THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934) ***½
The director Josef von Sternberg was hardly a modest man. In the 1967 BBC documentary The World of Josef von Sternberg, included on the Criterion DVD of The Scarlet Empress, he claimed total creative authorship of his movies—not only writing and direction, but also production, lighting and photography, and editing, whether he was credited with these in the completed film or not. It's little wonder then that the American auteurist Andrew Sarris named von Sternberg one of his "pantheon directors," praising his mastery of visual technique and describing him as "a lyricist of light and shadow." The Scarlet Empress is a mind-bogglingly baroque surfeit of visual detail, by turns ravishingly beautiful, lushly decorative, and hauntingly bizarre. Many scenes contain as much visual embellishment—in set decoration, props, costumes, and human spectacle—as I've ever seen in one movie. And still von Sternberg manages to arrange all these objects (including the actors, whom he refers to in the documentary as "marionettes") in these elaborate settings with clarity and purpose. Of the great directors, perhaps only Eisenstein, Kurosawa, and Orson Welles were as skillful as von Sternberg at organizing objects within the frame to create mood and emphasis.
In The Scarlet Empress, Marlene Dietrich, who made seven movies with von Sternberg, plays the lead role, Catherine the Great of Russia. She is required to transform from a young innocent—engaged through an arranged marriage to the future Tsar Peter III (Sam Jaffe), a childish madman—into a mature woman who uses sexual favors to engineer his assassination and seize the throne. (The historical accuracy of this is debatable.) She is quite convincing as she proceeds from naiveté to a kind of survivalist acceptance of her situation and finally, after a binge of sexual libertinism, to the decision to take control of events. Is she a cunning schemer, or does she truly want to rescue the Russian people from the insane tyranny of her husband? Von Sternberg keeps the answer ambiguous.
Jaffe, with his goofy buck-toothed grin and wide-eyed leer, is appropriately demented. And Louise Dresser turns in a broad semi-comic performance as Peter's dissolute and manipulative aunt, the Empress Elizabeth. Still, the strong impression these performers make pales beside the one von Sternberg makes as the absolute, perfectionist master of his startling cinematic vision.
H. M. PULHAM, ESQ. (1941) ***½
King Vidor directed all or part of 67 pictures between 1913 and 1980, more than half of them silent. Along with some bona fide classics, he also directed two of the worst movies I've ever seen, Duel in the Sun (1946) and The Fountainhead (1949), so I approached this movie with some trepidation. The story of a privileged member of a rich Boston society family from birth to middle age, the movie opens with a striking, nearly silent sequence showing Pulham's (Robert Young) morning routine—from waking up to arriving at his law office at exactly 9:00 a.m.—that within just a few minutes plainly establishes the regimented sterility of his life. The rest of the movie is structured as an alternately serious and whimsical stream-of-consciousness narrative that moves between scenes of the present and the past as Pulham recalls his entire life from birth to the present.
As I watched, I was amazed at the fluidity of the direction and at how natural Vidor made the rather literary structure of the movie seem. Young, with his subdued and rather bland screen presence, was ideally cast in the title role. The most interesting parts of the movie are those that deal with Pulham's life in New York City immediately after World War I working as a copywriter in an ad agency. In doing this, he is defying his father (Charles Coburn), who wants him to come home and join the family law firm. For a while it appears that Pulham will escape the stultifyingly conformist future that awaits him in Boston, especially after he begins a romance with a fellow copywriter, Marvin Myles Ransome (Hedy Lamarr), an independent-minded woman who encourages him to break away from the stifling traditions of his class and heritage. Lamarr's freethinking character is one of the best things in the movie. She seems surprisingly modern, wanting a career and her own life over marriage and a family, and Lamarr gives an excellent performance. But it is precisely her (for the time) unconventional values, combined with circumstances which force Pulham to return to Boston and his family, that ultimately separate them.
The ending is a bit pat—and with its message that you can't escape your background, a bit disturbing in its complacency—but the rest of the movie is delightful, a felicitous mixture of excellent acting, writing, photography (by Ray June) and editing, with Vidor's assured direction holding it all together.
