The DVD Report #576

Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood is a cause for celebration. Beautifully restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive labs, the collection is comprised of the six films von Sternberg made with Dietrich in Hollywood following their initial collaboration on the 1930’s The Blue Angel, which was filmed in Berlin. The first of them, 1930’s Morocco, has been given a 2K restoration while the other five films have been given even more spectacular 4K restorations.

Paramount premiered Morocco in New York on November 14, 1930, three weeks before the American premiere of The Blue Angel on December 5, 1930, giving American audiences the chance to see the Hollywood version of the new international star before getting a gander at her in the earlier film that Europe got to see earlier in the year.

As late as 1971, as evidenced by an interview she gave to Swedish Television in English and offered as an extra here, Dietrich was still claiming that she was a nobody when von Sternberg discovered her in a one-line part in a play in Berlin and cast her in the starring role in her first film. The Blue Angel was, in fact, her 21st film, her first having been made in 1919 when she was just 17 years old. Von Sternberg didn’t exactly discover her in that play either. She had begged him for an audition which he refused having seen her in German films but decided to see her in the play in which she may have had one line, but more importantly sang in the manner he was looking for. The rest, as they say, is history.

In Morocco, Dietrich is a cabaret star and is billed between Gary Cooper as a legionnaire and Adolphe Menjou as a wealthy patron of the arts. It would be the one and only time Dietrich would share top billing with anyone in a von Sternberg film. In their remaining five films together, Dietrich would be given sole star billing.

The film’s romantic triangle plot is a bit silly. No one who has ever seen a movie before would expect Dietrich to wind up with Menjou over Cooper and she doesn’t. No one, though, admires Morocco for its plot. It’s von Sternberg’s mastery of light and shadow, aided by cinematographers Lee Garmes and Lucien Ballard, that draws audiences back to the film over and over. That, and the exquisite joy of Dietrich’s performance, especially when she sings “What Am I Bid for My Apple?” – what indeed! Dietrich received her only Oscar nomination for this, although everyone then, as now, thought the nomination should have been for The Blue Angel.

In 1931’s Dishonored, Dietrich is a World War I spy for Austria who plays cat and mouse with a Russian spy played by Victor McLaglen. McLaglen, four years before his Oscar-winning turn in The Informer, was hardly in Gary Cooper’s league as a leading man, making it difficult to comprehend the attraction, but as with Morocco, the plot is secondary to the film’s look, again supplied by Lee Garmes and Dietrich’s ample charms.

Dietrich was ostensibly brought to Hollywood as Paramount’s answer to Greta Garbo, but this year it was Garbo who was MGM’s answer to Dietrich. Dishonored was an April release, Garbo’s similarly themed Mata Hari opposite Ramon Novarro didn’t open until December.

In early 1932’s Shanghai Express, Dietrich is a highly paid prostitute known as “Shanghai Lily” opposite Clive Brook, a bit less stiff than usual as a British military doctor. Most of the action takes place aboard a train from Peking to Shanghai with Anna May Wong as a rival prostitute, Warner Oland as a Chinese revolutionary, Louise Closser Hale as a bigoted old lady, Lawrence Grant as an uptight minister, Eugene Pallette as a bag of wind, and Gustav von Syffertitz as a German traveler who makes the mistake of insulting Oland.

This one was the most heavily plotted of the Dietrich-von Sternberg Hollywood collaborations to date and the overall best acted. It was nominated for three Oscars, winning one for Lee Garmes’ cinematography. The other nods were for Best Picture and Director.

In late 1932’s Blonde Venus, Dietrich returns to the stage under the pseudonym of the title and knocks our socks off with “Hot Voodoo” sung as she strips out of a gorilla suit. She also sings “You Little So-and-So” to devastating effect. The plot, though, is like something out of Madame X and all those other films about self-sacrificing mothers that were popular at the time. She borrows money from playboy Cary Grant to send husband Herbert Marshall off to Germany to be cured of a rare disease and while he’s gone has an affair with Grant. Marshall returns and throws her out, but instead of handing over son Dickie Moore she skips town with him. Tired of running from the law, she eventually returns him to his father and rises from the ashes once again only to return to Marshall for the sake of the boy.

Bert Glennon (Stagecoach) was responsible for the striking cinematography this time.

1934’s The Scarlet Empress was the second film about the same subject released that year. The straight-forward biography, The Rise of Catherine the Great, with Elisabeth Bergner, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Flora Robson in the roles played in von Sternberg’s surreal extravaganza by Dietrich, Sam Jaffe, and Louise Dresser as Catherine, Grand Duke Peter, and Empress Elisabeth respectively, beat it into theatres by seven months. Neither were successful at the box-office but the National Board of Review somehow managed to name The Scarlet Empress as one of the top five foreign films of the year even though it was made on the Paramount lot.

Bert Glennon was again responsible for the film’s spectacular cinematography.

1935’s The Devil Is a Woman was a notorious flop with the ravishing Dietrich this time playing a scheming Spanish gold-digger who ruins the life of middle-aged Lionel Atwill (Son of Frankenstein). Luis Bunuel had better success with the source material when he filmed it as That Obscure Object of Desire, his 1977 swan song.

Von Sternberg credited himself with the brilliant cinematography on this one. Lucien Ballard assisted, uncredited.

The Blu-ray and DVD sets include extras on every disc, among them an interview with cinematographer Nicholas von Sternberg (One from the Heart), the director’s son, as well as pieces by various film scholars.

Michelle Pfeiffer had a brief career at the top from 1988 through 1993. Although she never really left, she hasn’t had an outstanding role since 1993’s The Age of Innocence. She may have her largest role since then in Where Is Kyra?, but this poorly written, poorly directed, and most of all, poorly photographed film by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival), is a cause for weeping, not cheering.

Pfeiffer, who turned 60 in April, plays a middle-aged woman who lost her job two years earlier and is living with her elderly mother and subsisting on her mother’s social security checks. She drifts into an affair with neighbor Kiefer Sutherland after her mother dies, while she continues to cash her mother’s checks until the law catches up with her.

Although the film features poorly lit outside night scenes, the dimly lit interior scenes are even more difficult to see. The dialogue is sparse and consists mostly of people asking questions and being given yes or no answers. If there’s a reason for this film’s existence, it’s difficult to decipher what it might be.

Universal has released this major disappointment on both Blu-ray and standard DVD.

This week’s new releases include A Quiet Place and Lean on Pete.

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