Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
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It was the documentary “Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film,” which credits “Underworld” with launching the gangster movie genre that prompted me finally to watch the DVD of that 1927 movie directed by Josef von Sternberg (1894–1969) from a story by Ben Hecht, who was also behind the seminal 1931 talkie gangster movie “Scarface” directed by Howard Hawks. Hecht’s story is included in the booklet for the Criterion Collection of “3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg,” which makes clear that Sternberg was the author of the movie. Before its release (to great success, necessitating keeping the Manhattan theater in which it premiered running all night), Hecht had asked to have his name taken out of the credits. (It wasn’t and he won an Oscar for it.)
The big and vulgar criminal ‘Bull’ Weed (George Bancroft) does not seem to me to have much of a gang. He emerges alone from having blown up a safe early in the movie, observed by a drunkard derelict (and former attorney) Wensel (Clive Brook), whom Bull sweeps along. Wensel tells Bull that he is the Rolls Royce of discretion and Bull allows him to live.
Wensel is sweeping up in a saloon, when rival gangster 'Buck' Mulligan attempts to humiliate him for the amusement of Bull’s moll, 'Feathers' McCoy (Evelyn Brent). Bull intervenes and prevents the humiliation and hires “Rolls Royce” to be his butler. Feathers and Rolls Royce will develop but not act on their attraction to each other out of loyalty to Bull, at least until he is condemned of murdering Buck in the latter’s flower shop, which is the front for his own criminal enterprises. The slaying (also done solo by Bull) followed Buck’s foiled rape of Feathers at the criminal’s ball, a visual extravaganza with lots of confetti.
There is a jail break, a shoot-out, and Bull’s recognition that Feathers and Rolls Royce have not betrayed him. Surprising devotion and self-sacrifice on the part of seemingly amoral hedonists recurs in Sternberg movies, but must have been a surprise in 1927.
The success of the movie (which surprise the studio, Paramount) made stars of its three principals, all of whom starred in later Sternberg movies, Bancroft in five of them, starting with “The Docks of New York” (1928) (Brent in the 1928 “Lost Command,” Brook in my favorite Sternberg movie, “Shanghai Express” surrendering to Marlene Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily).
Though having elements, not least the elaborate shoot-out, prefiguring later gangster movies, “Underworld” is more about a love triangle and loyalty than the rise and fall of its gang leader. Nonetheless, Bull is the protagonist and the one who makes the final surprising self-sacrifice for his closest associates. (Redemption is something not often found in gangster movies!)
As a crude ship stoker in “The Docks of New York” (1928), Bancroft made me think of William Bendix as “The Hairy Ape” (Eugene O’Neill’s play premiered in 1922, the movie was made in 1944). Not that there is much resemblance in plots.
After establishing his work life shoveling coal into the ship’s furnace, Bill Roberts (Bancroft) has a night of shore leave. He dives into the water and rescues Mae (Betty Compson), who has tried to kill herself. Bill carries her through fog and nets (typical Sternberg mise-en-scène right down through “Macao”), gets her into a bed and gets her clothes (how and where will become clear much, much later in the movie), and has a wedding in the raucous bar, presided over by the dour “Hymn Book” Harry (Gustav von Seyffertitz).
Morning comes (as it tends to) and Bill is coaxed (by his pal, 'Sugar' Steve (Clyde Cook)) into returning to the ship after a poignant farewell scene with his bride. This is followed by a second dive into the water and another self-sacrifice that I will not detail.
I have left out Bill’s “superior,” Third Engineer Andy (Mitchell Lewis) whose abandoned wife, Lou (Olga Baclanova) is the most interesting character in the movie. Among other things, Lou provides emotional support for Mae along with expressing contempt for the man who ruined her in increasingly dramatic ways.
“Docks” is my least favorite of the three movies in the Criterion set, the most sentimental one (with Betty Compson seeming to me to be emulating Lillian Gish as a quivering victim, though I love the scene in which she is going to sew up Bill’s jacket as a good wife would do, but he has to thread the needle for her with his big fingers, because she is crying too much to see clearly). The movie has very fluid camerawork (depending less on cross-cutting than “Underworld” did), many intricate compositions, and a wild party to rival the one in “Underworld.”
And then there is “The Lost Command” (1928) which seems to me one of the greatest silent movie masterpieces and compelling drama, not just a historical curiosity.
Emil Jannings (1884–1950) was a very big (in girth as well as in fame) silent-movie star. Though he played Tartuffe, Nero (in the first “Quo Vadis?), Henry VIII (in “Anna Boleyn”), Harun al Raschid (in “Waxworks”) and Mephistopheles (in Murnau’s “Faust”), his immortality rides on roles in which he was demoted and humiliated: the hotel doorman reduced to washroom attendant in Murnau’s “The Last Laugh” (1924), the czarist general scraping by as an extra in Hollywood in “The Last Command” (1928), and as the authoritarian teacher turned into a clown (pusssy-whipped by Marlene Dietrich’s Lola) in “The Blue Angel” (1930). In his memoir Fun in a Chinese Laundry, (the “Lost Command” experiences part of the lengthy tales of Jannings in the book of which is excerpted in the Criterion booklet), Josef von Sternberg relates how very, very, very difficult it was to try to get Jannings to do anything other than eat sausages. For one thing, Jannings refused to be filmed going through doors. (Sternberg had even more problems with another jumbo-sized actor, Charles Laughton, in the uncompleted “I, Claudius,” and though what Sternberg put on the screen made William Powell a star, in Powell’s new contract was a provision that he would not have to work for Sternberg again.)
