Film is a collaborative medium, or so people say, unless by “people” we mean Josef von Sternberg. To become a director is, more often than not, to reveal yourself as a control freak, but von Sternberg was the original micromanager, and his arrogance was legendary. Even long after his career was over, he was reluctant to discuss colleagues. Screenwriter Jules Furthman was responsible for much of the script of Shanghai Express, but von Sternberg always maintained that the entire treatment was one page written by story creator Harry Hervey. Von Sternberg biographer John Baxter cites the gifted Paramount art director Hans Dreier as a major stylistic influence, taking the director from a realistic approach to the “veiled sensuality” he would develop over the course of his career—and adds drily, “It goes without saying that [Dreier] receives no mention in Fun in a Chinese Laundry,” von Sternberg’s notoriously cranky memoir.
Marlene Dietrich, the muse von Sternberg revealed to the world in 1930’s The Blue Angel and whose ineffable, maddening allure he explored in six spellbinding films for Paramount, probably didn’t need his encomiums. She would go on to become a true superstar. The man who crafted her greatest films, on the other hand, gradually found himself exiled from a Hollywood that had little patience for unorthodox talent, much less so when that talent had zero ability to suck up. Small wonder that he wanted the world to remember who made Dietrich. Dietrich certainly did; “I did what he told me to do” was her generous refrain down the years. “I never had a better assistant than Miss Dietrich,” the director told one interviewer, with lordly assurance. Still, von Sternberg paid this assistant the tribute of immortality.
Other “assistants” went unseen by audiences and are much less frequently discussed. The story of von Sternberg and his colleagues, especially those who never appeared on-screen—the ones who gave dialogue to his characters and shape to his plots, who constructed costumes and sets, the woman whose makeup perfected Dietrich and the men who then lit that glorious face—can be difficult to tease out in part because von Sternberg was almost pathologically incapable of sharing credit. All these artists would have agreed that a von Sternberg film revealed his vision, down to the items on a character’s dressing table and the way Dietrich’s cheekbones were highlighted. But, as Baxter writes, though the director “liked to say he ‘dictated’ the look of his films, dictation is not creation. He needed talented individuals to realize his conceptions.”
“A press release in 1935 called Hans Dreier ‘the generalissimo of Paramount’s art department.’”
And in his Hollywood films with Dietrich, von Sternberg had access to some of the industry’s greatest talents. Many of them had names in the credits, like Dreier, Furthman, costume designer Travis Banton, and cinematographers Lee Garmes and Bert Glennon. Others, like makeup artist Dorothy Ponedel, did not. Still others contributed one small, but in retrospect essential, element: a hat, a set of sculptures. Together, they are the reason these movies—and most of von Sternberg’s other Hollywood masterpieces—could have been made only at Paramount. Warner Bros. was too rough, MGM too prim, RKO too jaunty, and Universal and Columbia were too cheap. Only Paramount had the requisite amount of elegance and daring, and it alone employed a sufficient number of aesthetes, both homegrown and imported, to pull this work off. In Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, and The Devil Is a Woman, these artists enabled von Sternberg to shape his worldly, mischievous, lovestruck vision of Dietrich, a persona continuously unveiled and eternally mysterious.
Take, for example, Dreier. Born in Bremen, Germany, in 1885, he had a master of arts from the University of Munich and was a trained architect who spent World War I building government projects in West Africa. After the war, Dreier worked on more than thirty films at Ufa, starting about 1919—including, he said later, Madame DuBarry (1919), directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and the immortal The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), though he’s uncredited on both, and Danton, a 1921 biopic starring Emil Jannings. He absorbed the influence of expressionism like everyone else at Ufa. But few had the gifts or the eye of Dreier, who went to the U.S. in 1923 and met von Sternberg at Paramount in 1928. They worked together on all of von Sternberg’s films at the studio, and were even similar in some ways. Charming when off duty, on the job Dreier was a different matter. A press release in 1935 called him “the generalissimo of Paramount’s art department,” according to Sam Staggs in Close-up on “Sunset Boulevard” (the 1950 Billy Wilder film was one of Dreier’s later-career highlights). Dreier once said, with regard to whether he tried to achieve a certain look for his creations at the studio, “The art director is responsible for creating the reality of the backgrounds, against which the characters in the story move.”
