The Last Command


1h 31m 1928
The Last Command

Brief Synopsis

A former Imperial Russian general and cousin of the Czar ends up in Hollywood as an extra in a movie directed by a former revolutionary.

Photos & Videos

Film Details

Also Known As
The General
Genre
Romance
Drama
Historical
War
Silent
Adaptation
Release Date
Jan 21, 1928
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Paramount Famous Lasky Corp.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 31m
Sound
Silent
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.33 : 1
Film Length
8,154ft (9 reels)

Synopsis

Sergius Alexander, a former Russian general, now an extra in Hollywood, is discovered by Leo Andreiev, a onetime revolutionary leader now respectably established as a movie director, and is assigned to play the part of a Russian general. He is a decrepit old man, hardly able to withstand the wolfish competition of the other movie extras. A flashback to imperial Russia just before the Revolution shows the former general in his full glory as head of the Russian Army and the director as a revolutionary agitator. The general strikes Andreiev with his whip and falls in love with Natascha, a spy, but is beaten by the mob and rendered palsied and distraught as he watches the train carrying Natascha plunge into a river. Now Andreiev orders Sergius Alexander to reenact the scene of a Russian general facing his troops in revolt. For a few moments he tries to hold them in line, but the emotional strain is fatal, and he collapses, dying.

Photo Collections

The Last Command - Emil Jannings Publicity Stills
The Last Command - Emil Jannings Publicity Stills

Film Details

Also Known As
The General
Genre
Romance
Drama
Historical
War
Silent
Adaptation
Release Date
Jan 21, 1928
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Paramount Famous Lasky Corp.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 31m
Sound
Silent
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.33 : 1
Film Length
8,154ft (9 reels)

Award Wins

Best Actor

1929
Emil Jannings

Award Nominations

Best Writing, Screenplay

1929

Articles

The Last Command (1928) -


Josef von Sternberg is best remembered for his seven-film partnership with Marlene Dietrich, which stretched from The Blue Angel in 1930 to The Devil Is a Woman in 1935. But the director's two-film collaboration with Emil Jannings was also pivotal to the acclaim he enjoyed in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the only period when his career really thrived. Sternberg's first picture with Jannings was The Last Command (1928), and his success in working with the temperamental star was what prompted the invitation to direct him again in The Blue Angel for Germany's renowned UFA studio. The latter film's lasting fame has overshadowed Sternberg's earlier achievements, but his Hollywood films of the silent era--most notably The Last Command, Underworld (1927), and The Docks of New York (1928) - are much too entertaining to be forgotten.

The Last Command is distinguished on many counts. Jannings's performance in it (and in another picture, Victor Fleming's 1927 drama The Way of All Flesh) brought him the very first Academy Award for Best Actor - although the canine star Rin Tin Tin received more votes for the honor, only to be disqualified by Academy officials (who valued dignity over arithmetic) for not being human. The Last Command also earned screenwriter Lajos Biró the Academy Award for Best Original Story. Prizes aside, The Last Command is a splendid instance of Hollywood dealing directly with its own nature and practices, and dealing indirectly with Old World cultural legacies that helped shape the American film industry.

Jannings plays Sergius Alexander, a former Russian aristocrat whose glory days came crashing down in 1917 along with the czarist government. After a narrow escape from the Bolsheviks he made his way to America and ended up in Los Angeles, where he scrapes by as a studio extra, making $7.50 a day when he's working. The story begins when Russian-American movie director Lev Andreyev (William Powell, sophisticated as always) sees Sergius's photo in a casting file and chooses the melancholy old man to play a Russian general in a historical drama he's about to shoot.

But more is going on than meets the eye. In the kind of uproarious coincidence you only find in movies, Lev has recognized Sergius from bygone times. Back in the day, it turns out, Lev was a young firebrand in the revolutionary struggle and Sergius was an imperial bully who took pleasure in toying with his foes, one of whom was Lev, who's still angry after all these years. Preparing for his role in the dressing room, Sergius gazes into a makeup mirror and sees himself in a czarist getup like the one he used to wear. At this point another actor complains about a nervous tic Sergius has, and Sergius explains that the twitch - a constant shaking of the head -is the result of an awful shock he once experienced.

