BLONDE VENUS (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)

Written by Jules Furthman and S.K. Lauren from a story by Furthman and the director, Josef von Sternberg’s engrossing, heartrending Blonde Venus depicts a trenchant human odyssey brilliantly enacted by Marlene Dietrich in perhaps her finest performance. Among actresses, perhaps only Garbo’s Marguerite Gautier surpasses it and perhaps only Baranovskaya’s Pelageya Vlasova, Falconetti’s Joan and […]

THE SCARLET EMPRESS (Josef von Sternberg, 1934)

Set to the music of Tchaikovsky, The Scarlet Empress dazzles with its opulence and the density of its German Expressionism, what Josef von Sternberg, its director, would himself describe as an excess of style. It is based on the diaries of Germany’s Princess Sofia Frederika (Marlene Dietrich, exquisite), who marries Russia’s Grand Duke Pyotr (Sam […]

THE GREAT WALTZ (Julien Duvivier, Josef von Sternberg, Victor Fleming, 1938)

In the shadow of Germany’s annexation of Austria on March 15, 1938, Hollywood’s most radiant, rapturous musical biography appeared. Its ostensible subject: Johann Strauss II (Fernand Gravet, so-so); but at the outset the film admits that it aims for the “spirit” of the music and of Strauss rather than the “facts” of his life. Directors […]

AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (Josef von Sternberg, 1931)

Theodore Dreiser’s gigantic, moody, sociologically dense 1925 An American Tragedy is, for me, the greatest American novel of the twentieth century. Like its chief competition for that title, another 1925 book, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, it is about the collision between an upwardly mobile heart, perpetually courting social acceptance, and realities that seem […]