress?
Zedz, as for Empress, I offered but nobody cared. As someone bluntly put it, "they only want NAMES". I had though at one stage David Cairns might have gotten a gig but even that didn't happen. He writes extremely well and had covered a lot of them in his blog. Another extra that was hoped for was Schell's fascinating feature movie Marlene, but they presumably ran out of money. or couldn't get the rights. THere were other things planned but it didn't happen
For me the value is in the transfers which are wonderful to have.

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Re: 109, 930-935 Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood

#250 Post by movielocke » Wed Aug 22, 2018 2:06 am

I also loved the homay king extra, highlight of the set. The Janet Bernstein interview on Morocco I fell asleep after about twenty minutes, so I only missed about twenty minutes!

The television interview is also excellent.

Having finally watched blonde Venus and devil is a woman and rewatched Scarlett empress I was surprised my opinion of the latter has remained unchanged (i’ll sum it up as “meh”).

The other two are set highlights, excellent films I wish I watched them fifteen years ago instead of giving up after back to back Morocco and empress.

So that makes the three new to me films in the set all ones that I more or less really liked and outright enjoyed. I was pleasantly surprised over all.

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