She would be revered as one of the most famous sex symbols of the twentieth century. He would become renowned as one of early sound cinema’s most accomplished visionaries—and then reviled for his grueling techniques and disparagement of actors. She was Marlene Dietrich and he was Josef von Sternberg, a German actress and a New York raised, Austrian born émigré who would, with seven features (one German language, six in English) create one of the most impressive cinematic collaborations ever accomplished in their medium. The esteemed Criterion Collection brings together, for the first time in one stellar box-set, the six Hollywood features they made together from 1930-1935 which brought them together and tore them apart by the end of their working relationship.
Film Review: ★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Perhaps the most unworthy but potentially most iconic title in this esteemed collection is Dietrich and von Sternberg’s English language debut, Morocco, which would end up being her only Academy Award nomination (and the first of only two nominations for von Sternberg). Infamous for Dietrich’s appearance in a tuxedo as she plucks a white flower from a lady patron before planting her lips on the unsuspecting spectator (and then tossing it to her next object of desire, Gary Cooper), this moment would come to represent Dietrich’s magnificent sexual duality, a bisexual Goddess born from the decadence of the Weimar era, and one of the few Hollywood sex symbols whose reputation was perhaps surpassed by reality. However, the role, like the later The Garden of Allah (1936), is one of the star’s most demure characterizations as a cabaret singer falling head over heels for an unfaithful Legionnaire. Her songs aren’t quite as transfixing in her requisite show numbers here either, as if they were trying to tone down the hypnotic siren-hood of her Lola Lola in their seminal first feature, The Blue Angel, which premiered the same year. While Dietrich drove Emil Jannings to madness in the earlier film, here she’s the one on the fuzzy end of the lollipop.
Jules Fuhrman (who adapted Chandler and Hemingway in the Bogart/Bacall classics The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not) adapts from Benno Vigny’s play Amy Jolly, undergoing a title transformation which was perhaps a move meant to allow Dietrich’s persona to conquer characterization. The narrative arc, however, was a popular contrivance of the period, and there’s not much dramatic distinction between something as notable as Morocco and something as obscure as Barbara Stanwyck’s A Lost Lady (1934) as a woman who marries for security only to be led astray by love. Financial stability here is provided courtesy of Adolphe Menjou as her innocuous savior. Cooper’s dashing Legionnaire, constantly surrounded by a throng of women, gets himself into trouble by having an affair with a commanding officer. Thanks to Dietrich’s Amy, he’s saved from court martial from the intervention of Menjou’s aged playboy but is banished into the Saharan desert. Despite spurning her love, Dietrich follows at his heels into the arid landscape, eschewing her love for Menjou for something less stable but at least sincerely foolish, a converse of a similar concluding sequence in Shakespeare in Love (1998).
Film Review: ★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Dietrich’s sultry persona began to take shape in her second English language title, Dishonored, which features the star in a glamorously camp melodrama about an Austrian prostitute turned spy who is tapped to take down a top tier Russian official. Based on a story by von Sternberg, the film capitalizes on favorite pulp trends of the period, as it was released the same year as Dietrich’s main competitor in Hollywood, Greta Garbo, who headlined George Fitzmaurice’s less revered Mata Hari.
When her army officer husband is killed in the trenches of WWI, Marie Kolverer (Dietrich) becomes a prostitute who stalks the streets of Vienna. At the scene of a crime outside a popular den of iniquity, she is recruited by the head of the Austrian Secret Service (Gustav von Seyffertitz) and given the code name X-27. Immediately, she is tasked with entrapping an Austrian colonel (Warner Oland), who is suspected of selling war information to the Russians. After a successful mission, she is next tasked with tracking down the colonel’s contact, a crippled agent known as H-14 (Victor McLaglen). Upon discovering his handicap is merely a ruse and he is instead a robust specimen of a man, flirtations ensue before he escapes her. Next, she’s sent to Borislav on the Polish border, infiltrating the Russian headquarters there by posing as a coquettish maid. Discovering their plans to invade Poland, she makes a break for it. Except, before she can escape, she is fingered by H-14, who recognizes her signature black cat, and since he happens to be in charge of the Russian unit, captures her. After a night of lovemaking before her execution, she drugs his wine and escapes. As fate would have it, her affection for H-14 later convinces her to allow his escape when he’s captured by the Austrians, which leads to her execution for treason.
