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Von Sternberg

John Baxter

Publication Year: 2010

Belligerent and evasive, Josef von Sternberg chose to ignore his illegitimate birth in Austria, deprived New York childhood, abusive father, and lack of education. The director who strutted onto the set in a turban, riding breeches, or a silk robe embraced his new persona as a world traveller, collected modern art, drove a Rolls Royce, and earned three times as much as the president. Von Sternberg traces the choices that carried the unique director from poverty in Vienna to power in Hollywood, including his eventual ostracism in Japan. Historian John Baxter reveals an artist few people knew: the aesthete who transformed Marlene Dietrich into an international star whose ambivalent sexuality and contradictory allure on-screen reflected an off-screen romance with the director. In his classic films The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930), and Blonde Venus (1932), von Sternberg showcased his trademark visual style and revolutionary representations of sexuality. Drawing on firsthand conversations with von Sternberg and his son, Von Sternberg breaks past the classic Hollywood caricature to demystify and humanize this legendary director.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Screen Classics

Front Cover

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Series Page

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Title Page

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Copyright page

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Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that all was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible...

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The Man Who Asked for Onions

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pp. 1-4

“ONIONS?” The waiter stared at the man who’d made this request. We were in the Emerald Room of the Australia Hotel, the most prestigious hotel in Sydney, if not the most modern. Six meters above our heads dangled a huge Italian chandelier. In every direction, tables covered in linen, ironed glossy...

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pp. 5-9

EVEN IF WE KNEW nothing about Josef von Sternberg, an unhappy childhood could be inferred from his films. Fathers, if they appear at all, are tyrants. Mothers sacrifice everything for their children, who repay them with petulance or indifference. His men both fear and welcome the lash of contempt that their women wield, and women alone...

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Love and Other Distractions

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pp. 10-14

YOUNG JONAS LOOKED FORWARD to weekends at the Prater all the more because of the ordeal of his weekdays. He hated the yeshiva, which, beginning at age six, he was forced to attend after regular classes to learn Hebrew. He particularly resented the teacher, a “bearded monster” named Antcherl...

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An Artist's Life

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pp. 15-18

VON STERNBERG’S LIFE IN Vienna ended in 1908 when Moses, who became a U.S. citizen in 1906, decided that the family should rejoin him in the United States. He’d found steady work in the clothing business. His naturalization application lists his profession as “furrier,” and the 1910 census as “lace worker.” To signify...

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The World, the Flesh, and William A. Brady

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pp. 19-25

UNTIL THE MID-1920S, the East Coast film industry, particularly the studios in Astoria, Queens, and Fort Lee, New Jersey, rivaled that of the West. Most cinemas were in the large eastern cities, and in addition to providing a pool of actors, artists, and technicians, New York housed been born in New Orleans. As well as monopolizing the supply of ...

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In Uniform

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pp. 26-31

IN APRIL 1917 THE United States entered the European war. As Hollywood whipped up hatred of the Hun in its films, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and other stars toured the nation, selling bonds. In July Congress ordered the Army Signal Corps to obtain photographs and create a comprehensive pictorial history...

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Over There

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pp. 32-34

BY THE TIME THE war ended with the armistice of November 1918, von Sternberg had left the Army War College and was attached to the Medical Corps in Washington, D.C. He wasn’t demobilized until 1919, and then only after William Brady intervened. He found the film industry much changed. In 1916 Brady had forced Lewis Selznick out...

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Out There

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pp. 35-39

FOR MORE THAN FORTY years, French director Robert Florey served as an unofficial consul to Europeans visiting Hollywood. He and von Sternberg became friendly when the latter, close to his thirtieth birthday, made a second stab at California. This time he lodged in a bungalow near the corner of Vine Street and Hollywood Boulevard—only two blocks, he later noted wryly, from where a star sunk in the pavement...

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Photographing a Thought

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pp. 40-46

SO LOW WAS VON STERNBERG’S opinion of the man who helped him make his first feature that he doesn’t even mention his name in Fun in a Chinese Laundry. Instead, he simply calls the man “Kipps,” after his best-known acting role. Five years his junior, Arthur George Brest, a brash Scot who preferred to be billed as “George K. Arthur,” was a man...

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A Genuine Genius

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pp. 47-54

WITH UNITED ARTISTS BACKING it, The Salvation Hunters looked like the salvation of everyone involved. Georgia Hale became Chaplin’s mistress, then his leading lady in The Gold Rush. George Arthur won some acting roles, including in a couple of von Sternberg films, and he later became a successful producer of short features, but...

