In the early days of sound, studios were still experimenting with what worked and which actors had the voice that translated well. At the same time, Hollywood was luring in top talent from Europe and some would do very well in their transition. Two countries that Hollywood was getting plenty of notable names from were Austria and Germany. Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Erich von Stroheim, Emil Jannings, and Fritz Lang brought over their international style that would play a major role in the growth of Hollywood and its influence all over the world. Two more imports would leave their mark as a collaborating duo: Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg.
The Blue Angel (1930)
In the 1920s, Dietrich was getting steady work on stage and screen when Sternberg, an established director for Paramount Pictures, was offered by the studio’s sister company, UFA, a chance to direct a sound picture starring Emil Jannings, who won the Oscar’s first Best Actor trophy. When it came to casting Lola, a cabaret singer who presents herself as a sex goddess, Sternberg turned down multiple actresses put to him before finding Dietrich at a musical performance, immediately becoming infatuated with her and personally grooming Dietrich’s looks and performance.
In The Blue Angel, Jannings plays a respectable academic who falls hard for Lola, a young cabaret singer whose sexual suggestiveness in her songs grabs the love of many other men. But when the academic gives up everything he has for her, the results are tragic. Ironically, Jannings was bothered by the on-set romance and felt it was causing problems for the production, but it turned out to be a smash hit which brought the director-actress duo to Hollywood. The careers between the actors went parallel as Jannings saw his career drop off into disgrace when he took part in Nazi propaganda while Dietrich spoke out against the Nazis, becoming a hero for the Allies while simultaneously criticized and shunned by her home country for turning against them.
Even before The Blue Angel was released, Paramount executives recognized it was going to be hit and Dietrich was to be a major star. Head of the production, B. P. Schulberg, brought them back to Hollywood, to begin with, their next collaboration. Morocco told the story of a cabaret singer falling in love with a French Legionnaire (Gary Cooper) who is also a womanizer. Dietrich’s song dressed in a man’s suit and kissing another woman revolted the conservatives for its strong lesbianism tone, but the film was a major success, earning four Oscar nominations including Best Actress and Best Director. Cooper himself was like Jannings, bothered by Sternberg’s focus all on Dietrich. Their next film that followed was Dishonored, the Mata Hari-inspired story about a woman caught between love and espionage in World War I Austria.
Shanghai Express (1932)
In one of the more intoxicating films of his career, Sternberg directed his Best Director/Picture nominated thriller on board the title train, something similar to Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express. Dietrich is a famous courtesan named Shanghai Lily and attracts the attention of an Army doctor (Clive Brook) who is not familiar with her notoriety. But as the train moves along, they get caught up in the Chinese Civil War as the train is subject to harassment, looking for those who could be a spy, especially Lily and her friend (Anna May Wong). It did take the Oscar for Cinematography as the visuals make it even more claustrophobic and sensational. That same year was the follow-up, Blonde Venus, a semi-musical with similar themes to The Blue Angel, but was received with mixed reviews.
The Scarlet Empress (1934)
This is considered, along with The Blue Angel, is seen as the ultimate Sternberg-Dietrich masterpiece in their collaborations. Dietrich plays Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia in the 18th century when she grows up and utilizes her influence to build support for her regime over other nobility who try to undermine her. Sternberg took some dramatic liberties with the characters, but the essence of why Catherine the Great is such a revered leader in the history of Russia is still honored. The film was also among the later Hollywood pictures to be released before the Hays Code was inserted, which why violent and sexual content was still more obvious at this time.
The final film they would work on together was 1935’s The Devil is a Woman. Sternberg, aware that his contract with Paramount was not going to be renewed, made the move to end his professional relationship with Dietrich. Regardless, Sternberg would not again get the same freedom as a director while Dietrich’s career continued to rise. Yet, the legacy of their collaboration and the string of films that bound them together are gems inside the studio system and how Dietrich came to rule Hollywood with her strong seduction senses and darkening images, courtesy of the much underappreciated Josef von Sternberg.
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