Dietrich and von Sternberg solidify the template which aligns female spies with prostitution, beings who can only use their feminine wiles (i.e., their bodies) to extract information. It’s an archetype which has perhaps only become more viciously underlined over time, as recently formulated in 2018’s Red Sparrow, where broken women with nothing to lose are retooled as useful as agents of state. In keeping with many of these films, the male lead, here played by a serviceable Victor McLaglen (purportedly Gary Cooper passed on a chance to work for von Sternberg again) is merely a vessel for which the heroine must get snagged upon for redemption.
Had Dishonored managed to be more than a mere subpar melodrama, perhaps it would have managed to make more of an impact in the von Sternberg canon. Dietrich is at her campy best, with a denouement about as formidably over-the-top as Susan Hayward’s in I Want to Live! (1958), and several lines of choice dialogue which nearly make-up for the narrative superficiality (“You trick men into death with your body!). The film’s crowning moment exists in Dietrich’s closest proximity of desperation, wherein, clutching her black cat in one hand and a gun in the other she purrs, “Perhaps I can persuade you to stay?”
Film Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
If one had been in doubt of von Sternberg’s obsession with his star, there’s no mistaking it in 1932’s Shanghai Express, which shares a lot of similarities with the Sadie Thompson character written by W. Somerset Maugham, portrayed thrice on screen (Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, and Rita Hayworth, respectively). Here, he wastes no chance to feature Dietrich in intense close-up, allowing the star to languish and simmer on screen simply existing for us to gaze upon. Exotic and titillating, Dietrich is backed up by a smoldering Anna May Wong, together playing a pair of fallen women who have the nerve to travel first class amidst a throng of conservative rubes making their way from Peking to Shanghai whilst a civil war rages in China.
Clive Brook has the rather unfortunate position of playing Dietrich’s ex-lover, perhaps the most unremarkable of all her leading men in the von Sternberg canon. Instead, Shanghai Express allows Dietrich to settle into her sultriness, a withering femme fatale who proudly announces her rebirth as sexual renegade. Famously she explains “It took more than one man for me to be called Shanghai Lily.” Her smoldering innuendos arriving before the butchery of the censorship code, what’s more subversive are the renderings of the bigoted Americans traveling in first class, proudly denigrating Dietrich and Wong (with one religious zealot hypocritically backtracking as quickly as Walter Huston in Rain once he finds ‘common ground’ with which to approach the exotic temptress).
Racial tensions inform many of the passengers’ interactions, and multi-lingual Lily is eventually their martyred savior (much like the chubby prostitute at the center of De Maupassant’s Boule de Suif). For those who cherish Dietrich as the uber vixen, Shanghai Lily is one of her best exemplifications.
Film Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Perhaps the most outlandish and potentially problematic offering from Dietrich and von Sternberg is Blonde Venus, thanks in part to her infamous performance of “Hot Voodoo” after peeling herself out of a gorilla costume and donning a blonde afro while provided back up by a bevy of women in blackface. Film theorist Mary Ann Doane published the most in-depth examination regarding the commodification of black female sexuality from this film in 1993 with Femme Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis. But taken as a minor episode in the overall oeuvre of von Sternberg’s obsession (and therefore, commodification) of Dietrich, this is a film perhaps best viewed as merely one cog in more expansive machine. Spectacle for spectacle’s sake is how Dietrich is at last utilized here, a martyred mother who must sell herself on stage to pay for her husband’s expensive and experimental medical treatments to cure his radium poisoning, only to become involved in a tryst with her benefactor (a young Cary Grant).
