In a profile of Josef von Sternberg for the New Yorker in March 1931, the year Americans got to see the English-language version of Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930), the author begins where most writers do when discussing the Austrian-born director who conquered Hollywood with his outré style, both on and off the screen. “Dietrich”, Henry F. Pringle proclaims, as if it is already necessary to recuperate the director’s silent career, “is really only an incident in von Sternberg’s success” (1).
After working as a “grunt” repairing film sprockets and delivering film prints, Sternberg moved up to developing and printing at World Pictures in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and was eventually allowed onto Emile Chautard and Maurice Tourneur’s sets as an assistant. He later moved out West and, with money from actor George K. Arthur, made an independent film, The Salvation Hunters (1924). Shot entirely on location on a dredge in San Pedro Bay, the film’s artistry got it noticed by Charlie Chaplin who then commissioned Sternberg to direct his former co-star and jilted girlfriend Edna Purviance. Not pleased with the result, Chaplin forever shelved A Woman of the Sea (1926).
After two infelicitous jobs with the imperious producers at MGM, Sternberg moved to Paramount, where he became prized for his technical excellence. Successful reshooting on parts of two Clara Bow vehicles, It (Clarence Badger, 1927) and Children of Divorce (Frank Lloyd, 1927), was followed by the assignment that made his career, Underworld (1927). His salary doubled after the box office success of this progenitor to the gangster film. B. P. Schulberg then asked him to reduce Erich von Stroheim’s beleaguered 11-hour The Wedding March (1928). Following this Sternberg took over a project intended for Victor Fleming, originally titled The General, because star Emil Jannings refused to work again with the director of his first American film (The Way of All Flesh, 1927).
As scholar Anton Kaes notes, “The Last Command was first and foremost a star vehicle for Emil Jannings” (2). A huge international star with 50 or more films to his credit, Jannings had built an impressive body of work playing men laid very low by fate (3). The actor took credit in his memoirs for the story of The Last Command, about yet another degraded man, and Kaes says a lengthy treatment can be read in the AMPAS Library in support of this assertion (4). But the credit for the story officially goes to Lajos Biró (5), whose writing also begat Forbidden Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1924), Hotel Imperial (Mauritz Stiller, 1927), The Way of All Flesh, and Adoration (Frank Lloyd, 1928). As director Sternberg tells it, Biró was a burden to the Paramount company payroll. “I wrote the manuscript”, he declaims in his 1965 memoir Fun in a Chinese Laundry. “I saw an opportunity to deal with the machinery of Hollywood and its callous treatment of the film extra.” (6)
Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman tells a more complete genesis story with the kind of detail that helps it ring true. The German filmmaker recognised the owner of Sunset Boulevard’s Double Eagle working as an extra on the set of his The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1928). Restaurateur Theodore Lodi was actually General Feodor Lodyzhensky of the late, great Russian Empire, one of many Russian expats lending authenticity to the sets of Hollywood films (7). Lubitsch passed on the anecdote to Emil Jannings, who had recently arrived in Hollywood. When later a claimant, whom Eyman does not name, sued Paramount over story credit, everyone pointed at Lubitsch. The director demurred, saying that he had been denied credit before and was not about to accept it when it came attached with blame. Paramount settled rather than fought (8).
Stories set in Russia were certainly not scarce in Hollywood. Fascinated with the country’s frozen inaccessibility, its fur-clad royalty, imported ballerinas, and candy-coloured turrets, America’s interest in the far-off Eastern land had been piqued with the toppling of the Romanov dynasty and the Soviet Revolution. Hollywood, now housing a small community of exiles, obliged by spinning stories of the commingling of aristocrat and peasant, noble and commoner, the elite and the ordinary, the imperial and revolutionary, making clichés out of the envisioned tragedies.
In Resurrection (1927), directed by Edwin Carewe, a Russian prince falls for a peasant girl, and in Benjamin Christensen’s Mockery, from the same year, Lon Chaney runs the masochistic gamut from peasant to Bolshevik to martyr for love on the Siberian steppe. 1928 saw a surge in the number of films on the topic. Frank Lloyd’s Adoration tells of Prince Orloff and his royal wife fleeing to Paris and becoming waiters. The Red Dance, directed by Raoul Walsh, features Dolores Del Rio as a peasant girl reluctant to kill a grand duke in defiance of Bolshevik orders. Tempest (Sam Taylor), written by co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre and new Hollywood resident V.I. Nemirovich-Dantchenko, starred John Barrymore as a peasant soldier-turned-revolutionary in love with a faithless princess. Columbia Pictures also took a stab at the subgenre with The Scarlet Lady (Alan Crosland), in which Lya De Putti’s young revolutionary hid from Cossacks under Prince Nicholas’ bed.