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Three Sheets to the Wind

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pp. 55-60

VON STERNBERG’S ACCOUNT OF the next episode in his career was laconic. “During a period when I was confronted with failure,” he wrote, “[Charles Chaplin] asked me to direct a film for him. This was quite a distinction, as he had never honoured another director in this fashion, but it only resulted...

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The Ascent of Paramount

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pp. 61-66

OF A WOMAN OF THE SEA, von Sternberg wrote that it “nearly ended” his career. Offers of directing work dried up. Following the double debacle of the aborted MGM contract and the shelved Chaplin project, nobody would trust him with a film of his own. On July 6, 1926, Riza Royce...

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The City of Dreadful Night

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pp. 67-74

ONCE THE 1920 VOLSTEAD Act made it illegal to sell alcohol in the United States, criminals amalgamated into gangs to manufacture, smuggle, and distribute liquor. By 1927 they effectively ruled many cities, particularly Chicago, thumbing their noses at the forces of law and order—which, Ben Hecht wrote, “did not advance on the villains...

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A Great Man

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pp. 75-83

UNTIL UNDERWORLD WAS RELEASED, von Sternberg remained, as far as Paramount was concerned, a negligible talent, fit only for standard studio products. In June, Variety announced that he would replace Dorothy Arzner as director of The Glory Girl, with Esther Ralston. Once...

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Came the Dawn

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pp. 84-93

GIVEN THE SUCCESS OF Underworld, it appears astonishing that when von Sternberg sailed for Germany in 1929 to make The Blue Angel, Hollywood regarded his career as almost over. Although his many clashes with management contributed, his fall was mostly due to the impact of talking pictures. Sound swept through Hollywood like a plague...

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The Lady with the Legs

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pp. 94-108

TO MAKE A SOUND film in Berlin in 1929 was anything but simple. Though Germany pioneered sound recording, as it had photography, and companies such as Tobis-Klang film controlled major patents, others were held by the U.S. General Electric Company, which forbade the use of its technology in German theaters. Not until June 1929 did a ...

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Falling in Love Again

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pp. 109-121

ON OCTOBER 29, 1929, the U.S. stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. By December, Nazi Party membership swelled to 178,000. If von Sternberg or Dietrich noticed, neither said so. Something more important was taking place. One was falling in love, and the other was letting him. Although...

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The Woman All Women Want to See

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pp. 122-133

DIETRICH’S ARRIVAL IN NEW YORK had elements of farce. She later retailed the story to Leo Lerman in a tone of just-between-us-girls fausse naivete...

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pp. 134-141

IN PUTTING DOWN ROOTS in California, von Sternberg was an exception among emigrant film makers. Many who had arrived before sound were now being shed as their accents proved a liability. Others, like Jannings and Pommer, saw better prospects of success in Europe than in a Hollywood struggling with the Depression. Among those who departed was Alexander Korda. He had pursued...

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Talk Like a Train

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pp. 142-151

HAD VON STERNBERG MADE only Shanghai Express, his position in the pantheon of film makers would be secure. Few films of any era are so integrated in d

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Come Early, Stay Late

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p. 152-152

WITH SHANGHAI EXPRESS COMPLETED and Riza’s lawsuits no longer news, von Sternberg proposed filming Émile Zola’s novel Nana, about a failed actress turned courtesan in Second Empire France, but Samuel Goldwyn had beaten him to it with a version starring the latest answer to Garbo—Russian actress Anna Sten. Paramount...

Photo Section

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resumption of Come Early, Stay Late

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pp. 153-166

...transfer of power to incoming studio boss Emmanuel “Manny” Cohen, formerly head of its newsreel division. The duo’s next film, Blonde Venus, began as an outline variously called “East River,” “Song of Manhattan,” and “Velvet.” The last title seemed the most promising and survived the longest, but von Sternberg’s reading of Nana may have reminded him that, in her brief stage ...

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Russian Dolls

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pp. 167-172

VON STERNBERG’S IMPENDING departure left Paramount in a quandary, since Dietrich’s contract ran until February 20, 1933. With little hope of success, Manny Cohen suggested that while both sides considered their options, Dietrich might complete another film with a new director. To his surprise, both she and von Sternberg agreed...

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Moscow Rules

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pp. 173-181

IN EVERY CATEGORY, HIS next film took von Sternberg into uncharted territory. It was set in the eighteenth century—something he had never attempted. It was also based on a historical character, Catherine II, empress of Russia from 1729 to 1796. It took place in a country he had never visited. And at a time when the best Hollywood “A” film...

