- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2008

Has Josef von Sternberg slipped into another cycle of neglect and underestimation?

The legendary filmmaker is the subject of a curiously abbreviated retrospective at the National Gallery of Art that begins with a double-bill Saturday afternoon. The series is subtitled “Master of Mood,” which doesn’t adequately reflect his command of pictorial composition and atmosphere at optimum finesse. Isolating “mood” also tends to shortchange the abiding Sternberg influence on some of the most astute heroic conventions of romantic melodrama.

Mr. Sternberg (1894-1969) left an indelibly entertaining mark on love stories that portray the consorts as worldly or shady types who find it advisable to act hard-boiled while proving susceptible to mutual attraction and capable of protective, sacrificial gestures. Before Howard Hawks could orchestrate the chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Mr. Sternberg was paving the way with George Bancroft and Evelyn Brent or Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper.

Born in Vienna, but raised to a considerable extent in New York City, he was known familiarly as Jo Sternberg. Despite a notoriously grand and even forbidding manner, he disclaimed any responsibility for the “von,” ascribed to superiors trying to tone up the credits for a 1924 movie, “Divine Right.” Mr. Sternberg, the assistant director, was nearing the end of a versatile, 15-year apprenticeship in the movie industry. He began in his teens as a film splicer at a company in Fort Lee, N.J.

The National Gallery opens with the initial Sternberg feature, “The Salvation Hunters,” a 1925 prototype for uncompromising independent productions. Meagerly financed by George K. Arthur, a British actor (and later producer) cast in the leading role, the movie was shot resourcefully in San Pedro and other locations around Los Angeles that proved starkly compelling.

Mr. Sternberg recalled the concept in his inimitably diverting, cavalier, score-settling autobiography, “Fun in a Chinese Laundry,” published in 1965: “I had in mind a visual poem. Instead of flat lighting, shadows. In the place of pasty masks, faces in relief, plastic and deep-eyed. Instead of scenery which meant nothing, an emotionalized background that would transfer itself into my foreground. Instead of saccharine characters, sober figures moving in rhythm. Instead of stars I had engaged extras. … And dominating all this was an imposing piece of machinery: the hero of the film was to be a dredge.”

This stylistic beau geste was previewed at the home of Charlie Chaplin and made its director the toast of stellar Hollywood for a time. “Salvation Hunters” never became a popular success, but Mr. Sternberg was touted as Mary Pickford’s next director and did complete a feature commissioned by Mr. Chaplin, a comeback vehicle for his former leading lady and consort, Edna Purviance. Titled “The Sea Gull” and then “A Woman of the Sea,” it displeased the patron, who either destroyed the negative or locked it away in a vault. It remains one of four “lost” Sternberg movies of the late 1920s.

A failed project at MGM, “The Exquisite Sinner,” left Mr. Sternberg a precocious flame-out. He started over as an assistant director at Paramount, which became the home studio for most of his famous movies. The National Gallery series augments “The Salvation Hunters” with a picture he reshot while an assistant: “Children of Divorce,” which co-starred Clara Bow and Gary Cooper. Still credited to the original director, Frank Lloyd, it was the assignment that resurrected Mr. Sternberg’s directing career. According to his own somewhat incredible account, he restaged about half the scenes in a matter of days, while shooting inside a large tent during a rainstorm.

The Sternberg flair for setting and seduction is preserved at its most satisfying and influential in a trio of silent romantic melodramas - “Underworld,” “The Last Command” and “The Docks of New York” - and then in most of the starring vehicles for Marlene Dietrich that began in Germany with “The Blue Angel” in 1930 and continued at Paramount for another five years, concluding in sumptuously delirious fashion with the costume sagas “The Scarlet Empress” and “The Devil Is a Woman.”

The National Gallery series offers rare opportunities to catch up with prints of the titles at hand, including “Thunderbolt,” the first Sternberg talkie, and his 1931 version of “An American Tragedy,” which outraged author Theodore Dreiser but memorably showcased the young Sylvia Sidney.

The great Sternberg silents still await DVD editions. Even the Dietrich inventory needs fresh showcasing, which might as well begin with the best of the batch, “Morocco” and “Shanghai Express.” There is a new DVD edition of “Scarlet Empress,” which will merit a column in 2009, its 75th anniversary year. Meanwhile, the selection of “Dishonored,” probably the least esteemed of the Sternberg-Dietrich films, as the concluding movie of the series can be defended as a nostalgic and timely reminder of the romantic espionage thriller, coinciding with the latest James Bond spectacle.

Mr. Sternberg’s working title was “X-27,” Miss Dietrich’s code number as a patriotic war widow-turned-streetwalker recruited to the Austrian secret service in 1915. When “Dishonored” was new, in 1931, this pretext could be elaborated far more modestly than the contemporary Bond apparatus finds appropriate. Nevertheless, the vintage formulation hasn’t been completely discarded in contemporary variations, even if they’re required to be adventure-movie juggernauts.

“Dishonored” trifles with games of erotic cat-and-mouse between spy and spy before celebrating the heroine as a gallant adventuress willing to die for love. This sacrifice seems crackpot in context because Victor McLaglen was phenomenally miscast as Miss Dietrich’s leading man, allegedly a Russian master spy. Grinning like a berserk jack-o-lantern, he forever begs the question, was this meant to be somebody else? William Powell? Cary Grant? Ronald Colman? Alas, the answer cannot be found in “Fun in a Chinese Laundry.”

•••

Here is the schedule: “The Salvation Hunters” (silent with live piano accompaniment), 2 p.m., Nov. 8; “Children of Divorce” (1927, silent with live piano accompaniment), 4 p.m., Nov. 8; “Thunderbolt” (1929), 12:30 p.m., Nov. 15; “The Docks of New York” (1928, silent with live piano accompaniment), plus Charles Chaplin’s “The Immigrant” (1917), 4 p.m., Nov. 29; “An American Tragedy,” 4:30 p.m., Nov. 30; “Dishonored” (1931), 4:30 p.m., Dec. 14.

SERIES: “Josef von Sternberg, Master of Mood”

WHERE: East Building auditorium, National Gallery of Art

WHEN: Five weekend dates starting from Nov. 8 through Dec. 14

ADMISSION: Free, but seating is limited and an early arrival may be advisable

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov

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