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.
“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.”
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