Pre-revolutionary subjects weren’t neglected either. Lubitsch’s The Patriot starred Emil Jannings as a mad 18th century tsar, and MGM cast its two biggest stars as Russians: Greta Garbo as a spy in love with an Austrian captain in The Mysterious Lady (Fred Niblo) and John Gilbert acting out a by-then familiar drama opposite Renée Adorée in George Hill’s The Cossacks, regardless of Tolstoy’s original story on which it was based. At least two other films besides The Last Command managed to weave a take on Hollywood itself into these stories. Clothes Make the Woman (Tom Teriss, 1928) imagines young princess Anastasia rescued by a revolutionary who goes on to become a big Hollywood star. And, from 1927, High Hat (James Ashmore Creelman) centers around the antics of a lazy extra on the set of a film about the Russian Revolution.
However the story for The Last Command developed, Sternberg made it his own, choosing to begin it in Hollywood with the already decrepit general remembering his past in flashback. It features the director’s signature use of props to bestow meaning (watch out for furs and cigarettes) and pools of evocative light and swaths of shadows that reveal not just mood but also character. Sternberg fills the space between the camera and the action with rows of soldiers hoisting bayonets and arriving trains, not to mention furniture. But the tour-de-force comes early in the film. Called to report to the studio as an extra, Grand Duke Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings) is caught in the crushing horde of a cast of thousands trying to enter the studio gates and retrieve his costume for the day’s shoot. In an extended lateral tracking shot, the camera follows Jannings as he’s pushed and pulled through a succession of service windows to get his uniform, boots, and weapon, an impersonal assembly line that an intertitle refers to as “the Bread Line of Hollywood.” For Sternberg, there’s not much difference between this dehumanising process and the one in which rows of soldiers are inspected (but who’s in command) and the scene has echoes throughout the film.
Held back from release because of its uncomplimentary take on Hollywood and America’s ambiguous relationship with the fledging Bolshevik Republic, it took a green-light from Paramount major stockholder Otto Kahn to get the film into theatres. At the first annual Academy Awards, Jannings won for Best Actor (for his roles in both The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh), and Biró was nominated for Original Story (Ben Hecht took home the prize for Underworld).
1928 continued to be good to Sternberg, with the production and release of what many critics consider to be his silent masterpiece, The Docks of New York, which revisited a waterfront setting he had used in his very first film, The Salvation Hunters. He made two more silents at Paramount, The Dragnet (1928) and The Case of Lena Smith (1929), set in Sternberg’s birthplace of Vienna (and now lost), as well as his first talkie, the gangster picture Thunderbolt. Sternberg left soon after for Berlin, where he cast Dietrich in Der blaue Engel, beginning the collaboration that instantly redefined his career.
- Henry F. Pringle, “All for Art”, The New Yorker 28 March 1931, pp. 26–28.
- Anton Kaes, “Illusions and Delusions”, 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg, Criterion Collection, New York, 2010, p. 19.
- This constituted a virtual German subgenre, janningsfilme. John Baxter characterises this subgenre as featuring “an aging man [who] is humiliated and degraded and dies of a broken heart”. See Baxter, Von Sternberg, University of Kentucky Press, Lexington, 2010, p. 77.
- Kaes, p. 21.
- John F. Goodrich wrote the scenario and Herman J. Mankiewicz the titles.
- Josef von Sternberg, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, Mercury House, San Francisco, 1988, p. 126.
- Scholars disagree on his pedigree. See Olga Matich, “The White Emigration Goes Hollywood”, Russian Review vol. 64, no. 2, April 2005, pp. 196.
- Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1993, pp. 142–143.
The Last Command (1928 USA 88 mins)
Prod Co: Paramount Dir: Josef von Sternberg Scr: John F. Goodrich, from a story by Lajos Biró [disputed by Sternberg and Jannings] Phot: Bert Glennon Ed: William Shea Art Dir: Hans Dreier
Cast: Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell, Jack Raymond, Nicholas Soussanin, Michael Visaroff