Josef Von Sternberg


Director
Josef Von Sternberg

About

Also Known As
Jonas Sternberg, Jo Sternberg
Birth Place
Austria
Born
May 29, 1894
Died
December 22, 1969
Cause of Death
Heart Attack

Biography

Once considered one of Hollywood's premier directors during the 1930s, Josef von Sternberg was mainly remembered for his seven films with German actress Marlene Dietrich. But his main contributions were actually to the language of film, particularly his handling of lighting and mise-en-scene. Von Sternberg was first and foremost a master cinematographer whose expressionistic use of light...

Photos & Videos

Dishonored - Behind-the-Scenes Photo
Shanghai Express - Lobby Cards
The Scarlett Empress - Lobby Cards

Family & Companions

Riza Royce
Wife
Married in 1926; divorced in 1930.
Jeanne Annette MacBride
Wife
Secretary. Married in 1943; was 21 at time of marriage; worked as Von Sternberg's secretary; had two children together.

Bibliography

"The Cinema of Josef Von Sternberg"
J Baxter (1971)
"Fun in a Chinese Laundry"
Josef Von Sternberg (1965)
"Sternberg"
Peter Baxter

Notes

"No theory of the cinema is viable unless it considers Josef von Sternberg one of its major talents" --John Baxter in "Hollywood in the Thirties"

"I am Marlene and Marlene is me" --Josef von Sternberg

Biography

Once considered one of Hollywood's premier directors during the 1930s, Josef von Sternberg was mainly remembered for his seven films with German actress Marlene Dietrich. But his main contributions were actually to the language of film, particularly his handling of lighting and mise-en-scene. Von Sternberg was first and foremost a master cinematographer whose expressionistic use of light and dark created stunning visuals onscreen that took on a life of their own. He made his mark as a director during the silent era with "The Salvation Hunters" (1925), "Underworld" (1927) and "The Last Command" (1928). Following the failure of "Thunderbolt" (1929), von Sternberg went back to Germany and cast the then-unknown Marlene Dietrich in "The Blue Angel" (1930), which he shot concurrently in English and in his native tongue. The film turned Dietrich into an international star, and with the exotic actress as his muse, rejuvenated his Hollywood career. Von Sternberg directed Dietrich in six more films, most notably "Morocco" (1930), "Blonde Venus" (1932), "The Shanghai Express" (1932) and "The Scarlett Empress" (1934). But once "The Devil is a Woman" (1935) failed at the box office, von Sternberg's collaboration with Dietrich was over. While he directed a few more films like "Crime and Punishment" (1935) and "The Shanghai Gesture" (1941), von Sternberg's career diminished. Despite the rather quiet end to his days as a director, von Sternberg's influence and reputation as the ultimate Svengali remained consequential for generations of filmmakers.

Born on May 29, 1894 in Vienna, Austria, von Sternberg was raised by his father, Moses, a former soldier in the Austrian-Hungarian army who made his way to America was his son was three, and his mother, Serafin. In 1901, his father sent for the family after obtaining work and von Sternberg lived for a time in New York, before going back to Vienna. In 1908, he returned to the States, this time for good, and grew up on Long Island, where he worked as an apprentice at his aunt's millinery store and as a stock clerk for a lace store. After dropping out of Jamaica High School, von Sternberg found work cleaning and repairing movie prints at the World Film Company in Fort Lee, NJ, where he rose to chief assistant to the director general. He went on to help make training films for the U.S. Army Signal Corps before earning his first credit as an assistant director on "The Mystery of the Yellow Ribbon" (1919), directed by Emile Chautard. In 1923, he moved to Hollywood and was the assistant director on "By Divine Right" (1923), before marking his debut as a director on "The Salvation Hunters" (1925), a successful picture widely considered to be America's first true independent film.