That formula is an interesting window onto Dreier’s methods, because his sets are known for their drama and effects, achieved through exaggerated proportions and dramatic contrasts. But note that he said “reality,” not “realism.” In other words, the audience must believe in the backgrounds, but we need not necessarily believe they imitate life. Look at Morocco, where von Sternberg shrugged off the country’s actual geography in favor of slamming the desert against the back of the port town. Backstage in the dressing room of Amy Jolly (Dietrich), there hangs a crisscross pattern of electrical wires that would surely send the rickety, largely wooden nightclub up in smoke if it actually existed. Indeed, that club feels more like a tavern than a Moroccan dive. There is little to suggest the usual Hollywood concept of “Arab” decor, until the scene shifts to the lavish digs of Kennington La Bessière (Adolphe Menjou), which are as overdone as the character’s name, full of exaggerated Moorish arches and furniture. As if to once more remind the audience of the movie’s fantasy, Amy’s final lurch across the sands takes her through a gateway that looks and functions in every way like a giant proscenium arch.
As von Sternberg’s vision grew and expanded, so did Dreier’s, to include things like the vast courtyard in which X-27 breathes her last in Dishonored. Its walls are so tall they seem to belong to Mad King Ludwig’s castle, and the bricks are also enormous and sculpted, the better to contrast with the slender beauty facing the firing squad.
The Scarlet Empress is the ultimate in this more-is-more approach, both for von Sternberg’s compulsion to find ever more outré settings for Dietrich and for the wild designs created by Dreier and under his supervision. The twisted, candle-clutching gargoyles were sculpted by Peter Ballbusch, a salaried studio employee who later made a career as a montage director for films ranging from The Good Earth (1937) to An American in Paris (1951). Constructed from epoxy resin and plaster of paris, according to Baxter, the figures surely must have made a few Universal horror-design veterans bite their nails in envy. The walls of the imperial palaces are actually painted flats. Dreier saved the budget for building a real staircase, as grand as it is vaguely terrifying in its height and breadth. Von Sternberg loved doors, and Dreier gave him some worthy of a cathedral; the effort shown by the extras tasked with opening them is not acting. Dietrich’s daughter, Maria Riva, wrote that The Scarlet Empress “was the only film my mother ever made where the sets vied with her for stardom.”
The Devil Is a Woman was remarkable for how von Sternberg pursued a largely monochromatic design for this black-and-white film, his idea being that this made the sets easier to light and emphasized the few splashes of color. Dreier adhered to his instructions so rigidly that even some of the ivy on the balcony was spray-painted aluminum white. The result heightened what was always going to be an otherworldly head trip of a film. In a 1936 interview, Dreier cited it as one of his two masterpieces, calling it by the original name, Capriccio Espagnol, which then–production head Lubitsch had changed, reasoning that Americans wouldn’t go to see a film with a title they couldn’t pronounce. (The other film Dreier named was Lubitsch’s own The Patriot, from 1928, which exists now only in fragments.)
But the apex of Dreier’s work with von Sternberg is surely the design for Shanghai Express, its tall locomotive—rented to von Sternberg by the Santa Fe Railroad and painted with Chinese characters, sometimes by von Sternberg himself—inching through the alley of a poor Peking neighborhood. It’s an illogical design. A large train that close to slum dwellings would blow out windows and possibly entire shacks, and indeed that’s what happened to some of the sets in rehearsals, according to Baxter. No matter, it’s an unforgettable image. The small touches are equally telling. The dining car appears to be the last word in British chintz. The tiny compartment that holds both Shanghai Lily (Dietrich) and Hui Fei (Anna May Wong) has a glass window far larger than any normal train would, giving the camera a better view of the most interesting goings-on and (doubtless deliberately) suggesting a peep show.
By the time of Shanghai Express’s release in 1932, a number of things had been perfected, including the lighting that made Dietrich’s close-ups so extraordinary. There’s no doubt that von Sternberg knew cinematography inside out, so much so that the American Society of Cinematographers admitted him to their ranks, a rare honor for a director. “Very few directors know how to light a set,” said James Wong Howe in a 1974 interview. “The only one I knew was Josef von Sternberg”—something Howe had had a chance to observe firsthand on a planned project that sadly never came to fruition.
