Vienna-born Jonas Sternberg (1894-1969) grew up in Lynbrook, NY, and New York City; dropped out of Jamaica High School; went to work as a menial in a Fort Lee, NJ movie studio; and served during the first World War as a photographer for the Signal Corps, stationed at Columbia University. Working as an assistant director in Hollywood in the early 1920s, a producer helpfully suggested that he change his credit from Jo Sternberg to Josef von Sternberg (in emulation of the already celebrated Erich von Stroheim).
Sternberg's silent "The Salvation Hunters," a moody piece filled with stunning visual composition, was what might be called an indy art house hit in 1925. Hollywood bigwigs Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin, recently joined together with Douglas Fairbanks to form United Artists, proclaimed von Sternberg a genius and invited him to work for them. But the script von Sternberg devised for Pickford was so odd that she opted out. Chaplin, on the other hand, funded the 1926 "A Woman of the Sea" as a vehicle for Edna Purviance (who in her younger days had been his leading lady, on-screen and off). This was the only Chaplin-produced film that he neither starred in nor directed. Under circumstances that will presumably remain forever murky, Chaplin refused to release the finished film and appears to have had the prints and negatives destroyed. "A Woman of the Sea" is considered a masterpiece by some, although it was apparently screened only once and viewed by few.
This very public dumping by the great Chaplin seemed to place the fiery genius at a bad place, career-wise, but he managed to get a job as replacement director on the Paramount gangster melodrama, "Underworld." And the unheralded "Underworld" turned out to be a whirlwind success; it opened one August day in 1927 at the Paramount on Times Square. Word-of-mouth was so strong that audiences stormed the theatre following the final evening screening and demanded another, and then another, and then another; "Underworld" literally played through the night, with customers presumably slipping in from the local speakeasies. "Underworld" immediately established von Sternberg as a top director; that is, an unquestionably artistic filmmaker who could make films that the masses wanted to see. He continued in this vein at Paramount for a couple of years, after which he went to Germany to make "The Blue Angel," at which point he discovered Marlene Dietrich. Von Sternberg brought Dietrich back to America and embarked on a series of renowned films, earning a reputation as the stormiest German director this side of von Stroheim. But he was really Jo Sternberg from Lynbrook.
All of which wouldn't really find its way into this column except for the fact that Criterion has restored "Underworld" and two of von Sternberg's other pre-"Blue Angel" films into 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg, and all three are astoundingly good. "Underworld" takes us into the world of the speakeasy; from the looks of it, von Sternberg recreated the real thing. (Right by the entrance is a vending machine that sells a spray of men's cologne! Which I suppose must be authentic.) The script came from Ben Hecht, a former Chicago newspaperman who picked up an Oscar for his efforts — this after claiming that the director hijacked his story and made such egregious changes that he threatened to remove his name. "Underworld" is considered by some to mark the start of the gangster genre; it seems to me heavily influenced, though, by Philip Dunning and George Abbott's 1926 Broadway melodrama, Broadway. As for Hecht, he followed "Underworld" with his own Broadway hit, the 1928 classic The Front Page. In any event, "Underworld" is — even by today's standards — a super film. The visuals, yes, are stunning, and von Sternberg gets strong performances from his three leads. George Bancroft is Bull Weed, a violent, loutish gunman who likes to pull his jobs alone. (Von Sternberg and Bancroft manage to instill moments of humanity, such as the scene where Bull feeds a baby kitten.) Evelyn Brent is the moll "Feathers," so named for the clothes she prefers. Again, director and actress take a type that was already cliched and let us see beneath — well, beneath the feathers. The surprise of the movie, along with the fact that it is so very good, is the performance of Clive Brook as the ex-lawyer turned street bum turned suave henchman called Rolls Royce. Brook is best known for his performance as the male lead in the 1932 film "Shanghai Express," the fourth of the seven von Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations. But his performance in the silent "Underworld" is riveting.
Von Sternberg seemed adept at eliciting riveting performances, though, as evidenced by the second film in the set, "The Last Command" (1928). This one is altogether fascinating. Hollywood had a fair share of Russian emigres at the time, including an ex-general in the Czar's army who following the Revolution wound up running a restaurant in Hollywood. When the restaurant closed, he was reduced to looking for extra work at the studios. That served as the germ for "The Last Command," with the Czar's overbearing chief general (and cousin) transformed into a shell-shocked shell of a man and hired as an extra, assigned to play — what else? A Russian general in combat. With the director of the film in question being a former Russian revolutionary, who ten years earlier had been violently beaten by the very same general.