Sternberg shows the contemptuous use of extras in Hollywood of the silent era. At the start, director Lev Andreyev (William Powell, looking more than a little like von Sternberg) is looking through photos of extras and orders an underling to bring in a demoralized old Russian (Jannings) to play the part of a general. The extra comes with a St. George medal to add to the costume the studio provides him. The other extras don’t believe Czar Alexander II had awarded it to him. In a lengthy flashback between costuming and shooting, the quivering old man remembers commanding divisions in World War I and being annoyed by a visit to inspect his troops by the czar (the uncredited actor looked the part, btw).
The Russians are losing to the Austrians and the Grand Duke Sergius Alexander (a cousin of the czar) is sent two suspected spies who are posing as actors: Lev Andreyev (William Powell), whom he has thrown in prison, and Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent) whom he takes along to bed. She has a pistol and plans to shoot him, but cannot. Like other Sternberg heroines both before and after her, Natalie is a dubious mate who proves devotion.
Murkier still is Lev Andreyev’s casting of the fallen grand duke. He says (in intertitles) that he was waited ten years, but if humiliating his former nemesis was his goal, he could have cast the grand duke as a private, bullied by a general. Instead, Lev casts him as a general in a scene in which his former grandiosity is channeled. The viewer has no idea how Lev Andreyev went from being a Bolshevik agitator to a Hollywood movie director, but it seems possible that rather than exacting any revenge, Andreyev’s casting involves finding the most compelling performer for the part in his movie. Andreyev’s behavior after the general does his scene and collapses is hard-to-believe sentimentality, something rife in silent movies, even to some degree in Keaton’s. But Jannings is entirely believable as the arrogant, fairly clueless hedonist general and as the broken old man (and as being engulfed by his role in the movie within the movie).
Being a “von” Sternberg movie, there is a succession of striking compositions and images. Evelyn Brent had already showed she could play an opportunist with surprising devotion to a big lug in “Underworld,” and turned in a performance prefiguring Dietrich herein. (Andrew Sarris said that she remained enigmatic beyond the demands of the plot.) Jannings won the first best actor Academy Award for his performance in the lost “The Way of All Flesh” and the one in “The Last Command.” (I saw his Oscar in the Berlin Film Museum.)
The movie is one in the Library of Congress National Film Registry. Preston Sturges called “The Last Command” a perfect movie. I think it is a very compelling melodrama with great visuals, but overly mystifying, particularly in regards to Lev Andreyev’s trajectory and intent. Powell, who had been playing villains, was already great at showing bemusement (at his flunkies in Hollywood, and even as a prisoner back in Russia) and suaveness. That there is nothing about his transition from spy/agitator to commanding a motion picture crew is not Powell’s fault. Sternberg claimed (credibly) that he wrote the story he filmed, based on an anecdote Ernst Lubitsch told him about a real-life czarist general, Theodore Lodijensky, reduced to being a film extra, including in “The Last Command.”
The Criterion edition
In addition to the lengthy (96-page) booklet, the Criterion edition features restored high-definition digital transfers of the three movies, a choice of musical scores for each (one by Robert Israel on each; I prefer his to and Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton’s for ”The Docks of New York,” but the Alloy Orchestra for “Underworld” and “The Last Command”), and substantial featurettes with clips. Janet Bergstrom provides an account of Sternberg’s early years in Vienna, New York, and Hollywood, the success of his independent self-financed 1925 “The Salvation Hunters” that attracted the attention of the principals of United Artist: Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Mary Pickford who contracted two scripts which she then decided not to make, and Charlie Chaplin, who hired Sternberg to make a film with his amour du jour, Edna Purvaince, whom Chapin had cast in “Woman of Paris.” Chaplin chose not to release “The Seagull,” and Sternberg seemed washed up, but having rescued a Clara Bow movie, was permitted to make a minor project, “Underworld,” which revived his reputation. Tag Gallagher discourses with many clips on the Sternberg visual style on display before his sound films (showing continuities with von Stroheim's "Greed"). In some ways the least interesting of the three is a 1968Swedish television interview of Sternberg, who came across as urbane and bemused by Hollywood but not very forthcoming. It does, however, have a clip from Sternberg’s 1953 “Ana-ta-han,” filmed in Japan, a movie that Criterion should restore and release! And his agreement with Sam Goldwyn that "if you want to send a message, use Western Union" (not try to deliver one in a Hollywood studio movie).
©2012, Stephen O. Murray
Thanks to Mona for (re)adding this set to the database.
Though I am bewitched by the visuals of the 1930s Sternberg/Dietrich movies, the only one about which I have epined "Shanghai Express," along with the not-very-Dosteovskyan "Crime and Punishment" with Peter Lorre (1935), uncredited directing of "It" (1927) and "The Great Waltz" (1938), and "Macao" (1952), which was completed by Nicholas Ray after Jane Russell got Sternberg fired.
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