A long flashback then ensues. We see Sergius flaunting his imperial power, beating and jailing the revolutionary Lev, and falling in love with Lev's beautiful companion, Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent), who's known to insiders as "the most dangerous revolutionist" of them all. Natalie reciprocates Sergius's love, and when Bolsheviks attack him during a train journey she helps him get away. But she dies in a crash moments later, leaving him lost and alone in a frozen, hostile land. And now we return to modern-day Hollywood, where Lev is maneuvering Sergius into playing a bogus version of his former self, thus taking revenge for the indignities he suffered at the arrogant general's hands.

In the powerful conclusion of The Last Command, feeble old Sergius performs his bit part in Lev's movie, rallying disheartened troops and responding to an upstart's defiant taunt - "You've given your last command!" - with the same furious blow he inflicted on Lev so many years ago. And then he succumbs completely to madness; forgetting that he's only acting in a film, he hallucinates a fierce battle with antagonists on every side. This extraordinary scene takes place on a studio soundstage that Sternberg endows with a stylized, almost abstract design; it's less an actual place than a movie set of the mind, thronged with phantom revolutionaries from the old actor's delirious brain. In an abrupt (and unconvincing) turnaround when old Sergius breathes his last, Lev finally softens to the old man, declaring that he was not merely a great actor but "a great man" as well.

According to a 1929 newspaper report, the story of The Last Command was inspired by an encounter between filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch, who had directed Jannings in several pictures going back to 1917, and an erstwhile Russian general he had known years earlier, now hiring himself out as a movie extra for $7.50 a day. The Last Command may itself have influenced Billy Wilder's classic Sunset Blvd. (1950), in which Erich von Stroheim-whose name encouraged the young Josef Sternberg to add a "von" to his moniker in the middle 1920s-plays a once-celebrated filmmaker reduced to serving as butler and gofer for a faded Hollywood star.

Jannings was a towering star when he teamed with Sternberg - even today his performances for F.W. Murnau in The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926) are celebrated and studied everywhere - and although the actor was difficult to handle, Sternberg generally brought out his most expressive qualities. His most fully realized scenes as Sergius almost reach the heights he scaled as the love-wracked professor of The Blue Angel, although in both pictures he pours on a bit too much suffering-soul sauce for my taste.

Soon after his Sternberg films, Jannings's career was undermined in Hollywood by the arrival of talkies, which didn't take kindly to his heavy German accent; and back in Germany he acted prominently in Nazi propaganda films, which doomed his prospects in the postwar years. Sternberg's career declined for different reasons, including the fact that he was too obsessive an artist to flourish in Tinseltown over the long haul. In all his finest films, he concerned himself less with niceties of acting than with nuances of light, shadow, and décor, and The Last Command deserves high praise in those departments, especially during its climax on Sergius's delusional battlefield. Look beyond the film's anguish and occasional bathos, moreover, and you'll see a sharp-eyed satire of Hollywood politics, crafted by a director whose creative personality contained more than a trace of mischief.

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Producers: Jesse L. Lasky, Adolph Zukor
Screenplay: Lajos Biró, story; John F. Goodrich, writer; Herman J. Mankiewicz, titles
Cinematographer: Bert Glennon
Film Editing: William Shea
Art Direction: Hans Dreier
With: Emil Jannings (Sergius Alexander), Evelyn Brent (Natalie Dabrova), William Powell (Lev Andreyev), Jack Raymond (Assistant Director), Nicholas Soussanin (Adjutant), Michael Visaroff (Serge), Fritz Feld (Revolutionist)
BW-88m.

