Masterpieces of Silent Film Are Rescued From Obscurity

by Thomas Britt

2 September 2010

The Last Command 
cover art

3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

Cast: George Bancroft, Evelyn Brent, Emil Jannings, Betty Compson

US DVD: 24 Aug 2010

Josef von Sternberg is perhaps most popularly remembered for his films with Marlene Dietrich and his “painterly” approach to directing, but even his earliest works had a lot more going for them than a star performance or impressive visual style. Silent films Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928), and The Docks of New York (1928) are masterpieces of visual storytelling—human dramas expressed with cinematographic innovation, impeccably realized set design, and an unparalleled grasp of the “bigger picture” of the motion picture. 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg, Criterion Collection’s deluxe release, rescues these three films from being lost to history and reverently, generously revives them for DVD.

None of these films has a writer in common, but the basic dramatic thread running through all of them is that of a man heading for redemption and contending with loyalty. Each man has a woman at his side. All eventually find their way, but some do so at a greater cost than others.  In Underworld, that man is gangster Bull Weed (George Bancroft) and his lady is moll Feathers (Evelyn Brent). At the center of The Last Command is the once-powerful Russian Commanding General Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings), who shares a complicated relationship with actress/revolutionary Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent). Finally, The Docks of New York finds rugged stoker Bill Roberts (Bancroft) moved to reluctant heroism by troubled dance-hall girl Mae (Betty Compson). Von Sternberg’s direction of the plots streamlines the action around these central relationships and unifies three otherwise disparate tales.

A prototypical gangster film, Underworld originated in a story by Ben Hecht and the true adventures of Chicago gangster “Terrible” Tommy O’Connor. The opening title card rather seriously suggests, “This first professional film of Josef von Sternberg seemed unusually bold both in subject matter and in treatment at the time it was made.” Largely responsible for the “boldness” is a remarkably well-balanced combination of tones, including action, romance and gallows humor. Von Sternberg’s taut approach succeeds because his use of cinematic language is complex enough to synthesize all of these within a single narrative framework (the “gangster film”).

There are a few significant rivalries in Underworld, and boss Bull Weed exudes the “with me or against me” ethos in everything he does. His manner is not serious, but he does have a serious amount of power. After we witness his daring bank robbery and escape from the law, the film reveals to us an article concerning the police force’s hunt for the bank bandits. Sternberg cuts from the paper to a shot of Weed’s reaction to the article: laughing boisterously and dismissively. His laughter becomes a recurring event within the film, sometimes associated with sinister activity, and later, as a defense against fear.

Within the underworld, his main rival is Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler), a figure that seems to be the archetype for the gangster characters that Frank Vincent is now famous for playing. While Weed’s tendency is to laugh, Mulligan’s is to seethe, and the film makes great use of each actor’s ability to hold a close-up or single shot with a signature emotion.

A less sophisticated approach to this material would foreground the Weed/Mulligan opposition and organize most of the action around it. Von Sternberg, however, seems more interested in the aspects of the screen play (by Robert N. Lee) that concern the social positioning of a crime boss and the loyalty that engenders. Therefore, Weed’s greatest troubles come not from his sworn enemies, but from the turbulence created when those closest to him appear to be betrayers. The individual most indebted to Weed is Rolls Royce (Clive Brook), an alcoholic lawyer that Weed helps find employment and social betterment. At one point, Rolls Royce asks Weed how he can repay such generosity, and the boss replies, “Help me? Nobody helps me! I help other people!” This scenario of forced indebtedness can be easily identified in a number of subsequent gangster films and their respective bosses (e.g., The Godfather’s Don Vito Corleone, Goodfellas’ Paul Cicero, etc.)



Underworld’s influential plot is only one portion of von Sternberg’s command of greater design within the film. There is a clever interaction of title cards to express dialogue and title cards to develop the plot. While at his flower shop, Mulligan says, “I’m going to bury that guy while these lilies are still fresh”. The subsequent title says, “But Buck should have used wax flowers, for long after his lilies had faded—”, and then the film cuts to Weed, alive and thriving. By establishing the motif of the flowers in this “literary” context as well as through visual attention, von Sternberg readies the audience for a flower’s function in a succinct robbery montage later in the film.

