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Von Sternberg

Von Sternberg

John Baxter
Series: Screen Classics
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Von Sternberg
    Book Description:

    Belligerent and evasive, Josef von Sternberg chose to ignore his illegitimate birth in Austria, deprived New York childhood, abusive father, and lack of education. The director who strutted onto the set in a turban, riding breeches, or a silk robe embraced his new persona as a world traveller, collected modern art, drove a Rolls Royce, and earned three times as much as the president. Von Sternberg traces the choices that carried the unique director from poverty in Vienna to power in Hollywood, including his eventual ostracism in Japan. Historian John Baxter reveals an artist few people knew: the aesthete who transformed Marlene Dietrich into an international star whose ambivalent sexuality and contradictory allure on-screen reflected an off-screen romance with the director.

    In his classic films The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930), and Blonde Venus (1932), von Sternberg showcased his trademark visual style and revolutionary representations of sexuality. Drawing on firsthand conversations with von Sternberg and his son, Von Sternberg breaks past the classic Hollywood caricature to demystify and humanize this legendary director.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-2603-6
    Subjects: Film Studies, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. The Man Who Asked for Onions
    (pp. 1-4)

    The waiter stared at the man who’d made this request.

    We were in the Emerald Room of the Australia Hotel, the most prestigious hotel in Sydney, if not the most modern. Six meters above our heads dangled a huge Italian chandelier. In every direction, tables covered in linen, ironed glossy with starch, extended to infinity. Out of sight a fountain played, while marble nymphs observed us covertly from a jungle of potted ferns.

    The table settings, like the décor, belonged to the age of Queen Victoria. Each plate, bowl, dish, cup, and saucer bore the hotel’s emblem. The flatware, scratched...

  4. Vienna
    (pp. 5-9)

    EVEN IF WE KNEW nothing about Josef von Sternberg, an unhappy childhood could be inferred from his films. Fathers, if they appear at all, are tyrants. Mothers sacrifice everything for their children, who repay them with petulance or indifference. His men both fear and welcome the lash of contempt that their women wield, and women alone retain their individuality. Summarizing his life, von Sternberg wrote, “Fear always was first, to be dispelled by aggression, always followed by guilt.”¹ His contemporary, Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, agreed about his psychological burdens. “He had a most pronounced inferiority complex. . . . Snobbery...

  5. Love and Other Distractions
    (pp. 10-14)

    YOUNG JONAS LOOKED FORWARD to weekends at the Prater all the more because of the ordeal of his weekdays. He hated the yeshiva, which, beginning at age six, he was forced to attend after regular classes to learn Hebrew. He particularly resented the teacher, a “bearded monster” named Antcherl, on whom he partly modeled Professor Rath inThe Blue Angel.

    Fortunately, this misery lasted only a year. Though not exactly prospering in the United States, Moses found enough work to send for his family, but not enough to pay their fares, which Serafin borrowed from relatives. In December 1901, with...

  6. An Artist’s Life
    (pp. 15-18)

    VON STERNBERG’S LIFE IN Vienna ended in 1908 when Moses, who became a U.S. citizen in 1906, decided that the family should rejoin him in the United States. He’d found steady work in the clothing business. His naturalization application lists his profession as “furrier,” and the 1910 census as “lace worker.” To signify his commitment to his adoptive home, Moses changed his name to Morris. On their arrival in the United States, Serafin became Serafina, Heinrich was renamed Henry, Hermine became Minna, and Siegfried was known as Fred. Jonas assumed the more common Josef but never liked the diminutive Joe....

  7. The World, the Flesh, and William A. Brady
    (pp. 19-25)

    UNTIL THE MID-1920S, the East Coast film industry, particularly the studios in Astoria, Queens, and Fort Lee, New Jersey, rivaled that of the West. Most cinemas were in the large eastern cities, and in addition to providing a pool of actors, artists, and technicians, New York housed the banks that funded production.

    Jules Brulatour dominated Fort Lee. He wasn’t French but had been born in New Orleans. As well as monopolizing the supply of Eastman raw film stock, Brulatour processed it and warehoused the completed motion pictures. The studios he built at Fort Lee attracted both American producers and French...

