Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
At the dawn of the sound era, as German movie star Emil Jannings left Hollywood to return to Germany, the actor invited Austrian-born/American-raised director Josef von Sternberg (who directed Jannings in The Last Command, 1928) to Universum Film A.G. to direct him in that studio’s first sound film, The Blue Angel (1930). It was a worldwide smash and von Sternberg returned to Hollywood with an international hit and a new star: Marlene Dietrich. Not exactly what Jannings had in mind, but then how could he know that the theatrical thickness of his gesture-laden theatrics would come across as simply old-fashioned next to the brash, lazy, sensual quality of Dietrich’s easy screen presence and modern performance.
Von Sternberg and Dietrich worked together on six more films for Paramount Pictures through the early 1930s, all lavish, lush productions that bring Hollywood art and craft to stories of sexuality and power with exotic overtones and fetishistic undercurrents. Until Criterion’s long-awaited box set Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood, none of them had ever been on Blu-ray and two had never even been released to DVD. They have all been remastered in either 4K or 2K for this amazing collection, easily one of the essential home video releases of 2018.
Dietrich made her American debut opposite Gary Cooper in Morocco (1930), a French Foreign Legion melodrama that casts the exotic Dietrich as a sultry cabaret singer. Hollywood star Cooper got top billing and his brawny male beauty gets its own glamour treatment from von Sternberg’s camera but the director made Dietrich the most memorable scenes—notably an entrance wearing a man’s tuxedo and kissing a female a patron on the lips (an early suggestion of lesbian chic)—and the final image as she trudges through the desert after a departing soldier.
James Whale followed up his iconic horror classic Frankenstein (1931) with the strange, sly, and sardonic The Old Dark House (1932), part haunted house terror and part spoof executed with baroque style.
Boris Karloff (fresh from his star-making turn in Frankenstein) takes top billing in the supporting role of Morgan, the scarred, mute butler with a penchant for drink and a vicious mean streak, but the film is really an ensemble piece. Melvin Douglas is the wisecracking romantic lead caught in a raging thunderstorm in the Welsh mountains with bickering couple and traveling companions Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart. They take refuge in the creepy old manor of the title, lorded over by the gloriously flamboyant Ernest Thesiger and his dotty, fanatical sister Eva Moore, when a landslide wipes out the goat-trail of a mountain road, and are later joined by more stranded passengers: a hearty Charles Laughton, whose Lancashire working class accent and blunt manners sets him apart from the social graces of his companions, and his “friend” Lillian Bond, a chorus girl with a chirpy sunniness in the gloomy situation.
An early sound film shot with a distinctive and evocative silent film aesthetic, Vampyr (Denmark, 1932) is a horror movie as tone poem. Dialogue is sparse and large blocks of text (either intertitles or pages from a book of vampire lore) provide the exposition. It’s an eerily abstract film of vague motivations and ethereal imagery (exaggerated by the worn state of the source prints) from the opening scenes.
Our hero, Allan Gray (Julian West), is a vaguely interested in the supernatural, according the titles, but he walks into this cursed village like a dazed innocent whose walking tour (or perhaps butterfly hunt? he’s hoisting a large net over his shoulder) of the familiar countryside takes him into unfamiliar terrain, a cursed village that is, for all intents and purposes, isolated from the world. A villager with a scythe rings a bell on a misty lake as he arrives, already conjuring a feeling of death and portents of supernatural things to come.