Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Cinema of Delirium

My local art house's series of pre-Code movies came to its conclusion tonight with a showing of Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress (1934), a film released mere weeks before the production code put the clamps down on everything fun in movies. The Scarlet Empress is a kind of cinematic delirium, a film so in love with surfaces and textures that it is palpably tactile, a film so drunk on images that it overloads the screen with them. It's one of my very favorite movies. But before I get into that, I need to talk a little bit about the first part of the program. The showing began with the "Lullaby of Broadway" number from The Gold-Diggers of 1935, directed by Busby Berkley. Here's a pair of clips containing the number in question:

I'm an unabashed fan of Berkley, but I had an epiphany watching this number--in the second half of it, to be more precise--when I realized that Berkley and Leni Reifenstahl are practically the same damned filmmaker. The way Berkley uses ordered rows and choreographed movements of crowds is EXACTLY the same as what Reifenstahl did in Triumph of the Will. They even share a common predilection for Dutch tilts. Now, I realize that there's a world, if not a galaxy or a universe of difference between The Gold-Diggers of 1935 and Triumph of the Will when it comes to intent and ideology, but as cinema, they're identical.

There's also a certain cinematic delirium involved in this musical number. The way the shape of the face dissolves into a window into the city is positively surreal, and the exuberance of its portrait of city life trumps any of the "city symphony" movies I can name. And that set in the grand finale! That's a space that only exists in movies. It's the ego of the director writ large upon the screen. It's grandiosity for its own sake. It's a grand gesture. The folks who programmed this series knew what they were doing when they paired this sequence with The Scarlet Empress, because von Sternberg's film shares the same appetite for the grand gesture. Hell, there's barely a moment in the film that's NOT some variety of grand gesture. It's a hothouse flower, that's for sure.

The "Scarlet Empress" was Catherine II of Russia, Catherine the Great to posterity. Whatever the reasons for that designation, they hold no interest for Von Sternberg and his star, Marlene Dietrich. This is about her rise, from broodmare for a failing dynasty to Empress of Russia, and it has absolutely no interest in historical accuracy. At the outset, Dietrich plays Catherine as wide-eyed, but knowing. In the last act of the movie, she's ruthless and cunning. In both halves, she's sexy as hell. She's matched against the man she's married to and the man she wants. The man to whom she's wed is Peter III, an inbred imbecile who delights in petty cruelty as a prince, and large-scale cruelty as a Tsar. The man she wants is Count Alexei, the envoy sent to bring her to Moscow. The prime mover in all of this is the Empress Elizabeth, who acts the part of wicked step mother and fairy godmother all rolled into one. When she dies, Catherine has to watch her step; her husband wants her head. She has other ideas, of course.

The plot of The Scarlet Empress is pretty much potted history, though I think--think, mind you--that it's interested in Catherine II's alleged interest in, ahem, animal husbandry. One prominent scene takes place in a stable, after all, and von Sternberg makes a point of including horse whinnies during this scene. It's othering, of course; even in the context of pre-Code Hollywood, Catherine II comes across as vaguely inhuman. When the transitional title slides make reference to her as "Russia's most sinister monarch," and whatnot, it's pretty clear that it's slanting the story in an overtly sexist way. It goes this one further, too, because all through the movie, Dietrich's Catherine is dressed in hyperfeminine, outrageously ornate, even bizarre costumes, but when she seizes power in the coup d'etat at the end of the movie, she dresses in the uniform of a cossack. Like Queen Christina in the Garbo film, she's powerful because she's "manly"--she has a man's appetite for sex, a man's appetite for power, and a man's ruthlessness in the pursuit of both. Crossdressing only emphasizes this. This is kind of a theme in pre-Code movies, actually. Ruth Chatterton in Female is presented like this, too (though without the crossdressing), as is Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face. What makes The Scarlet Empress unique is that it never softens Catherine as some kind of hypocritical sop to propriety, or, rather, she goes from soft to hard instead of vice versa. The Scarlet Empress is among the most transgressive films of its time, made all the more so because it doesn't punish its central figure. Indeed, it admires her.