  8. In Uniform
    (pp. 26-31)

    IN APRIL 1917 THE United States entered the European war. As Hollywood whipped up hatred of the Hun in its films, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and other stars toured the nation, selling bonds. In July Congress ordered the Army Signal Corps to obtain photographs and create a comprehensive pictorial history of the war. With U.S. troops already in France and General John Pershing installed in Paris, the Signal Crops hurriedly formed a Photographic Section. Moviemakers who had been peeling potatoes, drilling, or learning the workings of an Enfield rifle were whisked to Columbia University in uptown Manhattan, where...

  9. Over There
    (pp. 32-34)

    BY THE TIME THE war ended with the armistice of November 1918, von Sternberg had left the Army War College and was attached to the Medical Corps in Washington, D.C. He wasn’t demobilized until 1919, and then only after William Brady intervened. He found the film industry much changed. In 1916 Brady had forced Lewis Selznick out of World and switched to stage-bound melodramas that exploited his Broadway connections. These proved so unpopular that he sold his interest back to Selznick in 1918, having lost millions for his backers and instilled a caution about investing in the cinema that persists...

  10. Out There
    (pp. 35-39)

    FOR MORE THAN FORTY years, French director Robert Florey served as an unofficial consul to Europeans visiting Hollywood. He and von Sternberg became friendly when the latter, close to his thirtieth birthday, made a second stab at California. This time he lodged in a bungalow near the corner of Vine Street and Hollywood Boulevard—only two blocks, he later noted wryly, from where a star sunk in the pavement commemorates his work. His accommodations were spartan—a single room with a Murphy bed that served as a bureau by day and folded down into a bed at night. He ate...

  11. Photographing a Thought
    (pp. 40-46)

    SO LOW WAS VON STERNBERG’S opinion of the man who helped him make his first feature that he doesn’t even mention his name inFun in a Chinese Laundry.Instead, he simply calls the man “Kipps,” after his best-known acting role. Five years his junior, Arthur George Brest, a brash Scot who preferred to be billed as “George K. Arthur,” was a man on the make. In 1921, while living in London, he had learned that U.S. director Harold Shaw planned to film H. G. Wells’s novelKipps,about a maladroit shop assistant who inherits a fortune but stumbles when...

  12. A Genuine Genius
    (pp. 47-54)

    WITH UNITED ARTISTS BACKING it,The Salvation Hunterslooked like the salvation of everyone involved. Georgia Hale became Chaplin’s mistress, then his leading lady inThe Gold Rush.George Arthur won some acting roles, including in a couple of von Sternberg films, and he later became a successful producer of short features, but von Sternberg never mentioned him in interviews. As he would do with increasing frequency, he wrote a collaborator out of his life.

    The director himself was feted. TheNew Yorkertook pleasure in writing up his exploits as a case of a smart East Coast Jew putting...

  13. Three Sheets to the Wind
    (pp. 55-60)

    VON STERNBERG’S ACCOUNT OF the next episode in his career was laconic. “During a period when I was confronted with failure,” he wrote, “[Charles Chaplin] asked me to direct a film for him. This was quite a distinction, as he had never honoured another director in this fashion, but it only resulted in an unpleasant experience for me.”

    The film, variously known asSea Gulls(its official title in the Chaplin studio records) orThe Sea Gull,was retitled by von SternbergThe Woman Who Loved Onceand then, definitively,A Woman of the Seaby Chaplin, to remind people...

  14. The Ascent of Paramount
    (pp. 61-66)

    OFA WOMAN OF THE SEA,von Sternberg wrote that it “nearly ended” his career. Offers of directing work dried up. Following the double debacle of the aborted MGM contract and the shelved Chaplin project, nobody would trust him with a film of his own.

    On July 6, 1926, Riza Royce phoned her friend Frederica Sagor and asked, “How would you like to stand up for me today? Von Sternberg and I are getting married.”¹

    Sagor, who had never met the groom and barely knew his name, joined the couple at the West Hollywood sheriff’s office—“a dirty, tiny store...

  15. The City of Dreadful Night
    (pp. 67-74)

    ONCE THE 1920 VOLSTEAD Act made it illegal to sell alcohol in the United States, criminals amalgamated into gangs to manufacture, smuggle, and distribute liquor. By 1927 they effectively ruled many cities, particularly Chicago, thumbing their noses at the forces of law and order—which, Ben Hecht wrote, “did not advance on the villains with drawn guns, but with their palms out, like bellboys.” Hecht came to Hollywood in 1927, encouraged by Herman Mankiewicz, who sent him a now-legendary telegram that concluded, “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. . . . Dont let...