Standing out is the remarkable Emil Jannings. The flashbacks show him haughty and imperious (but with, again, a fascinating streak of humanity). The opening and closing display a shell of this same man; von Sternberg and Jannings manage to contrive two very different but very believable portraits of the same character. (The acting was such that I found myself impelled to immediately replay the final third of the movie twice, from the scene in which the general is arrested at the train station.) Jannings — two years before he went to Germany to make "The Blue Angel," inviting von Sternberg to direct him — won an Oscar for "The Last Command," and you can easily understand why. Jannings received the very first Oscar, literally; he was leaving Hollywood to make a film in Europe, so the Academy presented his statuette to him before the official ceremony.
Along with Jannings is Ms. Brent, perhaps twice as good as she is in "Underworld." Again, there are so many shadings to the character. The third major role — that of the Russian-born film director — is played by none other than William Powell, who here broke out of the second rank and earned a shot at stardom (which he attained the following year). The studio scenes, where Powell displays restraint and sympathy for the broken-down old man, are so very good.
Third of the films is "The Docks of New York," also from 1928, which has some remarkable visuals — including an opening shot of an anchor descending into the sea, shot from directly above — and numerous masterfully shadowed shots. It doesn't quite astound in the manner of "Underworld" and "The Last Command," though. George Bancroft, from the former, stars in this one along with Betty Compton. (Fans of sound films will recognize Bancroft as Curly, the marshall in John Ford's 1939 classic, "Stagecoach.")
All three von Sternberg silents remain fascinating. Criterion has done their customary fine job of restoration, and the booklet is filled with interesting articles (including an excerpt from von Sternberg's autobiography "Fun in a Chinese Laundry" that reads so well that I want to find the book itself.) There are two musical soundtracks for each film; extras are few in number, but well worth watching. Anyone interested in early Hollywood, Dietrich or lighting will want to watch the 1968 Swedish television interview that is included. The 74-year-old director, just a year before his death, is at once restrained and candid in his remarks. An extended clip from the aborted "I Claudius" (1938) is included, in which Charles Laughton is staggeringly good (although much of his completed footage was reportedly quite a mess). The interview finishes with Sternberg demonstrating how he lit his scenes, using two Swedish children who wandered into the studio. He cuts holes in a piece of cardboard — making a primitive gobo — holds it up over the light, and you have those very same mysteriously enigmatic shadows that made Dietrich famous. All within one box set from Criterion.
Speaking of 1920s melodramas, we have the 1927 silent of Maurine Dallas Watkins' Chicago [Flicker Alley]. This is not the well-regarded 1942 "Roxie Hart," which starred Ginger Rogers, but an early version filmed while the original 1926 play was still on the boards. This "Chicago" was not a von Sternberg production; it was Cecil B. DeMille, of all people, and it is extremely watchable. (DeMille produced it and is said to have directed it, although the film bears another director's name.) Phyllis Haver makes a fine and memorable Roxie; she is joined by Robert Edeson as Billy Flynn and Hungarian actor Victor Varoni as Amos. Turn-of-the-century Broadway star May Robson appears as matroness Morton, while lothario Caseley is played by none other than Eugene Pallette. (He turned into an expert — and famously rotund — comedian in films like "My Man Godfrey," "The Lady Eve," and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," but is neither here.) And in the budding talent department you have costume designer Adrian and art director Mitchell Leisen. This "Chicago," long thought to be lost, was found in DeMille's private collection. It looks absolutely superb in David Shepard's restoration. Flicker Alley also provides a second disc with two worthy supplements, "The Golden Twenties" (a 1950 documentary compiled from authentic footage from the era) and "The Flapper Story" (a 1985 short interviewing some former flappers). But the "Chicago" movie and Ms. Haver are the attractions here.