Over the years, the directors of photography—among them Lee Garmes, Bert Glennon, and an uncredited Lucien Ballard—occasionally sniped at one another about the relative lack of control they had had on set. Ballard claimed that Glennon simply followed von Sternberg’s instructions to the letter. All of them were gifted, however, and had they been less so, they might not have survived von Sternberg for more than a day or two. When the end came, it could be abrupt. Henry Hathaway, then an assistant director, claimed that Ballard got his job on The Devil Is a Woman because Glennon wound his watch when von Sternberg was wrapped in silent thought.
Still, Garmes made a convincing case for his having invented the “Dietrich face”—the unique lighting that shadowed her cheekbones, highlighted the triangle of her eyes and nose, and gave her close-ups the quality of a painting. On Morocco, he said, he didn’t have time to make tests of Dietrich, and at first he used “a sidelight, a halftone, so that one half of her face was bright and the other half was in shadow.” The problem there was that it made her look like Greta Garbo, and this was unacceptable. When she hit Hollywood, Dietrich had been widely derided as another Garbo wannabe, and the fan magazines had played up the slight resemblance between the two actresses. Garmes went on: “So, without saying anything to Jo, I changed to the north-light effect. He had no suggestions for changes, he went ahead and let me do what I wanted. The Dietrich face was my creation.”
“Ponedel took meticulous care in working out how lighting would affect makeup, studying art books late into the night to look at the play of light on portraits by Vermeer and Rembrandt.”
There was, however, someone else who could have made that claim, and it was neither von Sternberg nor a DP. It was a woman named Dorothy Ponedel, a Chicago native who had gone to Hollywood and originally worked as an extra and in bit parts before becoming one of the first female makeup artists (if not the first) at a major studio. After she did a virtuoso fix for Nancy Carroll’s makeup on the set of 1930’s Follow Thru, Ponedel had become much in demand at Paramount, a fact that was deeply resented by the other makeup artists on the lot—all male—according to her niece, Meredith Ponedel, who with Danny Miller cowrote Dorothy’s memoir of her career, About Face. Ponedel refused to share her methods with the boys—“Why should I, the way they were treating me?”—which in turn got her labeled as uncollegial. Von Sternberg cared nothing for such matters as long as Dietrich had the air of mystery he wanted on film.
Given Dietrich’s classically beautiful features, where disguising flaws was not an issue, Ponedel went to town. “I did things around the eye, changed her hairline, and made a full, lush mouth,” she recalled to her niece. “I added a subtle white line down the center of the nose which brought the nose up in case it had any inkling of being flat. I shaded the face when I wanted to get that hollow look.”
It was, said Ponedel, “a good hour’s work.” Meredith Ponedel says Dorothy was known “for using a lot of powder,” almost sculpting with it to get the right effect, then applying rouge and other color on top of the powder with her fingers. Ponedel took meticulous care in working out how lighting would affect makeup, studying art books late into the night to look at the play of light on portraits by Vermeer and Rembrandt. This kind of self-teaching was also, said her niece, a function of necessity. Ponedel couldn’t get information from the fraternity of Hollywood makeup artists.
She was particularly loved by female stars, who trusted her completely, an important quality for the makeup artist, who will know instantly if you have pimples, if you’re hungover, if you have a bruise. Dietrich, for her part, liked to spend time in the dressing room sitting “in the nude, chewing on tuberoses,” recalled Ponedel, which certainly implies that they had few secrets from each other. The star insisted on having her Dot for every movie and helped the artist obtain a contract, which Paramount had been reluctant to offer.
By the time Dietrich’s run with von Sternberg was coming to a close, with The Devil Is a Woman, Ponedel’s work had come a long way from Amy Jolly. Dietrich always said this was her favorite film because she looked so beautiful in it, but it is beauty that wants you to know how arduous it was to achieve. After Dietrich plucked out her eyebrows, seeking a more striking look, Ponedel drew the wings that soar over the actress’s eyes. It was Ponedel who applied the tarantula fringe of false eyelashes and painted on the lipstick “so thick,” recalled Maria Riva, “cigarettes glued fast in the guck.” In the end, Ponedel helped achieve a kind of perfect artificiality for Concha Perez, the idea of Woman as she existed only in the minds of Dietrich and von Sternberg. Ponedel would carry on her work with stars including Mae West, Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck, and Judy Garland, and she and Dietrich remained friends. The look she crafted for Dietrich across these six films remains instantly recognizable to this day.