  16. A Great Man
    (pp. 75-83)

    UNTILUNDERWORLDWAS RELEASED, von Sternberg remained, as far as Paramount was concerned, a negligible talent, fit only for standard studio products. In June,Varietyannounced that he would replace Dorothy Arzner as director ofThe Glory Girl,with Esther Ralston. OnceUnderworldhit, however, the company was ready to give him anything he wanted—beginning with a new contract that doubled his salary to $20,000 a week. He also received a $10,000 bonus and a gold medal.

    Von Sternberg chose to regard this success as an endorsement of his autocratic methods. Having imposed absolute silence on his sets and...

  17. Came the Dawn
    (pp. 84-93)

    GIVEN THE SUCCESS OFUnderworld,it appears astonishing that when von Sternberg sailed for Germany in 1929 to makeThe Blue Angel,Hollywood regarded his career as almost over. Although his many clashes with management contributed, his fall was mostly due to the impact of talking pictures. Sound swept through Hollywood like a plague to which the poorly educated and foreign-born possessed no immunity. Actors such as Clara Bow and Vilma Banky, once gold plated, revealed their underlying brass in the form of working-class accents or, worse, the tones of Europe. Despite winning an Academy Award, Emil Jannings preferred to...

  18. The Lady with the Legs
    (pp. 94-108)

    TO MAKE A SOUND film in Berlin in 1929 was anything but simple. Though Germany pioneered sound recording, as it had photography, and companies such as Tobis-Klangfilm controlled major patents, others were held by the U.S. General Electric Company, which forbade the use of its technology in German theaters. Not until June 1929 did a U.S. sound-on-film talkie,The Singing Fool,play to German audiences, and then only after legal wrangles had aborted earlier screenings. Up to the last minute, it wasn’t certain the film would open, and critics had to fight for tickets with members of the public.


  19. Falling in Love Again
    (pp. 109-121)

    ON OCTOBER 29, 1929, the U.S. stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. By December, Nazi Party membership swelled to 178,000. If von Sternberg or Dietrich noticed, neither said so. Something more important was taking place. One was falling in love, and the other was letting him.

    Although her husband would disappear for long periods, Riza didn’t immediately notice. She was busy enjoying her own small celebrity, being interviewed and photographed for fashion spreads in magazines such asDie Dame.Once she realized the extent of his infatuation, the arguments began. During one of them, she asked why he...

  20. The Woman All Women Want to See
    (pp. 122-133)

    DIETRICH’S ARRIVAL IN NEW YORK had elements of farce. She later retailed the story to Leo Lerman in a tone of just-between-us-girlsfausse naivete:

    In those days, maids were always seasick. Everyone was sitting together in first class and worrying about their maids. But Resi was not only seasick; she lost her teeth—and was the reason I was late for the first interview. Resi, she wouldn’t come out from her cabin until I promised to take her to a dentist immediately.

    All the American [passengers] had black dresses and pearls and mink coats and the orchids, ropes of orchids,...

  21. Spies
    (pp. 134-141)

    IN PUTTING DOWN ROOTS in California, von Sternberg was an exception among emigrant filmmakers. Many who had arrived before sound were now being shed as their accents proved a liability. Others, like Jannings and Pommer, saw better prospects of success in Europe than in a Hollywood struggling with the Depression. Among those who departed was Alexander Korda. He had pursued a career in his native Hungary, as well as in Vienna, Paris, and Berlin, where he had directed Dietrich in a couple of films. Eventually he wound up in Hollywood, where he made four indifferent pictures before deciding in 1930...

  22. Talk Like a Train
    (pp. 142-151)

    HAD VON STERNBERG MADE onlyShanghai Express,his position in the pantheon of filmmakers would be secure. Few films of any era are so integrated in décor and performance. Not until Stanley Kubrick would one get the sense of an inspired visual intelligence brought to bear on every image, every frame. Each element inShanghai Expressis subordinated to the intensification of “spiritual power.” The flimsy plot, the measured delivery of its minimal dialogue, the larger-than-life characters, the stylized China in which the action takes place—all recall opera more than film. If (as Woodrow Wilson may—or may not...