After joining Paramount Pictures as an assistant director, von Sternberg returned to directing his own films, making pictures like "Exquisite Sinner" (1926), "Underworld" (1927) and "The Last Command" (1928), which starred the great German actor Emil Jannings. It was Jannings who recommended that von Sternberg return to Europe to direct the film version of Heinrich Mann's "The Blue Angel" (1930). Casting the lead role of the sexy cabaret star Lola Lola, who could drive men to the most extreme humiliations in the name of love, proved to be a challenge for von Sternberg until he met Marlene Dietrich. If ever an actress and a role were right for one another, this was it. But her screen test failed to impress those working for the director, who dismissed her as commonplace. With the cameras rolling, however, there was nothing common about Dietrich - particularly when she sang "Falling in Love Again" to a smitten Jannings - which von Sternberg recognized immediately and which prompted a multi-film collaboration that brought out the best in both actress and director. Though some would claim he would later exert too much of a Svengali-like influence over both her film roles and her personal life. Meanwhile, "Die Blaue Engel" was an international success and helped rejuvenate von Sternberg's Hollywood career, which faltered after the failure of "Thunderbolt" (1929).

The first U.S. film between von Sternberg and Dietrich was "Morocco" (1930), a bold debut that featured her as cabaret singer Amy Jolly, an independent woman who dressed as a man, locked lips with a woman and referred to her leading man (Gary Cooper) as her girlfriend. Showcasing the actress' smoldering charisma, made more striking by von Sternberg's dark-shadowed lighting that brought out her simultaneously alluring and androgynous qualities, "Morocco" was a hit for the studio, netting some $2 million in revenue. Over the next five years, director and star worked together on what may have been one of the more intriguing collaborations of the Golden Age. Each of their films was manufactured in the studio, despite being set in foreign lands. Von Sternberg, however, used light and shadow to paint visual poetry and conjure an image of a leading lady that was at once beautiful and scathing. Whether casting his actress as a spy dressed in black leather in "Dishonored" (1931) or the glamorous lady of the evening in "Shanghai Express" (1932) or Russian monarch Catherine the Great in "The Scarlett Empress" (1934), von Sternberg shaped Dietrich's ineffable allure that turned her into one of the biggest stars of her day. But with "The Devil Is a Woman" (1935), a controversial box office flop criticized for its apparent denigration of Spanish people, von Sternberg and Dietrich worked together for the last time.

During his post-Dietrich era, von Sternberg directed a handful of projects before his career went into permanent decline. He directed an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" (1935) before launching an attempt to helm "I, Claudius" in 1937, which remained unfinished due to problems with financial backers. After "Sergeant Madden" (1939), starring Wallace Beery, he directed "The Shanghai Gesture" (1941), a delightfully dark film noir of suspense and exoticism in which Gene Tierney, Ona Munson, and Victor Mature together assume the Dietrich persona in this exploration of the denizens of a lurid Shanghai gambling house. It would be another 11 years before he directed his next film, "Macao" (1952), a financial disaster that turned out to be the last he made for Hollywood. He went on to help the Japanese-made war film, "The Saga of Anatahan" (1952), a poetic study of Japanese soldiers isolated on an island at the end of WWII, which the director later cited as his favorite work. Meanwhile, he was one of several directors to work on Howard Hughes' "Jet Pilot" (1957), which starred John Wayne and took four painful years to make. In 1959, von Sternberg began teaching film courses at the University of California, Los Angeles, where two of his students turned out to be Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of The Doors. Manzarek later cited von Sternberg as the greatest influence on the band and their music. He left his post at UCLA in 1963 and died six years later on Dec. 22, 1969 of a heart attack. He was 75 years old.

Filmography

 

Director (Feature Film)

The Epic That Never Was (I, Claudius) (1965)
Director ("I, Claudius")
Jet Pilot (1957)
Director
Macao (1952)
Director
Anatahan (1952)
Director
The Shanghai Gesture (1942)
Director
I Take This Woman (1940)
Director
Sergeant Madden (1939)
Director
I, Claudius (1937)
Director
The King Steps Out (1936)
Director
Crime and Punishment (1935)
Director
The Devil Is a Woman (1935)
Director
The Scarlet Empress (1934)
Director
Shanghai Express (1932)
Director
Blonde Venus (1932)
Director
Dishonored (1931)
Director
An American Tragedy (1931)
Director
Morocco (1930)
Director
The Blue Angel (1930)
Director
Thunderbolt (1929)
Director
The Case of Lena Smith (1929)
Director
The Dragnet (1928)
Director
The Docks of New York (1928)
Director
The Last Command (1928)
Director
Underworld (1927)
Director
It (1927)
Addl Director
A Woman of the Sea (1926)
Director
The Exquisite Sinner (1926)
Director
The Masked Bride (1925)
Director
Salvation Hunters (1925)
Director
Vanity's Price (1924)
Assistant Director
The Highest Bidder (1921)
Assistant Director