The image of Dietrich as a feminine impossible, as dangerous as she is desirable, also depended heavily on the clothes that framed her, and those came from the mind of Travis Banton. He was a native of Texas who cultivated a Savile Row style of dress, always impeccably turned out in the manner of a British gentleman. Banton was one of the most gifted fashion designers ever to work at a Hollywood studio. His masterpieces during his run at Paramount included the bias-cut evening gown that drapes Lombard in To Be or Not to Be (1942) and the lavishly ahistorical “Egyptian” wardrobe for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 Cleopatra, as well as the hourglass creations that helped West wiggle into the public imagination. Sadly, his career as a costumer was reportedly shortened by drinking that gradually worsened into alcoholism. (Riva recalled his nose, crisscrossed with red veins like W. C. Fields’s, but she said she never saw him drink, much less get drunk.)
With Dietrich, Banton worked on every look in every film, sometimes with fittings that lasted past midnight, the workdays so long that they had standing food-delivery orders and the fitters and assistants had rotating schedules. His creations are remembered for their extravagance, but some of them work via simplicity, too, such as the tuxedo that caused a sensation in Morocco. It is very much a man’s tuxedo, with pleated pants and a tailcoat that skims the figure without revealing all that much of it, giving an unexpected setting to Dietrich’s strikingly feminine looks. For Dishonored, when we meet X-27 as a streetwalker, the dress resembles a bathrobe, an ill-fitting velvet thing trimmed in mangy rabbit. Its rattiness emphasizes X-27’s haughty confidence; she’s too good for this outfit and everything else about her current station in life.
When it was time for Banton to pull out the stops, the results were astonishing. Take Dietrich’s costume for the (in)famous “Hot Voodoo” number in Blonde Venus. It’s like a bathing suit that has somehow sprouted feathers around the hips, Amazon-ish sequins that resemble breast armor on the front, and fur on the shoulders. For The Scarlet Empress, Banton devised a costume that became a personal favorite of Dietrich’s: the shape is that of an eighteenth-century court gown, but the decorations and cut of the top are fashioned like a Cossack uniform, and the whole is trimmed in mink. Indeed, The Scarlet Empress is a furrier’s dream, perhaps literally. Adolph Zukor, the founder of Paramount, had started out in the fur trade, and legend has it that his desire to help out the industry during the Depression is why the studio’s thirties films are awash in enough fur to keep all of Moscow warm for a decade. And no one appreciated the shimmer and texture of fur more than Banton.
Birds, too, were sacrificed in great numbers. Perhaps Banton’s most famous costume for these films is the one in which we meet Shanghai Lily in Shanghai Express. Having worked their way through box after box of feathers, Banton and Dietrich settled on shimmering black coq, which he used as lavish trim on the neck and arms of the dress. It forms a jagged frame for that extraordinary face, topped by a cloche hat with a diagonal veil that would probably have blinded Lily had she tried to wear it extensively in real life. That hat, however, apparently wasn’t the work of Banton or Dietrich, though they claimed it was. According to Baxter, the hat was, “like Dietrich’s veiled cloche in Morocco . . . the uncredited work of John Harburger, who, as ‘John Frederics,’ ‘John P. John,’ or ‘Mr. John,’ provided hats for numerous Hollywood films, as well as privately for their stars.”
The question of who should get credit for what in these films becomes more vexed than ever when we come to the matter of screenwriters. Von Sternberg always made large contributions and thereafter disliked admitting that he’d used other writers at all. One of Baxter’s personal encounters with von Sternberg illustrates the difficulty.
“Jules Furthman,” I said, guiding the conversation back to films. “You worked with him more than any other person.”
This was an understatement. From The Drag Net in 1928 to Jet Pilot in 1957, his name appeared on almost every von Sternberg film, though in so many forms—credited with writing the screenplay, adaptation, or original story, or even as producer—that their relationship eluded definition.
“I wondered,” I went on, “what was your working method?”
