Josef von Sternberg was at the height of his fame in the 1930s, thanks largely to the seven lushly stylized films he directed starring Marlene Dietrich, among them the iconic The Blue Angel (1930). Eventually, critics on both sides of the Atlantic would debate the merits of Sternberg’s loving attention to gesture and surface, but when he made 1927’s Underworld, he was virtually unknown. An anxious von Sternberg was so worried about the movie’s reception that he skipped the premiere, sending his wife to the theater in his stead while he took a walk in the park. Ben Hecht, the Chicago newspaperman who had written the story for Underworld, believed the film would be a flop and even lobbied to have his name removed from the credits.
Fortunately for Hecht, his protests went unheeded; a few months later, his work on Underworld won him his first Academy Award for Best Original Screen Story. The film was a hit, and the Paramount Theater in New York had to arrange all-night screenings to accommodate the eager crowds. Paramount gave von Sternberg a $10,000 bonus and a gold medal in appreciation. Von Sternberg had done more than make a name for himself; Underworld helped inaugurate the gangster film as a genre. As Ben Hecht wrote, “Crooks and hopheads toting machine guns became the national idols.”
Like many émigré directors in early Hollywood, von Sternberg had humble origins. He was born in Vienna to a poor Jewish family named Sternberg. They moved to New York City, where he changed his name from “Jonas” to the Christian “Josef.” He dropped out of high school, worked in a millinery shop, and, according to some biographers, hoboed around the country, spending as much time as he could in libraries and art galleries. Before the age of 20, he had worked as a projectionist and patching film stock. Later, the World Film Corporation in New Jersey made him chief assistant to the director, a post he left during World War I when he became a signal corps photographer. After the war, he apprenticed with seasoned directors Wallace Worsley and Hugo Ballin in America and Great Britain as well as with the lesser-known French director Émile Chautard, who taught von Sternberg about film as art. During the shooting of The Mystery of the Yellow Room in 1919, Chautard had his young assistant spend time at the viewfinder learning, von Sternberg later recalled, “to appraise the dimensional aspect of everything in front of the lens, including the value of light and shadow.”
During his early years in the movie industry, Josef von Sternberg struggled to get by, cutting corners wherever he could. Instead of wasting money on a bed for his rented room, he slept in a large dresser drawer. Eventually, Hollywood turned him into an aristocrat. At the suggestion of actor Elliott Dexter, the credits to By Divine Right (1924) listed Sternberg—then a scenarist and assistant director—as “von Sternberg.” Von Sternberg never lobbied for this prefix, but he never objected to it either. “Had I been consulted,” he wrote, “I’m sure that I would have attached no importance to this implied baronetcy. It was 1923, the recent war had crumbled one empire after the other, and members of the nobility had become doormen in Paris, cab drivers in New York, and extra players in Hollywood.”
In the years to come, von Sternberg cultivated his persona as an exotic, highbrow artiste more actively. Journalists anointed him Svengali to Marlene Dietrich’s Trilby, and the riding pants and turbans he would wear on the set added to his mystique. In 1936, London critic Charles Graves wrote, “Josef von Sternberg walks like a cat, looks like a fallen archangel, wears Mongolian moustachios and black Chinese pyjamas, is never seen out of doors without a walking stick, craves cornflowers, and always expects the head waiters to bring, unasked, seven iced black grapes when he enters a restaurant.”
Von Sternberg wanted absolute control over the visuals of his movies and worked closely with costume designers and set designers to whom he provided sketches of his own before hearing their ideas. He preferred filming in a studio, where he could arrange every element to his liking, and asserted that shooting on location was making documentary, not art. “I am a poet,” he explained. “To reality, one should prefer the illusion of reality.”
The deliberate lusciousness that would characterize von Sternberg’s style is already on display in Underworld, especially in the Gangster’s Ball scene, where streamers undulate over crowds of jittery dancers and, by the end of the night, pile into knee-deep drifts that impede the drunken heroes. Von Sternberg shunned flat and wasted space—he wanted images that were thick, teeming, layered, and emotionally significant. To create depth, he often filled his early sets with objects; later, he would use lights and gauze.
When von Sternberg made Underworld, his artistry was both less refined and less well known. Hollywood stars like Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford had praised von Sternberg’s 1925 directorial debut, The Salvation Hunters, but the film was a financial failure. Von Sternberg then had a run of false starts. Pickford, who had announced her intentions of working with this latest European genius, cancelled when she disliked the film scenario about a blind girl in industrial Pittsburgh that he had proposed for her. Von Sternberg’s work at MGM also ground to a halt: unhappy with his work on The Exquisite Sinner (1926), the studio replaced him with Phil Rosen. Unhappy with his coworkers in The Masked Bride (1925), von Sternberg walked off the set in a huff and sailed for Europe. He did complete one picture, A Woman of the Sea, but producer Charlie Chaplin was dissatisfied and did not release it. Scottish critic (and future documentary filmmaker) John Grierson, one of the few people to have seen the now-lost film, called it “the most beautiful picture ever produced in Hollywood, and the least human.”
Von Sternberg got another chance to prove his mettle in 1926, when he salvaged Frank Lloyd’s Children of Divorce (1927)—a film that looked certain to flop. In just three days, von Sternberg rewrote the script and, working mostly at night—when stars Clara Bow and Gary Cooper were available—re-shot more than half the film in a tent he had decorated himself. The results were astounding and convinced Paramount that von Sternberg might not be so difficult after all. The following year, he shot Underworld on a generous five-week schedule.
After seeing von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters when it was released, Austrian-born theater and film director Max Reinhardt wrote, “It is inconceivable that such cinematic greatness could have come from America.” Underworld, by contrast, is a thoroughly American film. As today’s film historians have noted, the gangster film solidifies the myth of American individualism. Outlaws like Bull Weed flout authority to become powerful and sympathetic heroes. Von Sternberg, too, had struggled through the harsh conditions of big city life and, with this first big hit, he was finally finding success.
Presented at SFSFF 2009 with live music by Stephen Horne