Later, during “The underworld’s annual armistice – when, until dawn, rival gangsters bury the hatchet”, a title card reads, “Here the brutal din of cheap music-booze-hate-lust made a devil’s carnival”. The film proceeds to show us a man passed out alongside what looks like a funhouse mirror that reflects warped visions of the revelers. Then, for the first time, the film cuts to a quick editing style, presenting a series of drunken faces in close-up. This is a dizzying parade of encounters that puts us in the middle of the “carnival”.

Set design also connects the plot, dialogue and characters of Underworld. Weed tells Feathers that Rolls Royce, now his sophisticated right hand man, has read every book in the bookcase at their getaway apartment. The audience interprets this as additional evidence of his burgeoning intellect and refinement. By contrast, we see that for Weed, the bookcase’s sole function is to enable an escape to a secured, adjacent room. The case and books therein have no intellectual value for Weed, who demonstrates their usefulness by pushing them aside. As with the flowers, the bookcase makes another couple of appearances within the film, and each time von Sternberg relies on the audience’s memory of its establishment to vary its function within the plot.

Some of the film’s most effective storytelling occurs without dialogue (not only silent, but literally wordless). Feathers and Rolls Royce appear in a temptation scene, in which they test and draw out a mutual attraction. The audience already recognizes the inherent danger, as both characters owe their livelihoods to Weed, the man they now risk betraying.  When they finally stop dancing around the issue and come together, the framing shifts to nearly subjective points of view, wherein Rolls Royce’s close-up is seen from her vantage point and Feathers’ close-up is viewed from his. This powerfully connects the audience to the attraction that is taking place. Few words are spoken, but von Sternberg’s arrangement of the actors and composition of the action express the subtext. One could argue that the remainder of the action in the film springs from the consequences of this moment.

Like Underworld, The Last Command synthesizes different narrative types. Led by the electrifying, Academy-Award winning performance of Jannings, the film is an engrossing historical drama that includes a love story and a satire of Hollywood. In the first act, a Russian director (William Powell) has come to Hollywood and is searching for a Russian actor to play a general for his war film. He finds a head shot which reads “Sergius Alexander - claims to have been Commanding General of Russian Army and cousin to Czar. Little film experience – works for $7.50 a day.” As Alexander, Jannings is a frail and quaking shell of a man.

At “the bread line of Hollywood” where actors are clamoring for roles, Alexander gets his general’s uniform, going from one window to the next to pick up each article of clothing. He seems humiliated and disoriented by the crowd of hungry extras. Alexander has in his possession a medal, the function of which recalls Mulligan’s telltale flower from Underworld. This medal is allegedly from the Czar, and its appearance in the first act provides a transition to the second act of the film, which flashes back to Imperial Russia 1917.

Von Sternberg, equipped with art direction by Hans Dreier, convincingly presents the historical period. The first act has prepared the viewer for the making of a “period piece”, and this shift backwards in time for the second act transports us to the time and place for which the actors in the present-day section were being outfitted. Hence, their preparation for historical drama has manifested itself in a historical drama, though not in a direct fashion. Von Sternberg acts playfully (but faithfully) on our expectations.

The biggest difference, of course, is the figure of Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, here described as “cousin to the Czar and Commanding General of the Russian Armies” and loyal to the “crumbling empire”. In this earlier personification of the general, Jannings is resolute and strong—no longer the man out of time we witnessed in the first act. Both Alexander and the empire are, however, positioned for a fall. There is a growing awareness that the revolutionaries are gaining strength, and actress Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent) is described as “the most dangerous revolutionist in Russia.” Her partner is Leo Andreyev, whom we recognize to be the film director from the present day action. The introduction of these characters’ pasts creates in the viewer an anticipation of the events that will bring Andreyev to power and Alexander to ruin. Given von Sternberg’s skillful positioning of his characters on screen and within the narrative, it is more than likely that Dabrova will be instrumental in these transformations.

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