“We had no method,” von Sternberg said. “I simply told him what I wanted done, and he did it.”
This was hardly what you’d call informative. Baxter responded tentatively, “Um . . . well . . . when you say you ‘told Furthman what to do’ . . .” And here indeed is the heart of the matter. You could tell any number of writers to come up with a screenplay about revolutionaries holding up a train in thirties China, but unless you give those instructions to Jules Furthman, you are highly unlikely to get Shanghai Express.
Furthman had spent years making a Hollywood living mostly as a journeyman screenwriter before he met von Sternberg and did some uncredited cowriting on Underworld for the director in 1927. “A friend whom I trained to become a prominent screenwriter” is how von Sternberg put it. We don’t know whether Furthman would have put it the same way, but their mutual regard was genuine and lasted throughout their careers. Furthman was an art lover and voracious reader who could lift a plot device from a classic novel and furnish it with dialogue that audiences would remember long after exiting the theater. It was almost undoubtedly Furthman who crafted the most enduring line in Shanghai Express: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” Furthman’s fingerprints are also all over the acid response of Hui Fei to an invitation from the jabbering Mrs. Haggerty: “l must confess, l don’t quite know the standard of respectability that you demand in your boardinghouse, Mrs. Haggerty.”
The writing of Blonde Venus offers a few more hints of the
process. The original idea seems to have been Dietrich’s, then she and von Sternberg developed it, and the task of writing the screenplay to specifications was given to S. K. “Sam” Lauren, a Broadway playwright turned studio writer. Lauren didn’t like von Sternberg, and said, “When he gave me the plot, I thought, ‘This guy’s crazy.’” Von Sternberg gave each of Lauren’s drafts to Furthman for further work; Lauren didn’t like him either. (In fairness, few people did; Furthman’s grouchiness was legendary.) It was not a congenial process. Lauren recalled being summoned to von Sternberg’s office, “about three times the size of Hitler’s.” The director swept the unbound script pages onto the floor and proclaimed, “We choose to overlook the presumption that this screenplay has ever been written.” All this was before the censors got hold of the script and those extensive negotiations began.
Yet, after all that work and all that mutual antipathy, Blonde Venus’s script turned out to be knotty in the plot but delightful in the dialogue. Many zingers have the mark of Furthman, such as when Dietrich’s character is introduced to a club performer called Taxi Belle Hooper (Rita La Roy) and asks silkily, “Do you charge for the first mile?” That conversational spark went out of von Sternberg’s last two movies with Dietrich, on which he apparently didn’t collaborate with Furthman. Instead, for The Scarlet Empress, Manuel Komroff adapted Catherine the Great’s diaries, and von Sternberg’s production secretary, Eleanor McGeary, worked on revisions. Von Sternberg thought so little of written dialogue that he demanded that script be rendered without punctuation, so the actors would be forced to rely on their director’s line readings. Only the persuasive powers of the young Joseph L. Mankiewicz convinced von Sternberg to give standard English scripts to his flummoxed crew members. John Dos Passos has the screen credit for The Devil Is a Woman, but Baxter casts substantial doubt on whether the novelist had anything to do with the final product, as Dos Passos had been flattened by an attack of rheumatic fever. The final screenplay was mostly the work of Sam Winston, David Hertz, and Oran Schee, along with von Sternberg himself. The result of this piecemeal approach: The Scarlet Empress and The Devil Is a Woman are ravishing, but there is nothing remotely as amusing as the exchange that occurs in Morocco when Gary Cooper’s legionnaire spies a photo of Amy Jolly in a sable coat: “That coat’s worth a loada shekels. Ya still got it?” “Don’t be absurd. If I still had that coat, I wouldn’t be here.”
Furthman, for his part, would go on to spend years working with Howard Hawks on some of that director’s sharpest films, but Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy notes how little we know about Furthman or his methods: he “was the author of nothing outside of his screenplays, gave no interviews, left no papers, and thus remains one of the great enigmas of Hollywood.”
But to dig into Hollywood history reveals many such enigmas. Some of von Sternberg’s collaborators are obscured by time, but the movies they helped him make are among the most sensuous, witty, and beautiful in the American cinema. They deserve to have the lights come up on them, too.