Cast (Feature Film)

The Epic That Never Was (I, Claudius) (1965)
Anatahan (1952)
Narration

Cinematography (Feature Film)

Anatahan (1952)
Cinematographer
The King Steps Out (1936)
Photography
The Devil Is a Woman (1935)
Photography

Writer (Feature Film)

Anatahan (1952)
Screenwriter
The Shanghai Gesture (1942)
Adaptation
Dishonored (1931)
Story
The Street of Sin (1928)
Story
The Exquisite Sinner (1926)
Adaptation
A Woman of the Sea (1926)
Writer
Salvation Hunters (1925)
Scen
Salvation Hunters (1925)
Story
By Divine Right (1924)
Scen

Producer (Feature Film)

The Scarlet Empress (1934)
Producer
Blonde Venus (1932)
Producer
An American Tragedy (1931)
Producer

Film Production - Main (Feature Film)

Duel in the Sun (1947)
Visual consultant

Production Companies (Feature Film)

The Devil Is a Woman (1935)
Company

Misc. Crew (Feature Film)

Undivided Attention (1987)
Other
Link (1986)
Other
Marlene (1984)
Other

Cast (Short)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1925 Studio Tour (1925)
Himself

Life Events

1901

Sent for by father who was living in the USA

1904

Returned to Vienna

1908

Moved back to USA (Long Island)

1914

Film patcher, then chief assistant to the director general, with World Film Company, Fort Lee, NJ

1917

Joined Army Signal Corps; helped make training films

1919

First credit as assistant director, "The Mystery of the Yellow Room" (dir. Emile Chautard)

1923

Moved to Hollywood; first work as assistant director on "By Divine Right"

1924

Added "von" to name at suggestion of actor Elliot Dexter while working as scenarist and assistant on "By Divine Right"

1925

Directorial debut, "The Salvation Hunters"

1926

Joined Paramount as assistant director

1930

Moved to Germany, directed UFA's first sound film, "The Blue Angel" (first of seven films with Marlene Dietrich)

1937

Went to England to work for Alexander Korda on "I Claudius"

1941

Filmed documentary "The Town" for US Office of War Information

1947

Taught class in film directing at USC

1953

Last film shot in Jjapan, "The Saga of Anatahan"

1959

Taught course on the aethetics of film at UCLA

Photo Collections

Dishonored - Behind-the-Scenes Photo
Dishonored - Behind-the-Scenes Photo
Shanghai Express - Lobby Cards
Here are a few Lobby Cards from Paramount's Shanghai Express (1932), starring Marlene Dietrich. Lobby Cards were 11" x 14" posters that came in sets of 8. As the name implies, they were most often displayed in movie theater lobbies, to advertise current or coming attractions.
The Scarlett Empress - Lobby Cards
Here are several Lobby Cards from Paramount's The Scarlett Empress (1934), starring Marlene Dietrich. Lobby Cards were 11" x 14" posters that came in sets of 8. As the name implies, they were most often displayed in movie theater lobbies, to advertise current or coming attractions.