  23. Come Early, Stay Late
    (pp. 152-166)

    WITHSHANGHAI EXPRESSCOMPLETED and Riza’s lawsuits no longer news, von Sternberg proposed filming Émile Zola’s novelNana,about a failed actress turned courtesan in Second Empire France, but Samuel Goldwyn had beaten him to it with a version starring the latest answer to Garbo—Russian actress Anna Sten. Paramount wasn’t disappointed. Some executives felt that Dietrich had already played too many prostitutes, and a change of tone was advised. Also, notwithstanding a 1926 film by Jean Renoir,Nanaresisted movie treatment, as it contained nudity, lesbianism, an illegitimate child, and Nana’s death from “smallpox”—a euphemism for syphilis.


  24. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  25. Russian Dolls
    (pp. 167-172)

    VON STERNBERG’S IMPENDING departure left Paramount in a quandary, since Dietrich’s contract ran until February 20, 1933. With little hope of success, Manny Cohen suggested that while both sides considered their options, Dietrich might complete another film with a new director. To his surprise, both she and von Sternberg agreed. They decided onDas Hohe Liedby Herman Sudermann, which had been turned into a play titledThe Song of Songsback in 1914 and filmed twice as a silent. With a minimum of argument, Rouben Mamoulian was selected to direct, but according to him, he turned down the job...

  26. Moscow Rules
    (pp. 173-181)

    IN EVERY CATEGORY, HIS next film took von Sternberg into uncharted territory. It was set in the eighteenth century—something he had never attempted. It was also based on a historical character, Catherine II, empress of Russia from 1729 to 1796. It took place in a country he had never visited. And at a time when the best Hollywood “A” film cost $400,000, the budget would run to almost $1 million. On paper, the expense appeared justified. Dietrich would be playing one of the most sensational figures in European history. Catherine’s diaries didn’t list all her lovers, but even if...

  27. The End of the Affair
    (pp. 182-192)

    ONCE IT WAS FURNISHED to his satisfaction, von Sternberg invited Marlene, Maria, and Rudy Sieber to visit the Neutra house. With the German market now barred to all films with Jewish artists, Paramount closed its Joinville dubbing facility. Sieber moved permanently to the United States—though not, Marlene explained, with any thought of sharing her life, which was too full to accommodate a husband. Rather, he and Tami would live in New York until granted U.S. citizenship. Von Sternberg hoped Dietrich might move into the new house with him, but she derided its isolation and lack of privacy. How could...

  28. Cardboard Continental
    (pp. 193-200)

    WITH TIME ON HIS hands, von Sternberg took refuge in art, organizing an exhibition of his collection at the Los Angeles County Museum. Urged by Preston Harrison, a prominent collector and donor, the museum devoted most of its wall space in June and July to forty-three oils, fifty-five watercolors and drawings, and thirty-five sculptures. Along with works by Modigliani, Picasso, Pascin, Kandinsky, Nolde, Vlaminck, Dix, Grosz, Archipenko, and Kokoschka, the show included most of the self-portraits first displayed on the set during the making ofBlonde Venus,plus work by von Sternberg protégés Peter Ballbusch and Peter Kollorsz and a...

  29. Far Cathay
    (pp. 201-204)

    VON STERNBERG REPUDIATEDThe King Steps Out.It became the only film he specifically requested be omitted from any retrospective. The Columbia experience, with its contrasts to the prodigality of Paramount, shook him. In an effort to regain his confidence, he developed some projects to be produced independently. Perhaps inspired by Lorre’s use of a classic novel in the public domain, he wrote a treatment of Émile Zola’sGerminal,the story of a coal miners’ strike in northern France that ends in violence. One can hardly imagine a project less likely to attract a Hollywood studio, but he tried anyway,...

  30. The Claudius Trap
    (pp. 205-219)

    PLENTY OF OLD FRIENDS from Berlin had taken refuge from Hitler in London, and they brought grapes to von Sternberg’s bedside and commiserated. Even Marlene Dietrich was there, juggling lovers while playing a fugitive Russian grand duchess inKnight Without Armourfor Alexander Korda. Since von Sternberg had seen Korda off at Union Station in Los Angeles five years before, the devious Hungarian, thanks to substantial funding from Prudential Insurance Company, had become a movie magnate, transforming a mansion at rural Denham into the studios of his London Films. It seethed with cronies and relatives, including his brothers Zoltan and...