Cinematically, The Scarlet Empress is kind of a throwback. It's clearly more in tune with the aesthetics of silent movies than it is with early talkies, much to its benefit. It even covers vast chunks of its story with title cards. Like the most decadent of silent epics, it packs the frame with ornate decor and thousands of extras. It literally credits a cast of thousands at the beginning of the movie. But it's not just content to pack the frame with sets and extras. It packs it with images, too, sometimes multiple images in the same shot, superimposed together. It's daring with its editing techniques, too. It loves the wipe, but it uses it in creative ways. There's a sequence near the beginning of the film, in which the sorry history of violence and sadism among the royalty of Russia is detailed in a series of tableaux connected together with a series of right to left wipes. It follows on a scene where Catherine--still Sophia Frederica of Prussia--is listening to one of her servants read to her from a book about executioners. The wipes between shots, then, are the turning of pages. This isn't the only element of the movie that suggests one of Disney's animated fairy tales, but it's the most prominent. If The Scarlet Empress is a fairy tale, it's one of the dark ones, the ones that get buried in Grimm's because they're so ghastly. In the first twenty minutes of the film, we get a catalogue of perversity and violence that seems like it's a direct parody of Disney, even though the first of Disney's animated fairy tales was still three years in the future. Think of this as a preemptive strike. It's certainly a preemptive strike on the Production Code; a final thumb to the nose, if you will.

This is Marlene's movie as much as it's von Sternberg's. If it weren't obvious from their other collaborations, it's hard to miss the fact that von Sternberg LOVED Dietrich's face. One is tempted to credit von Sternberg for the look and feel of this movie, as good little auteurs are want to do, but that would diminish the contribution of Dietrich. Neither filmmaker was ever as good apart as they were together, and their collaboration is one of the great cinematic marriages. Dietrich is in total command of her persona in this movie, and that's something that's native to her, not sculpted by von Sternberg. Even amid the vast grotesqueries provided by the set department, she dominates the gaze of the camera. James Stewart, who co-starred with Dietrich in Destry Rides Again, once said that Dietrich knew everything about movies and movie acting, and you can see that mastery here, in her transformation from vacuous innocent to cunning, ruthless leader. It's all in her face, in how she manages her gaze and how she looks back at the camera, or doesn't. Von Sternberg tries to temper that image some by putting it behind gauze and lace as a kind of stylistic flourish, but that only makes it more intense. In spite of this, Dietrich is generous with the stage. Certainly, Louise Dresser seizes the role of Empress Elizabeth and milks it for every last drop, while Sam Jaffe's Peter III seems like twin brother of Dwight Frye's Renfield. John Lodge is the weak link here, assaying the Clark Gable persona to no good effect for the character, but Dietrich and von Sternberg make use of even this, as Lodge's Count Alexei becomes the object of Catherine's romantic scorn, as if she's mocking the very notion of 1930s ideals of masculinity. It's kind of awesome.

The discussion session after the movie inevitably raised the spectre of the Russian school of montage. The film is set in Russia, so some members of the audience immediately associated this film with Eisenstein. I can't say that the comparison is wrong, especially given the resemblance The Scarlet Empress bears to Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, but I think the proper frame of reference is Abel Gance. The delirium of images in this film seems like a direct descendant of Gance's Napoleon. It's a style that dies out with the coming of the production code, unfortunately, and from my vantage point eighty years later, it seems like The Scarlet Empress is the final cacophonic ululation of the silent era. Never was its like to be seen again.


Liina said...

This is a really remarkable analysis. I am only a dabbler in old movies; I know more about old timey music ;) But I really enjoy your descriptions. Totally going to see The Scarlet Empress now.

Several years ago a friend brought over the Gold Diggers of 1935 movie. We were totally pumped. Then we got stoned. After maybe 5 or 10 minutes, rather simultaneously, we were all like "DUDE this is freakin me out" haha. Too much grand gesture!!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Liina.

Yeah. Those Busby Berkley movies are a trip. Some of the kaleidoscopic arrangements of bodies are positively halucinatory.

I hope you like The Scarlet Empress. It's a fun, fun movie.

Thanks for stopping by.