Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood
Tasked by studio executives with finding the next great screen siren, visionary Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg joined forces with rising German actor Marlene Dietrich, kicking off what would become one of the most legendary partnerships in cinema history. Over the course of six films produced by Paramount in the 1930s, the pair refined their shared fantasy of pleasure, beauty, and excess. Dietrich’s coolly transgressive mystique was a perfect match for the provocative roles von Sternberg cast her in—including a sultry chanteuse, a cunning spy, and the hedonistic Catherine the Great—and the filmmaker captured her allure with chiaroscuro lighting and opulent design, conjuring fever-dream visions of exotic settings from Morocco to Shanghai. Suffused with frank sexuality and worldly irony, these deliriously entertaining masterpieces are landmarks of cinematic artifice.
The Criterion Collection presents a box set representing Marlene Dietrich’s and Josef von Sternberg’s Hollywood collaborations (unable to do a complete collection of their collaborations since they do not have the rights to their first film together, The Blue Angel) with the six-disc box set Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood, which includes the films Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress (released previously by Criterion on DVD), and The Devil is a Woman. Morocco and Dishonored are presented in the aspect ratio of 1.19:1, Shanghai Express in 1.33:1, and the last three in 1.37:1. All six have been newly restored and receive 1080p/24hz high-definition encodes. The first two films received 2K restorations, both sourced from safety fine-grain prints. The remaining films received 4K restorations. Blonde Venus and The Scarlet Empress were both sourced from 35mm nitrate prints, while The Devil is a Woman comes from a 35mm safety duplicate negative. Shanghai Express was sourced from a 35mm duplicate negative and a composite fine-grain.
Though they all vary in quality in regard to print materials the overall digital presentations are stellar. All six films deliver a wonderful filmic quality, rendering grain incredibly well, from when it’s heaviest (probably Morocco and Dishonored) to very fine (The Devil is a Woman). Soft focus is applied a lot throughout all of the films (and in a couple of cases the source print may be a bit soft) but the image is still sharp and clear, rendering the fine details, which mixed with the superb contrast, blacks and gray levels, helps deliver a great sense of depth. Von Sternberg’s photography and his use of shadow has never looked as good as it does here on home video.
The restoration work has also been extensive and thorough. This is where things vary, and as you get through each film the quality does improve. Morocco may be weakest, with a softer looking image than others (which is source related), while The Devil is a Woman provides the cleanest and sharpest looking image. Aside from The Devil is a Woman (which is almost completely clear of print damage) each film has a minor number of small tram lines, bits of dirt, and scratches. They pop up every once in a while but are never heavy. There can be some mild fluctuations at times, frames can be missing, and Shanghai Express can show some mild shifts or warps, but this is all really minor in the end. There’s nothing glaring and overall I thought all of the films looked fantastic.
All six films deliver their audio in lossless PCM mono. All of them are limited a bit by age (not too surprising) and rarely exceed expectations in regards to range and fidelity, but I was still impressed by how nicely balanced they are, rarely coming off edgy or harsh. The first two films (Morocco and Dishonored) can get a little edgier than the others during higher moments, and they also have a more audible background crackle/hiss than the other films, but none of the films have any severe audio problems (I don’t recall any pops or drops) and dialogue is clear and easy to hear.
Criterion’s six-disc set presents several supplements spread across each film, some specific to the disc’s respective film and others working as overviews of their work.
Morocco, found on disc one, ends up offering one of the more substantial selection of supplements in the set, starting with Weimar on the Pacific, a title referring to (apparently) the influx of German artists to Hollywood before and during the war, featuring scholars Gerd Gemünden and Noah Isenberg. The 29-minute feature offers an overview of Dietrich’s career, and von Sternberg’s to a much lesser extent (basically in relation to Dietrich’s). They cover her early stage days to her move to film, eventual move to Hollywood (Hitler’s rise to power played a big part in that) and her work with von Sternberg, and then the latter part of her life. It’ll work very well for those unfamiliar with Dietrich’s career, early and/or latter parts.
The disc also features a 31-minute interview with film scholar Janet Bergstrom from 2014. She discusses the film’s production and then looks at the construction of certain sequences. There’s also a quick 4-and-a-half-minute interview with Silke Ronneburg about the real Amy Jolly, the woman who served as inspiration for the character in the original novel and later played by Dietrich.
And finally, Criterion offers a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film, now called The Legionnaire and the Lady, starring Dietrich (reprising her role) and Clark Gable (now playing Tom Brown, replacing Gary Cooper). The plot is pretty much the same but since it’s radio everything must be conveyed through dialogue and because of this, and the shorter run time (it runs around 59-minutes with breaks and ads), its scenes get to the point in a much quicker fashion and pumps up the melodrama, which ruins a lot of sequences that are memorable in the film, like the apple sale bit and the ending (which gives a more definitive conclusion). Most odd, though, is the fact Dietrich doesn’t perform any numbers (other than her performing Falling in Love Again from The Blue Angel at the end), which would seem like an obvious inclusion for a radio adaptation, though I’m wondering if there was a fear people tuning in might turn to another station without the proper context (I don’t know, I’m grasping straws, but it makes little sense otherwise). Like other radio adaptations it’s a really fascinating time capsule that again just makes you more aware of the visuals in the film and how von Sternberg (in this instance) tells his stories through them.
