Criterion Blu-Ray Review: Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood

Marlene Dietrich’s story is the story of perseverance and proof the American dream was at once a real, tangible thing for immigrants. In less than a year, she went from supporting player in German movies to the biggest European star Hollywood had seen since Greta Garbo.

von sternberg dietrich box

On the same night Josef Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel premiered in Berlin in April 1930, Dietrich was already on a boat to America with a contract at Paramount in hand and a director with a story for her first Hollywood vehicle ready to go. Criterion’s new box set, celebrating Dietrich’s historic collaboration with Sternberg at Paramount, tracks her journey to stardom and provides a fascinating portrait of a woman who was never really putty in any man’s hands.

Sternberg, who only added that “von” after he hit Hollywood, had already established himself as a director of style over substance during the silent era, particularly with moody films like Underworld and The Docks of New York. For him, the Dietrich films were just building on the themes he found fascinating. The difference, of course, is Dietrich’s presence. In Dietrich, Sternberg found the star to anchor his movies and to push him into new worlds. Before, his films were urban. Now, his films became exotic, creating worlds that never truly existed. Even Blonde Venus, the only Paramount movie the two made set in contemporary America, feels evocative of a world we never really had.

All six films build onto the previous one, but there are some hills and valleys. There are clear divisions between important, prestige films – Shanghai Express (1932) and The Scarlet Empress (1934) – and the quicker, pulpy movies – Dishonored (1931) and Blonde Venus (1932). It all culminates in the outrageous The Devil Is A Woman (1935).

By the time Dietrich and Von Sternberg got to The Devil Is A Woman, Dietrich was already finding success out of their collaboration and it was clearly wearing thin for her. In The Devil, Dietrich’s performance has more in common with her later comedic turns than what we see in the first film here, Morocco (1930).

devil is a woman

What truly killed the Directich-Von Sternberg movie cycle was a combination of the Production Code finally being enforced and The Devil failing at the box office. By then, the exotic allure of these movies was getting lost to the audience. What was once unique was becoming repetitive. And while watching The Devil is the most fun you’ll have with this set, it borders on self-parody. Everyone knows this is going to be the end. Even if it was a success, there is a sense that even Dietrich realizes how preposterous this Von Sternberg style is becoming.

Unfortunately, Von Sternberg was the only one who never thought his style was going out of fashion. While Dietrich continued to find success outside the collaboration, Von Sternberg never lost a love for the exotic that came at a great professional cost. There was The Shanghai Gesture (1941), Macao (1952) and his final film, Anatahan (1952), which was shot in Japan. He never found success again after parting from Dietrich professionally.

Morocco and Shanghai Express are regarded as the high points of the Dietrich-Von Sternberg films, but the others all have their rewards. Dishonored is a delicious and completely unexpected spin on spy movies, where Victor McLaglen proves to be an inspired choice as a male lead for Dietrich. The Scarlet Empress is so over-the-top that you expect the film to fall over at one point, but it never does thanks to Dietrich’s performance as Catherine the Great. Blonde Venus has Dietrich’s strongest performance of these, with a full character arc you don’t find in the others, plus the appearance of a very young Cary Grant. And The Devil Is A Woman is such an outrageous, bizarre confection that its very existence doesn’t make sense.

The Blu-Ray

dietrich blonde venus

While the discs are not as jam-packed with features like The Complete Jacques Tati or The Essential Jacques Demy sets were, all of the features here are informative. Notably, Criterion chose to focus more on Dietrich than Von Sternberg, successfully destroying the myth that Von Sternberg “created” Dietrich. Throughout the extras, we learn that Dietrich had designs on becoming a star long before she even met Von Sternberg and how she reinvented herself as their collaboration began to wane.

The films all look marvelous, with transfers made using recent restorations undertaken by Universal Studios. Shanghai Express looks particularly marvelous, but Dishonored and Blonde Venus also look staggeringly beautiful. Morocco, as the earliest film in the set does look a little rough, and there is some damage visible in The Scarlet Empress and The Devil Is A Woman. Overall though, they have never looked and sounded this good before on home video. (Side note: both Morocco and Dishonored are in the narrow 1.19:1 ratio, as some early talkies are. Shanghai Express is in 1.33:1, while the rest are in 1.37:1.)