Robert Altman (1925-2006), another talented, unconventional and adventurous director, enjoyed a decidedly up-and-down career over a 50-year span. Altman hit it big in 1970 with his finest film, "M*A*S*H," and continued to surprise and entertain audiences with no less than eight interesting and usually fascinating movies through the decade (including "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "Nashville"). Then came a big-screen version of "Popeye" in 1980, starring Robin Williams (naturally enough), which sent Altman's stock plummeting. It's O.K. to be visionary in Hollywood as long as your films make money; then, watch out. Next came a dozen years in which Altman continued to do what he did with determination but relatively little acclaim, a period which ended surprisingly and happily with The Player [New Line/Warner]. Hollywood studio outsider Altman took the town to task with a scathing satire of studio operations — movie executives are all villainous murderers, aren't they? — and Hollywood loved it. No wonder, in that "The Player" is delicious and witty and wildly entertaining; but still, mavericks are rarely embraced by the community. New Line has reissued the film on Blu-ray, and it turns out that what was at the time one of the finest movies ever made about Hollywood retains its many charms. As usual, Altman filled the film with fine actors; they seemed to love working with him because of his penchant for encouraging them to make up lines as they went along. The main cast here includes Tim Robbins (as studio exec Griff Mill), Greta Scacchi, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Gallagher, Sydney Pollack and Lyle Lovett. It is in the star cameos that Altman outdid himself, peopling this chronicle of Hollywood people with Hollywood people — who, again, seemed to be honored to have Altman pointing a camera at them. More than 60 of them, by my count, of varying wattage. Standing out on the list, although some are in the blink-and-you-might-miss-them category, are Steve Allen, Harry Belafonte, Cher, James Coburn, Peter Falk, Louise Fletcher, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Elliott Gould, Joel Grey, Sally Kellerman, Jack Lemmon, Malcolm McDowell, Nick Nolte, Burt Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Rod Steiger, Lily Tomlin, Ray Walston and Bruce Willis. And, for that matter, Jeremy Piven. Special features — which seem to be carried over from the 1997 DVD release — include commentary by Altman and screenwriter Michael Tolkin; a "One on One" piece with Altman; and five deleted scenes.
Helen Mirren made the two-part miniseries "Prime Suspect" back in 1991, after she had established herself as a superb actress but long before she became more or less iconic. "Prime Suspect," from Granada Television, was a detective story with a difference, or several differences. The main one, plot-wise, was that the detective was a woman; more importantly, though, the thing was exceptionally well written, acted and produced. The miniseries was duly broadcast in America, to a similar reception, and followed a year-and-a-half later by "Prime Suspect 2." Etcetera, etcetera and so forth, as the saying goes, until Detective Jane Tennison had gone through seven tours of duty, with "Prime Suspect: The Final Act" coming along in the fall of 2006. Acorn Media has now brought us Prime Suspect: The Complete Collection, some 25 hours worth of Mirren on nine discs. Plus a generalized behind-the-scenes special as well as the Series 6 behind-the-scenes featurette. This makes for engrossing and satisfying viewing, not the least for the privilege of watching Mirren develop the character over 16 calendar years. Some winter weekend when you're snowed in or fighting flu or just happy not to go out, you'll be glad to have this special box set sitting by the DVD player.
The Mothers-in-Law [MPI] was one of those often hilarious but stubbornly unsuccessful sitcoms that debuted back in those long-ago days when hair was something you combed or fluffed, and Nixon was just some washed up ex-Vice-President. Ah, nostalgia. The idea was to take a pair of long-time friendly neighbors — just like a suburban Lucy and Ethel — and have their kids get hitched. Turning them into too-close-for-comfort instant relatives, inserting themselves into the lives of the newlyweds and generally gumming up the works with harebrained schemes and wacky machinations. Since the Lucy and Ethel of the occasion were Hollywood's Eve Arden and Broadway's Kaye Ballard, neither of whom ever met a laugh line they couldn't milk, "The Mothers-in-Law" was — and remains — irrepressible. The Lucy link is not incidental; this is what Desi Arnaz busied himself with after leaving Desilu, the influential sitcom factory he started with his former wife, and the series was created and written by "I Love Lucy" scribes Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn Davis. The show ran two seasons, starting in the fall of 1967, and the 56 episodes feature a parade of guest stars (led by Arnaz himself, and ranging from Jimmy Durante to Don Rickles — which is quite a range).
The eight-DVD set has been carefully and lovingly compiled, with a veritable cascade of extras on that eighth disc. These include a new featurette with Ms. Ballard reminiscing about the series; the unaired pilot, in which daughter Suzie is played not by Deborah Walley but Kay Cole (who some years later gloriously sang "At the Ballet" as the original Maggie in A Chorus Line); Lucille Ball interviewing Eve Arden in 1965 on her "Let's Talk to Lucy" radio show; and more. Most astounding — well, maybe not astounding, but certainly interesting — is the 1966 pilot for "The Carol Channing Show," which Arnaz produced with Charles Lowe. (It is billed as a Lowe-Arnaz Production.) This is the Carol of Hello, Dolly!; that is, Carol as she looked when she starred in the original Dolly at the St. James. The pilot was produced and directed by Mr. Arnaz, and written by Carroll and Davis. Carol wreaks havoc in a restaurant with an electric knife, dances up a storm as a dance-hall hostess, and wolfs down a hot dog in one gulp — presumably the last time she went near one of those. Not much of a script, and not surprisingly a pilot that remained unsold, but there's a bouncy title song by — who else — Jerry Herman! All bundled with "The Mothers-in-Law: The Complete Series."
(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at email@example.com.)