After the first disc’s nice introduction the quantity does begin to dwindle with each disc, though disc two (presenting Dishonored) still manages to pack in a few goodies. First is Dietrich Icon, a new 21-minute program featuring film scholars Mary Desjardins, Amy Lawrence, and Patricia White, who talk about the Dietrich persona, the edgy personality that carried through most of her early films, at least until the production code came in, meaning there was far less of a chance of something like Dietrich kissing another woman (like in Morocco) ever showing up again. They also get into more detail about Dietrich’s private life and explain how that played into her playful onscreen persona, and then concluding with what life was like for her (and even Sternberg) after that production code came into effect. To my shame I haven’t read much on Dietrich and was fairly unaware of her background, so this, along with features found on Morocco’s disc, fill in some gaps nicely.
Criterion next includes a visual essay by Cristina Alvarez Lopez and Adrian Martin called Bodies and Space, Fabric and Light, which examines the look and compositions of Sternberg’s films, first showing text quotes about his work and then offering clips from the films on this set to showcase said comments. It’s a rather good presentation but at 29-minutes it outlasts its welcome.
Criterion then throws in a 2014 interview with Nicholas von Sternberg, son of the director. I guess I expected this to be more of a discussion about Josef von Sternberg from a personal perspective, and though we do get that (he recalls trips with his dad, including those to festivals) it ends up, rather surprisingly, being more technical, Nicholas talking about his father’s preferred film stocks and film equipment, and how he used light to “paint” his films. This ended up being, for me, one of the more interesting discussions in the set so far.
Disc three (for Shanghai Express) offers only one significant feature: a new interview with Homay King, author of Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier. King talks about this film’s depiction and use of the Chinese setting, which is of course full of inaccuracies and insensitive details, common for films of the time. The problematic elements in the film range from general stereotypes to casting actors in “yellow face.” She does point some positives in the film, though: its use of the civil war backdrop is not entirely inaccurate (though she questions the motivations of some characters) and she gives it props for casting Chinese actors, even giving Anna May Wong a very significant role (all of this unheard of for the time). This, clearly, doesn’t include Warner “Charlie Chan” Oland. Though Wong talks about “Orientalism” and the racist elements in this and other films of the time, she’s not here to decry these films, despite fairly pointing out a lot of problems found in them, but she is instead more interested in sharing her feelings on how one should approach these films today, arguing why one should not be so dismissive with modern eyes. It’s a topic that can very well go past this feature’s 25-minute runtime but King does well here, providing compelling arguments and needed historical context.
Disc four (for Blonde Venus) starts things off with The Marlene Dietrich Collection, a 15-minute presentation of the star’s own collection of memorabilia and hosted by curator Silke Ronneburg. While explaining the history of the collection she shows off and explains some of the material we’re seeing, the history behind it, and so on. She also uses this to show how Dietrich’s career morphed through the years and also shows how all of this is displayed now. Interestingly they are in the process of digitizing everything. It’s incredible a lot of the stuff Dietrich kept over the years and getting a taste of all this history makes for a rather wonderful little retrospective on her career.
Criterion then provides a couple of features around the film’s costumes, starting with a 15-minute interview with Deborah Naddolman Landis, here to talk about costume designer Travis Banton, offering a look at his designs and work, while also providing a fairly detailed history of his career. Following this is a 10-minute short film called The Fashion Side of Hollywood, which was a publicity short by Paramount showing off their wardrobe department, featuring a staged interview with Banton. There is also some footage from costume tests.
Disc five (The Scarlet Empress) only has one significant extra, which is a wonderful 29-minute interview with Marlene Dietrich, done just after she had completed a live performance. The interview works as a bit of a retrospective with Dietrich looking back on her career, with a lot of time devoted to talking about her work with Von Sternberg and how she was discovered for The Blue Angel. Though it’s a fairly dull set-up for an interview Dietrich is still a captivating subject and I was honestly surprised by how humble she ends up being (she talks about how that comes from her upbringing). Really amazing find on Criterion’s part.
Sadly, Criterion ports nothing from the original DVD edition of The Scarlet Empress. There wasn’t much on that edition, but the biggest loss (outside of a small gallery and the essays found in the disc’s insert, which are not included in this set’s booklet) was easily a 20-minute interview with von Sternberg, which also has the director show off his techniques for lighting. This was an incredible feature and its loss is pretty big here. It was from a BBC program, and one thing I’ve noticed with a lot of Blu-ray upgrades/reissues (like Straw Dogs, The River, Short Cuts, and others) the BBC programs from the previous DVD editions aren’t getting carried over, so I assume Criterion is unable to relicense the material or the costs were prohibitive.
Thankfully the Dietrich interview is great!
And finally, the last disc (for The Devil is a Woman) only has one 2-minute supplement: a song removed from the film, ”If It Isn’t Pain,” which was excised thanks to the production code. Only the audio survives (a metal disc for a record was created and that is where this comes from). The innuendo in the song is not subtle so it’s not hard to see why it was cut.
Criterion then includes a lengthy 80-page booklet with the set, featuring a lot of photos and three essays. Imogen Sara Smith provides an excellent essay on Dietrich and her appeal through the years, and the ground she broke. Gary Giddens then writes an extensive essay about the films Dietrich and von Sternberg did together, from The Blue Angel all the way through to The Devil is a Woman. The last essay, by Farran Smith Nehme, looks at how the films were a collaborative effort beyond just Dietrich and von Sternberg, bringing up various other members of the production teams around the films who helped come up with the look and Dietrich image.
Altogether the supplements offer a rather satisfying examination of Dietrich, von Sternberg, and their films together.
One of Criterion’s best releases from last year, this amazing box set (despite lacking The Blue Angel) does offer a fairly comprehensive look into the collaborative efforts between von Sternberg and Dietrich, delivering gorgeous looking presentations for each film and providing a wealth of material about the two, the films, and the creation of Dietrich’s image. Highly recommended.