Josef von Sternberg

Active - 1925 - 1969  |   Born - May 29, 1894 in Vienna, Austria  |   Died - Dec 22, 1969 in Hollywood, CA  |   Genres - Drama, Romance

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Born in Vienna, director Joseph von Sternberg spent much of his youth in New York; his entrée into show business was as a film repairer for the World Film Company of Fort Lee, NJ. After returning to Austria to complete his education, he joined the U.S. Signal Corps as a photographer in 1917, then took assistant director jobs after the end of World War I. It was either actor Elliot Dexter or an anonymous producer who suggested that Sternberg would go farther in the industry if he affixed a "von" to his last name, à la Erich von Stroheim. Von Sternberg went whole hog in creating a "genius" veneer, adopting a strutting, imperious attitude, dressing in regulation beret and puttees, and even growing an obnoxious little mustache so he would be certain to be hated and feared. This posturing tended to obscure his genuine cinematic gifts, especially in the field of photographic lighting and composition (at one point, he was the only director permitted to carry an American Society of Cinematographers union card). After a few false starts, Von Sternberg directed the independently produced The Salvation Hunters (1925), a somewhat ham-handed exercise in symbolism that received wide distribution after it was praised by Charlie Chaplin. When the film began losing money, Chaplin backed away from his praise, claiming he'd championed the film just to see how much clout his recommendation would have; be that as it may, Von Sternberg's next assignment was the Chaplin-produced Woman of the Sea (1926), which for reasons that remain obscure was never released. In 1927, Von Sternberg moved to Paramount, where he directed the misty, moody gangster drama Underworld. Much to Paramount's surprise, the film was a huge hit, proving that Von Sternberg could combine artistry and expressionism with bankability. The director made several more atmospheric crime dramas for Paramount, the best of which was Docks of New York (1928); he also directed the still-powerful The Last Command (1927), which told the semi-true story of a once-proud Russian military officer who after the Revolution was reduced to a Hollywood extra. Though brilliant photographically, Von Sternberg's films were somewhat wanting in story values (some of his plot lines were flat-out illogical), but audiences overwhelmed by their visual excellence didn't seem to mind. Only when talking pictures arrived did Von Sternberg's shortcomings as a storyteller become obvious. By this time, however, Von Sternberg was riding high on the strength of his German-made The Blue Angel (1929), which made a star out of Marlene Dietrich. For the next six years, the Dietrich/Von Sternberg combination (which many insiders likened to Svengali/Trilby) proved a winning ticket, resulting in such delectable slices of exotica as Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932). But who, wondered Hollywood, was truly responsible for the popularity of these films, Von Sternberg or Dietrich? Since Dietrich went on to star just as successfully for other directors, the consensus was that Von Sternberg was not so brilliant after all, and that many of his camera innovations of the 1920s had descended into mere trickery by the 1930s. British film critic John Grierson summed up the industry's attitude toward Von Sternberg in 1932 when he wrote, "When a director dies, he becomes a photographer." While this opinion seems insufferably snobbish (and uninformed) today, the fact remains that directors were held in much higher esteem than mere photographers in the early 1930s. Dropped by Paramount, Von Sternberg still managed to find work, especially among such admirers as Peter Lorre, who requested that the director helm Lorre's 1935 version of Crime and Punishment. In 1937, Von Sternberg headed to London to direct producer Alexander Korda's I Claudius, which thanks to a series of unforeseen and devastating disasters was never completed. Some observers unfairly held Von Sternberg responsible for this debacle, and as a result his days as an A-list director were over. Except for a few scattered highlights like 1942's The Shanghai Gesture, the rest of Von Sternberg's Hollywood output was disheartening, and he found himself more often than not replaced by other directors in mid-production. During World War II, Von Sternberg made an interesting non-theatrical film titled The Town for the Office of War Information; he also taught at U.S.C. and handled some of the second-unit work on Selznick's Duel in the Sun (1946). His last Hollywood work, for RKO mogul Howard Hughes, was distinguished only by its banality. Von Sternberg's final film, produced in Japan, was the bizarre AnaTaHan (1953), which reflected the director's lifelong fascination in all things Oriental. Though inactive professionally for the last 13 years of his life, Von Sternberg lived in wealthy retirement, occasionally emerging to be honored at international film festivals. Among his many industry awards were the Eastman House Medal of Honor and an honorary membership in Berlin's Academy der Kunste. Joseph von Sternberg was the author of several books, including his perversely inaccurate autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry (1965); ever the control freak, Von Sternberg would seldom let one of his books be published unless he had personally selected the type font and designed the dust jacket.

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