  31. Family Ties
    (pp. 220-225)

    EVEN THOUGHTHE DEVIL Is a Womaneffectively terminated von Sternberg’s career as a filmmaker of the first rank, it inaugurated the growth of his legend. Of the personalities with whom he was most often compared during the 1920s and 1930s, Murnau had died in a 1931 car accident. Pabst refused to risk his reputation on the international scene and made a succession of negligible if exotic program films for the Continental market. Reinhardt would die in a New York hotel room in 1943, having achieved nothing of note in exile. Although Eisenstein survived until 1948, his last works,Bezhin...

  32. The War at Home
    (pp. 226-236)

    WITH WAR NOW DECLARED, an estimated 25,000 Europeans flooded into American show business, but they found closed doors everywhere. “Not yet at the alarming stage,” noted theNew York Times,“Hollywood’s refugee problem is nevertheless giving some concern to certain people here.” Newcomers could expect invitations to parties but few offers of work. TheNew York Timesreported in March 1941 that “forty or fifty well-known film workers have been more or less recently employed by the studios . . . and there are twice or three times that number waiting around on the off-chance that a job will be...

  33. Americana
    (pp. 237-240)

    ON JULY 29, 1943, von Sternberg married Jeanne Annette McBride, his twenty-one-year-old secretary/nurse. It’s difficult to imagine who he might have married if not her. No man was less inclined to date, and throughout his life he maintained a distance from women that was at best courtly, at worst icily polite. The ceremony took place at the North Hollywood home of Dr. Hans Schiff, a noted German photographer. The groom cheated his age a little for the press, giving it as forty-five instead of nearer fifty. The union was sufficiently newsworthy to rate a listing inTimemagazine, which described...

  34. The Seven Bad Years
    (pp. 241-249)

    TO BE A FLUNKY, even for a director of Vidor’s stature, must have crushed what remained of von Sternberg’s old spirit. With no work in sight, he began writing an original screenplay called “The Seven Bad Years.” Based on his own childhood, it dealt, in his words, “with man’s fixation on an infantile level, and its purpose was to demonstrate the adult insistence to follow the pattern inflicted on a child in its first seven helpless years, from which a man could extricate himself were he to realise that an irresponsible child was leading him into trouble.” His outline suggests...

  35. Because I Am a Poet
    (pp. 250-256)

    ON JUNE 13, 1944, bombers sank three small Japanese cargo ships moored near the tiny Pacific island of Anatahan in the Marianas, 100 kilometers north of Saipan. Thirty-three of the crew swam ashore. In February 1945 a U.S. Navy party sent to retrieve the bodies from a crashed B-29 discovered what remained of the group. It included an Okinawan woman, Kazuko Higa, who had been on the island when the castaways arrived, living with the former overseer of a now-derelict plantation.

    No one was ready to surrender. In particular, one noncommissioned officer, Nakagawa Ichiro, remained fanatically loyal to the emperor...

  36. The Lion Is Loose
    (pp. 257-262)

    ALTHOUGH EDITING ONJet Pilotconcluded on February 8, 1950, the film sat on the shelf until 1955, when General Teleradio bought RKO, primarily for its film library. The same year, CinemaScope arrived and permanently altered the form of the epic film, and Anthony Mann’sStrategic Air Commandunveiled wide-screen flying scenes almost identical to those inJet Pilot.Stung, Hughes paid Teleradio $12 million to buy backJet Pilotand another John Wayne epic,The Conqueror.A new team prepared the former for belated release. Up-to-date air footage was added, and the film was reformatted for the wide screen....

  37. “Why Have I Not Been Given a Woman?”
    (pp. 263-269)

    INCREASINGLY ILL WITH THE heart complaint that would kill him, von Sternberg made an exhausting trip to Australia in 1967 as a guest of the Sydney Film Festival. Of all the exotic corners of the world he had visited, few were more alien. Preoccupied with sport, Australians regarded more sophisticated cultures with suspicion, even while, paradoxically, acutely desiring their respect.

    Since 1954, the Sydney Film Festival had done its best to represent world cinema, despite being subjected to ferocious censorship and physically confined to the campus of the city’s oldest university. Changes began with the appointment in 1966 of a...

  38. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 270-271)
  39. Filmography
    (pp. 272-286)
  40. Notes
    (pp. 287-296)
  41. Bibliography
    (pp. 297-300)
  42. Index
    (pp. 301-312)