DOWNSTAIRS (1932) ***½
I must confess to having a fairly low tolerance for movies of the early 1930's. Even the most highly touted of them often disappoint me. Downstairs, though, proved to be a pleasing exception. It stars John Gilbert, who wrote the story himself, and the whole movie is built around his character.
The movie opens at the Mitteleuropean estate of a baron whose head butler Albert (Paul Lukas) is being married to Anna (Virginia Bruce), the personal maid of the baroness. Into the festivities walks Gilbert as Karl Schneider, the new chauffeur. Karl is an unrepentant cad who immediately proceeds to charm, lie, blackmail, and seduce his way into a position of power and influence both upstairs and downstairs, managing to outwit and outmaneuver everyone who tries to expose him. In particular he sets his sights on the luscious but innocent Anna. After the stuffy Albert discovers that Karl has indeed seduced her, Anna looses an astonishingly frank tirade that not only makes clear that Karl's power over women lies in his sexual prowess, but also strongly asserts the desire of women to enjoy sex as much as men do and be treated by men as equal sexual beings.
Besides its surprisingly modern sexual attitudes, Downstairs has several other things going for it: an amusing take on amorality among the rich, its satirical mockery of the class system, and very entertaining supporting performances by Reginald Owen as the "silly ass" baron and Olga Baclanova (Freaks) as the conniving baroness. Monta Bell, who did such a great job on the Norma Shearer silent Lady of the Night (1925), directs with great seriocomic flair and provides some nice auteurish visual touches, including those in the scene where Karl seduces Anna, and later when he dissolves from the sleeping Anna to the next scene with Karl so slowly that for a few moments Karl seems to be a hazy dream image hovering over her bed. This movie and Queen Christina, which Gilbert made the next year with Garbo, should put to rest in any viewer's mind the notion that Gilbert's career ended because he was unsuited to sound films.
TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH (1949) ****
I'm not a big fan of war movies. Nor am I a big fan of Gregory Peck, whose performances often strike me as wooden and unengaging. Yet I found both this movie and Peck's performance in the lead role outstanding. In Twelve O'Clock High the emphasis is not on combat, but on psychology and characterization. In England in 1942, the first American Army Air Force crews have arrived and are starting the first daytime bombing raids over Europe. (The British RAF flew only nighttime raids.) The number of squadrons is small and support is minimal. Although the war planners are convinced that in time this strategy will prove the decisive factor in winning the war in Europe, at the moment the missions are having little real effect. Losses of aircraft and crews are high, understandably leading to great stress and low morale among both men and officers. One bomber squadron, based at Archbury, in particular is experiencing problems, and General Savage (Peck) is assigned to replace his good friend Col. Davenport (Gary Merrill) as commanding officer of the squadron.
In early scenes Savage has been established as a nice guy but a shrewd analyst who believes that the problem with Davenport is that he has grown too close to his men and lost his objectivity. So when Savage arrives at Archbury and immediately begins behaving like a cold martinet, we know that this is a role he is playing, a psychological ploy devised to instill the spirit of selflessness and teamwork among his fliers. "Consider yourselves already dead and you won't have to be afraid of it happening," he tells them at his first briefing. The initial response is not good, especially after his unsympathetic treatment of a popular navigator results in his suicide. But Savage finds one man, the deskbound Maj. Stovall (Dean Jagger, in an Oscar-winning performance), who understands his tactics and is willing to help him. Slowly his efforts pay off and the squadron comes into shape. It is only towards the end of the movie that we actually go on a bombing mission, with Gen. Savage leading the formation, in an exciting and deeply affecting sequence.
The treatment of the characters and situations by director Henry King is refreshingly unsentimental and unjingoistic. One can easily imagine the heavy-handed treatment such a plot would have received in the hands of a less subtle director. Peck too is uncharacteristically subtle. His rather stiff acting style makes his "performance" as a by-the-rules martinet believable, while he also manages to suggest the true, more sensitive feelings of the character that lie beneath the surface. The movie runs a little over 2 hours 15 minutes yet doesn't seem that long. And by not fawning for the viewer's admiration, it earns our sincere respect. Few movies about World War II made so soon after the event have aged as gracefully as Twelve O'Clock High.