Videos

Movie Clip

An American Tragedy (1931) — (Movie Clip) We’ll Have To Be More Careful We’ve just learned that his near-forgotten employee-girlfriend is pregnant, as Clyde (Phillips Holmes), the poor-relation climber hired to a modest position at his wealthy uncle’s factory, joins his decidedly smitten and bold society flame Sondra (Frances Dee) at the lake, director Josef Von Sternberg working at Lake Arrowhead, San Bernardino National Forest, in the first feature from the Theodore Dreiser novel, An American Tragedy, 1931.
Blue Angel, The (1930) - Professor Rath Director Josef von Sternberg with his crazy clock, leading to students, rightly intimidated by Professor Rath (Emil Jannings), just introduced in The Blue Angel, 1930.
Devil Is A Woman, The (1936) - Where Are All The Pretty Girls? First appearance of Marlene Dietrich (as "Concha"), stalked by masked Antonio (Cesar Romero) at a Spanish carnival, early in director Josef von Sternberg's The Devil Is A Woman, 1936.
Devil Is A Woman, The (1936) - You Lie So Well Blustery policeman Pasqual (Lionel Atwill) attempts to buy Concha (Marlene Dietrich) out of her night club gig, then blows up when he catches her with bull-fighter Morenito (Don Alvarado), in Josef von Sternberg's The Devil Is A Woman, 1936.
Devil Is A Woman, The (1936) - Better Take Two Spanish policeman and spurned lover Pasqual (Lionel Atwill) recounts to Antonio (Cesar Romero) his second meeting with Concha (Marlene Dietrich), at work in a cigarette factory, in Josef von Sternberg's The Devil Is A Woman, 1936.
Scarlet Empress, The (1934) - About Your Beauty Director Josef von Sternberg consumes expensive sets and costumes as Marlene Dietrich (as Princess Sophia, who will become Catherine The Great) joins her Prussian father (C. Aubrey Smith) and his court meeting John Lodge as the commanding Count Alexei, emissary of her Russian fiancè, The Scarlet Empress, 1934.
Scarlet Empress, The (1934) - If You Come Any Closer I'll Scream Ever outlandish from director Josef von Sternberg, Princes Sophia (Marlene Dietrich), the future Catherine The Great, kicked out of a royal business conference, bumps into her lustful protector Count Alexei (John Lodge) in a barn, in The Scarlet Empress, 1934.
Blue Angel, The (1930) - Feast Your Eyes On Me The first appearance of Marlene Dietrich as "Lola Lola," as Professor Rath (Emil Jannings) seeks her out at the club where she's been corrupting his students, directed by Josef von Sternberg's, at UFA in Berlin, The Blue Angel, 1930.
Blonde Venus (1932) - Hot Voodoo Director Josef von Sternberg has not caused his audience to expect his star Marlene Dietrich (as Helen, back in showbiz to support her ailing husband and son) to appear in a gorilla suit, but playboy Nick (Cary Grant) in her audience, likes it, her first number in Blonde Venus, 1932.
Blonde Venus (1932) - I Wish I Was Someone Else Learning that her ailing husband (Herbert Marshall) is returning healthy from Europe, Helen (Marlene Dietrich) agonizes with her sugar-daddy turned honest boyfriend Nick (Cary Grant), who financed everything, in Josef von Sternberg's Blonde Venus, 1932.
Scarlet Empress, The (1934) - To Become The Bride... Medieval imaginings of Russia from director Josef von Sternberg, in the mind of young Princess Sophia, who will appear on a giant flowery swing as grown-up Marlene Dietrich, the title character, who will become Catherine The Great, summoned by her parents (C. Aubrey Smith, Olive Tell) in The Scarlet Empress, 1934.
Scarlet Empress, The (1934) - Open, A Little Princess Credits and opening from Josef von Sternberg's 1934 Marlene Dietrich vehicle The Scarlet Empress, with Dietrich's daughter, Maria Sieber (billed as Maria Riva) as the young Catherine the Great, C. Aubrey Smith and Olive Tell her Prussian parents, Jane Darwell and Clyde David as servants.

Trailer

Family

Moses Sternberg
Father
Orthodox Jew; left for US when Von Sternberg was three; sent for family in 1901.
Serafin Sternberg
Mother
Nicholas Von Sternberg
Son
Director of photography. Mother, Jeanne Annette MacBride.

Companions

Riza Royce
Wife
Married in 1926; divorced in 1930.
Jeanne Annette MacBride
Wife
Secretary. Married in 1943; was 21 at time of marriage; worked as Von Sternberg's secretary; had two children together.

Bibliography

"The Cinema of Josef Von Sternberg"
J Baxter (1971)
"Fun in a Chinese Laundry"
Josef Von Sternberg (1965)
"Sternberg"
Peter Baxter

Notes

"No theory of the cinema is viable unless it considers Josef von Sternberg one of its major talents" --John Baxter in "Hollywood in the Thirties"

"I am Marlene and Marlene is me" --Josef von Sternberg

He received the George Eastman House Medal of Honor in 1957.

Made honorary member of the Akademie der Kunste, Berlin in 1960.