As a side note, the film’s title, which insistently configures the adjective ‘blonde’ as a signifier of Venus, would therefore suggest the original Goddess of Love was not a product exemplifying white beauty—even if the 1938 Lena Horne vehicle The Bronze Venus would push this pendulum the other way, and perhaps provide an interesting argument as to the ultimate universality of Venus and her sexuality. Controversially, von Sternberg makes a point to include a reaction shot from an actual black person, a bartender who stutters a line meant to be a joke pertaining to the authenticity of the gorilla in the Blonde Venus act. It’s an aside which reveals more about the choice von Sternberg made to use women in black face surrounding the afroed Dietrich, who croons about feeling like an African queen. If the bit is defined by how it problematically commodifies black female sexuality, it is also a sly subversion of racial construction.
While the real black folks are confined to the nameless, invisible periphery of industry, white culture’s deliberation of and defining of blackness is and always has been demeaning artifice, an inflated act of fetishistic and exploitative fantasy ruddied here by the juxtaposition of (cinematic, at least) the reality of black roles/expectations reflected in the dominant culture.
Dietrich as an All-American housewife is certainly a brilliant way to cast her against type on von Sternberg’s part, a detail which is, however, quickly defused. The nebbish Herbert Marshall (who would play a similar cuckold of Dietrich’s in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1937 melodrama Angel) somehow gets twisted into the film’s cruel villain once he desperately decides to punish Helen for her infidelity by depriving her of her child. Wacky and perfect for its delectable oddness, Blonde Venus is terrifically entertaining, particularly in providing Dietrich with some of her campiest moments.
The Scarlet Empress
Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
If Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus found Dietrich’s personality trumping von Sternberg’s fetishistic aesthetic, his The Scarlet Empress would find the auteur usurping creative control in this strange biopic on the Russian queen Catherine the Great. Although Dietrich, as always, reigns supreme, this is von Sternberg’s most sumptuous offering, a dashing and daring spectacle which allows its star to be but one of its various visual delights. A massive critical failure upon its release, the reception troubled von Sternberg’s bedrock with Paramount as well as his relationship with Dietrich.
A garish rendering of Sophia Frederica, who is bamboozled into an arranged marriage with Grand Duke Peter of Russia (Sam Jaffe), Dietrich is granted a whole character arch here as an innocent young woman whose naiveté saves her from losing hope in her early days with a garish half-wit. Jaffe is mesmerizing as the flamboyantly crazed Peter, a hapless leader controlled by his imperious mother. Plot and historical functions would later be repeated in many a tale of royal mishaps, from Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), to the eerily similar A Royal Affair (2012).
Bert Glennon’s sumptuous cinematography would ultimately go unheralded in this masterpiece from von Sternberg. Amidst the bitchy sparring between Dietrich and Louse Dresser’s callous Empress Petrovna, some impressive set decorations enhance this saga of royal decadence, sharply critical of the Russian monarchy. During an elaborate feast, the indifferent royals languish amidst an endless procession of dishes while at the other end of the table are skeletal remains, a metaphor for the starving masses doubling as an indictment of excess as well as a portrait of the tenuous roles played by supporting players in the court.
The Devil is a Woman
Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
The most blatant bit of cultural appropriating from von Sternberg and Dietrich is in their thematically appropriate last feature, 1935’s The Devil is a Woman, the third version of a film based on a novel by Pierre Louys (famously, the film would be remade by Luis Bunuel as his last feature with 1977’s That Obscure Object of Desire, in which he cast two actresses to play the titular subject). Dietrich appears as a manipulative femme fatale, Concha, who in turn of the century Spain mercilessly manipulates all the men around her, leading to a traumatic duel. An unconscionable man eater, the film seems a retrospective formulation of Dietrich and von Sternberg, and the difficult career he would embark upon in Hollywood through the 1940s and 50s while she would go on to be featured in films by Lubitsch, Wilder, Welles, Lang, and Hitchcock.
In what Dietrich professed to be her favorite role, thanks to how immaculate she looked (due partially to a magnificent wardrobe), she stars as Concha Perez, a chanteuse in 1890s Seville who lures most of the local men to ruin. Disgraced Captain Don Pasqual (Lionel Atwill) relates the story of his disenfranchisement to handsome Republican revolutionary Antonio Galvan (Cesar Romero), who has his sights set on Concha. In flashback, the story of Don Pasqual and the cigarette girl Concha unfolds, a woman who led the elder gentleman on so he would pay for her debts and satisfy all her whims. Once satisfied, she cruelly abandoned him, while ensuing social disgrace would cause him to resign his post in order to avoid a scandal. Pasqual forces Antonio to swear he will do everything to avoid the woman before leaving Seville, a promise quickly broken. When Antonio and Conca immediately fall in love, the jilted Don Pasquale challenges the younger man to a duel.