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The End of the Affair

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pp. 182-192

ONCE IT WAS FURNISHED to his satisfaction, von Sternberg invited Marlene, Maria, and Rudy Sieber to visit the Neutra house. With the German market now barred to all films with Jewish artists, Paramount closed its Joinville dubbing facility. Sieber moved permanently to the United States—though not, Marlene explained, with any thought of...

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Cardboard Continental

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pp. 193-200

WITH TIME ON HIS hands, von Sternberg took refuge in art, organizing an exhibition of his collection at the Los Angeles County Museum. Urged by Preston Harrison, a prominent collector and donor, the museum devoted most of its wall space in June and July to forty-three oils, fifty-five watercolors and drawings, and thirty-five sculptures. Along with works...

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Far Cathay

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pp. 201-204

VON STERNBERG REPUDIATED The King Steps Out. It became the only film he specifically requested be omitted from any retrospective. The Columbia experience, with its contrasts to the prodigality of Paramount, shook him. In an effort to regain his confidence, he developed some projects to be produced independently. Perhaps inspired...

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The Claudius Trap

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pp. 205-219

PLENTY OF OLD FRIENDS from Berlin had taken refuge from Hitler in London, and they brought grapes to von Sternberg’s bedside and commiserated. Even Marlene Dietrich was there, juggling lovers while playing a fugitive Russian grand duchess in Knight Without Armour for Alexander Korda. Since von Sternberg had seen...

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Family Ties

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pp. 220-225

EVEN THOUGH THE DEVIL Is a Woman effectively terminated von Sternberg’s career as a filmmaker of the first rank, it inaugurated the growth of his legend. Of the personalities with whom he was most often compared during the 1920s and 1930s, Murnau had died in a 1931 car accident. Pabst refused to risk his reputation on the international...

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The War at Home

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pp. 226-336

WITH WAR NOW DECLARED, an estimated 25,000 Europeans flooded into American show business, but they found closed doors everywhere. “Not yet at the alarming stage,” noted the New York Times, “Hollywood’s refugee problem is nevertheless giving some concern to certain people here.” Newcomers could expect invitations...

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pp. 237-240

ON JULY 29, 1943, von Sternberg married Jeanne Annette McBride, his twenty-one-year-old secretary/nurse. It’s difficult to imagine who he might have married if not her. No man was less inclined to date, and throughout his life he maintained a distance from women that was at best courtly, at worst icily polite. The ceremony took place at the North ...

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The Seven Bad Years

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pp. 241-249

TO BE A FLUNKY, even for a director of Vidor’s stature, must have crushed what remained of von Sternberg’s old spirit. With no work in sight, he began writing an original screenplay called “The Seven Bad Years.” Based on his own childhood, it dealt, in his words, “with man’s fixation on an infantile level, and its purpose was to demonstrate the...

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Because I Am a Poet

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pp. 250-256

ON JUNE 13, 1944, bombers sank three small Japanese cargo ships moored near the tiny Pacific island of Anatahan in the Marianas, 100 kilometers north of Saipan. Thirty-three of the crew swam ashore. In February 1945 a U.S. Navy party sent to retrieve the bodies from a crashed B-29 discovered what remained of the group. It included an ...

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The Lion Is Loose

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pp. 257-262

ALTHOUGH EDITING ON Jet Pilot concluded on February 8, 1950, the film sat on the shelf until 1955, when General Teleradio bought RKO, primarily for its film library. The same year, CinemaScope arrived and permanently altered the form of the epic film, and Anthony Mann’s...

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"Why Have I Not Been Given a Woman?"

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pp. 263-269

INCREASINGLY ILL WITH THE heart complaint that would kill him, von Sternberg made an exhausting trip to Australia in 1967 as a guest of the Sydney Film Festival. Of all the exotic corners of the world he had visited, few were more alien. Preoccupied with sport, Australians regarded more sophisticated cultures with suspicion...

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pp. 270-271

FROM THE MOMENT I met Josef von Sternberg in 1966, I knew I would one day write his biography—no easy task, as it turned out. Not only were scholarly resources severely limited, but in those days of various new waves, von Sternberg himself was regarded by most as hopelessly dated. Fortunately...


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pp. 272-285


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pp. 287-295


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pp. 297-300


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pp. 301-310

E-ISBN-13: 9780813126036
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813126012

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Screen Classics