Now on to the extras:

  • Morocco
  • Janet Bergstrom – This is a half-hour discussion from 2014 featuring scholar Janet Bergstrom, who previously contributed one of the visual essays on Criterion’s 3 Silent Classics By Josef Von Sternberg box set (which is one of my favorite Criterion sets ever and is now sadly out of print). It was produced by the same German studio behind Joseph McBride’s piece on the Criterion Othello Blu-ray. Bergstrom focuses on the production of Morocco specifically, how Paramount treated Dietrich, the film’s themes and a bit about where Gary Cooper was at this stage of his career.
  • Weimar on the Pacific – This half-hour documentary with scholars Gerd Gemunden and Noah Isenberg delves into Dietrich’s early life and her road to The Blue Angel.
  • Amy Jolly – Deutsche Kinemathek curator Silke Ronneburg gives a brief overview of the inspiration for Dietrich’s Morocco character, Amy Jolly. It runs five minutes.
  • The Legionnaire and the Lady – I love Hollywood radio show movie adaptations, which provide a unique look at how Hollywood promoted their movies and interacted with fans beyond the theater before television. Recorded six years after Morocco came out, this features Clark Gable in the Cooper role and Dietrich reprising her part. Cecil B. DeMille is the host/producer. It runs an hour, and ends with Dietrich performing “Falling In Love Again” from The Blue Angel.
  • Dishonored
  • Nicholas von Sternberg – For about 15 minutes, Nicholas von Sternberg talks about his father’s unique style and relationship with Dietrich. It is one of the few features on here to specifically focus on the director.
  • Dietrich Icon – One of the best extras here is this documentary with scholars Mary Desjardins, Amy Lawrence and Patricia White on how Dietrich used her fame to become a feminist icon, and her overall cultural impact. The trio also cover how Dietrich survived the collaboration with Von Sternberg while the director never found success again.
  • Bodies and Spaces, Fabric and Light – Unfortunately, that great extra is followed by this really puzzling visual essay by Cristina Alvarez Lopez and Adrian Martin. It is a half-hour clipshow, with text quotes interspersed to show the repeated themes and visuals in Von Sternberg’s films. I get the thesis of it, but neither of the critics add a narration to give a more well-rounded critical analysis of the films.
  • Shanghai Express
  • Homay King – This was my personal favorite feature. For a half-hour, author Homay King (Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema and the Enigmatic Signifier) looks at the role of orientalism and how Asian culture was viewed by Hollywood during the 1930s. At one point, she notes that Von Sternberg’s vision of Shanghai is so fictionalized that it does not make sense to even set the story there. King also provides a look at the career of Anna May Wong, who is as important to Shanghai Express as Dietrich is. While a commentary might have been very cool (there are no commentaries in this set), King does a great job at explaining the historical context of Shanghai Express.
  • Blonde Venus
  • The Marlene Dietrich Collection – Ronneburg returns to give audiences who can’t afford to fly to Berlin a tour of the Deutsche Kinematek’s incredible Dietrich collection. It is very fascinating, although I would have loved a stills gallery to go with it.
  • Travis Banton – Before there was Edith Head, there was Travis Banton. Costume designer and historian Deborah Nadoolman Landis gives an overview of Paramount’s first great costume designer and explains his importance to the Dietrich look.
  • The Fashion Side of Hollywood – Spinning out of the Banton discussion is this 1935 Paramount publicity short film, which includes some scenes of Dietrich modelling her The Devil Is A Woman costumes. There’s also scenes of Claudette Colbert modelling and clips from the 1934 Carole Lombard-George Raft movie Bolero, which does not appear to be available on DVD.
  • The Scarlet Empress
  • Marlene Dietrich in Denmark, 1971The Scarlet Empress was previously released on DVD by Criterion way back in the early days of the format, but Criterion dropped all of the previous features from that DVD, including a BBC interview with Von Sternberg. Instead, we get this fascinating half-hour interview between Dietrich and two Swedish TV hosts. It was amazing to listen to Dietrich talk about her film career and her world travels. She also said she was a big fan of Ingmar Bergman’s films, but was afraid she could never work for him because he was the star of his movies. She also lists Paul Scofield as the greatest-living actor and Orsen Welles as her favorite director aside from Von Sternberg.
  • The Devil Is A Woman
  • “If It Isn’t Pain” – Sadly, the only extra on The Devil Is A Woman is a 78 rpm recording of “If It Isn’t Pain,” a song cut from the film. The Devil was the first Dietrich-Von Sternberg movie heavily criticized by the Production Code, which explains its short runtime. Unfortunately, the deleted footage is long lost, so “If It Isn’t Pain” plays over a still image.

dietrich dishonored

  • Book
  • Criterion included an 80-page book with three long essays by Imogen Sara Smith, Gary Giddins and Farran Smith Nehme. These make up for the lack of commentaries and the book includes some of the beautiful black and white images seen throughout the features. Smith looks at Dietrich’s career, Giddins focuses on Von Sternberg and Smith Nehme writes on the unsung heroes behind the scenes of these films.

Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood might be missing The Blue Angel (available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber), but it is still a complete box set that provides a fascinating look at Dietrich’s life and career. Von Sternberg might get short-shrifted here, but it corrects this idea that he somehow molded Dietrich into the star without her imput. She had a vision in her head of the image she wanted to present to the public and how she could become an international phenomenon. Von Sternberg was just there to help. You can also find more on Von Sternberg’s life and career in the 3 Silent Classics By Josef Von Sternberg box, which I hope Criterion reissues on Blu-ray soon. So it makes perfect sense for Criterion to focus on Dietrich instead of the director. Seeing these films in high definition is a glorious experience, even for those who know them by heart.

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