One of Criterion’s most significant box-sets, Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood is a must own for any cinema aficionado. New 2K or 4K restorations of all six films allows each of these to be seen in pristine glory (a noted exception are certain frames of Morocco, which seem to have been too significantly damaged). Both Morocco and Dishonored are presented in 1.19:1, Shanghai Express in 1.33:1, while Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, and The Devil is a Woman are in 1.37:1, while all feature uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Many of these titles languished on VHS for years before being carelessly transferred to subpar DVD releases. The set is filled with notable extra features.
Film scholar Janet Bergstrom provides an in-depth discussion on Morocco in this 2014 thirty-one minute interview.
Weimar on the Pacific:
Film scholars Gerd Gemunden and Noah Isenberg discuss the creation of Dietrich, beginning with her Weimar days in this 2018 twenty-nine-minute documentary produced by Criterion.
The Real Amy Jolly:
Deutsche Kinemathek curator Sike Ronneburg discuss the real Amy Jolly in this four-minute bit recorded by Criterion in 2018.
The Legionnaire and the Lady:
A Lux Radio Theater presentation of Morocco, which was broadcast in 1936, features Dietrich and Clark Gable.
Nicholas von Sternberg:
Josef von Sternberg’s son Nicholas discusses his father’s work with Marlene Dietrich on this fourteen-minute 2014 interview.
Criterion produced this twenty-one-minute 2018 documentary which features interviews with film scholars Mary Desjardins, Amy Lawrence and Patricia White as they consider the collaboration on the creation of Dietrich’s star image.
Bodies and Space, Fabric and Light:
In this twenty-nine-minute 2018 video essay, film scholars Cristina Alvarez Lopez and Adrian Martin discuss the visual style and formal brilliance of the Dietrich/von Sternberg films.
Film scholar Homay King, author of Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier, discusses von Sternberg’s version of China and the role of Anna May Wong in Shanghai Express in this twenty-five-minute interview recorded in 2018 for Criterion.
Deborah Nadoolman Landis:
Deborah Nadoolman Landis, director of the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design at UCLA discusses the importance of Travis Banton, whose designs were an integral part of the Dietrich spectacle, in this fifteen-minute interview.
The Marlene Dietrich Collection:
Deutsche Kinemathek curator Silke Ronneburg discusses the Dietrich memorabilia collection (which filled a warehouse of 3,000 square feet) in this fourteen-minute bit filmed for Criterion in 2018.
The Fashion Side of Hollywood:
This 1935 ten-minute short film by the Paramount publicity department features Dietrich and Travis Baton, who was head of costumes at the studio at the time.
1971 Dietrich Interview:
Filmed in Copenhagen for Swedish television, this twenty-eight-minute 1971 interview with Dietrich finds the star discussing her career, her work with von Sternberg, and her travels.
If It Isn’t a Pain:
Due to the installation of Joseph Breen at the Production Code Administration, censorship was in full swing by 1935 Hollywood, forcing the song “If It Isn’t a Pain” to be cut from The Devil is a Woman, which is presented here as an audio version.
While Dietrich’s persona has outlived remembrance of her (especially early) performances, this is a ravishing collection with which to re-experience her hypnotic screen presence. From the kittenish turns in Morocco and Dishonored, her feverish sexpot titillations in Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus, to her imperious femme fatales in both The Scarlet Empress and The Devil is a Woman, these are the titles which secured her pre-WWII iconicity, a persona which would be revamped significantly throughout her last two decades of prolific output. And as way to experience the early brilliance of von Sternberg before he was manhandled by the Hollywood studio system, one needs look no further than how he cemented the reputation of one of cinema’s most notorious vixens.