The Criterion Collection’s mission statement, which is printed on all their releases, is to present “important classic and contemporary films”. The company does outstanding work in preserving the history of cinema, and nowhere is that more evident than their release of 3 Silent Classics By Josef von Sternberg, which contains the fourth, fifth, and sixth film, not counting the lost The Dragnet, he directed.
Von Sternberg came onto Underworld (1927) after original director Arthur Rosson was fired by Paramount Pictures. Written by Ben Hecht, whose work here earned the very first Academy Award for Writing, it tells the tale of love triangle set within the crime genre. Gangster Bull Weed (George Bancroft) is seen robbing a bank by a drunk he dubs Rolls Royce (Clive Brook). Bull kidnaps Rolls, who used to be a lawyer, and once he gets to know Rolls, put him to work in his organization. Bull is seeing a gal nicknamed Feathers (Evelyn Brent) because she always wears them. She and a sober Rolls become intrigued with each other. When Bull goes to jail for murder and gets the death penalty, Rolls isn’t sure whether to bust him out or leave town with Feathers.
Credited as the first American gangster film, Underworld has a good story that’s not predictable. The inclusion of “business” rival Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler) adds to the conflict in Bull’s life. Unintentionally humorous is the scene where the cops try to take Bull in and end up destroying the facade of the apartment building with their gunfire.
The Last Command (1928) is a fascinating story based on the life of General Lodijensky. In 1928 Hollywood, director Lev Andreyev (William Powell) hires Sergius Alexander (Emil Janning), a formerly former a Grand Duke and Commanding General of Russian armies as well as a cousin to the Czar, as an extra in his film. Alexander is cast as a general and this triggers a flashback to Imperial Russia 1917 where a connection between Alexander and Andreyev, then a theater director and revolutionatry, is revealed. Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent) comes between the men.
Janning gives a brilliant performance depicting Alexander at two vastly different stages in his life. His work here and in The Way of All Flesh earned him the very first Academy Award for an Actor in a Lead Role, the only time cumulative performances could be considered. Brent and Powell are also great. Von Sternberg and his team do fantastic jobs creating both the chaos of the Russian Revolution and that of a studio lot in this early epic. The film grows a little slow in the middle, but the third act more than makes up for it.
The Docks of New York (1928) is a working-class love story. Bill the Stoker (George Bancroft) shovels coal into ship engines. The crew gets one night ashore in New York City, and during that time, Bill ends up saving the life of Mae (Betty Compson), a prostitute who tried to drown herself. Everyone sepnds a good amount of time drinking in the bar and Bill and Mae end up married. The next moring he is over it and ready to ship out while she thinks they are staying together.
The film offers an interesting look at the town and its inhabitants. Everyone shown seems to have a rough life as they struggle to survive. Bill has a gruff exterior but is shown to be a nice guy whenever push comes to shove and the story has an unexpected yet sweet conclusion.
Von Sternberg reveals himself a highly skilled director from the evidence contained herein. He tells three very different stories by focusing on the humanity of the characters. He and his production team make great choices. The staging of action and framing of shots are all well done. Docks has an excellent shot that goes out of focus before showing Mae’s eyes well up with tears.
All three films are presented an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and have been restored though there are still varying degrees of wear and damage. The most egregious is are major vertical marking through the entire frame during the sequence Mae tries to sew Bill’s shirt.
All three films are accompanied by two scores. Composer Robert Israel provides one for each and they sound authentic to the time. Underworld and Last Command have scores by Alloy Orchestra that have a modern sound yet they still convey the emotions of the scene. The alternate score for Docks is by Donald Sosin on piano, which debuted at the 2008 Cinema Ritrovato Festival. A song sung by lyricist Joanna Seaton reappears a few time during film. Israel and his orchestra better punctuate things occuring on screen.
There are two informative visual essays, “Underworld: How It Came To Be” by UCLA film professor Janet Bergstrom (36 min) and “Von Sternberg Till ’29” (35 min) by film scholar Tag Gallagher. Also a Swedish TV interview (40 min) with von Sternberg from 1968 that looks back over his career. There is also a 96-page booklet with essays, notes from the score composers, Hecht’s original story for Underworld, and a piece about Emil Jannings taken from von Sternberg’s autobiography.
Although not as well known as his Blue Angel, 3 Silent Classics By Josef von Sternberg is a very good set to introduce people to his work and to showcase quality filmmaking from the 1920s. Criterion treats the work with reverence and demonstrates once again why they are the leaders in the home-video market.