by David Sterritt
The Last Command (1928) -

The Last Command (1928) -

Josef von Sternberg is best remembered for his seven-film partnership with Marlene Dietrich, which stretched from The Blue Angel in 1930 to The Devil Is a Woman in 1935. But the director's two-film collaboration with Emil Jannings was also pivotal to the acclaim he enjoyed in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the only period when his career really thrived. Sternberg's first picture with Jannings was The Last Command (1928), and his success in working with the temperamental star was what prompted the invitation to direct him again in The Blue Angel for Germany's renowned UFA studio. The latter film's lasting fame has overshadowed Sternberg's earlier achievements, but his Hollywood films of the silent era--most notably The Last Command, Underworld (1927), and The Docks of New York (1928) - are much too entertaining to be forgotten. The Last Command is distinguished on many counts. Jannings's performance in it (and in another picture, Victor Fleming's 1927 drama The Way of All Flesh) brought him the very first Academy Award for Best Actor - although the canine star Rin Tin Tin received more votes for the honor, only to be disqualified by Academy officials (who valued dignity over arithmetic) for not being human. The Last Command also earned screenwriter Lajos Biró the Academy Award for Best Original Story. Prizes aside, The Last Command is a splendid instance of Hollywood dealing directly with its own nature and practices, and dealing indirectly with Old World cultural legacies that helped shape the American film industry. Jannings plays Sergius Alexander, a former Russian aristocrat whose glory days came crashing down in 1917 along with the czarist government. After a narrow escape from the Bolsheviks he made his way to America and ended up in Los Angeles, where he scrapes by as a studio extra, making $7.50 a day when he's working. The story begins when Russian-American movie director Lev Andreyev (William Powell, sophisticated as always) sees Sergius's photo in a casting file and chooses the melancholy old man to play a Russian general in a historical drama he's about to shoot. But more is going on than meets the eye. In the kind of uproarious coincidence you only find in movies, Lev has recognized Sergius from bygone times. Back in the day, it turns out, Lev was a young firebrand in the revolutionary struggle and Sergius was an imperial bully who took pleasure in toying with his foes, one of whom was Lev, who's still angry after all these years. Preparing for his role in the dressing room, Sergius gazes into a makeup mirror and sees himself in a czarist getup like the one he used to wear. At this point another actor complains about a nervous tic Sergius has, and Sergius explains that the twitch - a constant shaking of the head -is the result of an awful shock he once experienced. A long flashback then ensues. We see Sergius flaunting his imperial power, beating and jailing the revolutionary Lev, and falling in love with Lev's beautiful companion, Natalie Dabrova (Evelyn Brent), who's known to insiders as "the most dangerous revolutionist" of them all. Natalie reciprocates Sergius's love, and when Bolsheviks attack him during a train journey she helps him get away. But she dies in a crash moments later, leaving him lost and alone in a frozen, hostile land. And now we return to modern-day Hollywood, where Lev is maneuvering Sergius into playing a bogus version of his former self, thus taking revenge for the indignities he suffered at the arrogant general's hands. In the powerful conclusion of The Last Command, feeble old Sergius performs his bit part in Lev's movie, rallying disheartened troops and responding to an upstart's defiant taunt - "You've given your last command!" - with the same furious blow he inflicted on Lev so many years ago. And then he succumbs completely to madness; forgetting that he's only acting in a film, he hallucinates a fierce battle with antagonists on every side. This extraordinary scene takes place on a studio soundstage that Sternberg endows with a stylized, almost abstract design; it's less an actual place than a movie set of the mind, thronged with phantom revolutionaries from the old actor's delirious brain. In an abrupt (and unconvincing) turnaround when old Sergius breathes his last, Lev finally softens to the old man, declaring that he was not merely a great actor but "a great man" as well. According to a 1929 newspaper report, the story of The Last Command was inspired by an encounter between filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch, who had directed Jannings in several pictures going back to 1917, and an erstwhile Russian general he had known years earlier, now hiring himself out as a movie extra for $7.50 a day. The Last Command may itself have influenced Billy Wilder's classic Sunset Blvd. (1950), in which Erich von Stroheim-whose name encouraged the young Josef Sternberg to add a "von" to his moniker in the middle 1920s-plays a once-celebrated filmmaker reduced to serving as butler and gofer for a faded Hollywood star. Jannings was a towering star when he teamed with Sternberg - even today his performances for F.W. Murnau in The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926) are celebrated and studied everywhere - and although the actor was difficult to handle, Sternberg generally brought out his most expressive qualities. His most fully realized scenes as Sergius almost reach the heights he scaled as the love-wracked professor of The Blue Angel, although in both pictures he pours on a bit too much suffering-soul sauce for my taste. Soon after his Sternberg films, Jannings's career was undermined in Hollywood by the arrival of talkies, which didn't take kindly to his heavy German accent; and back in Germany he acted prominently in Nazi propaganda films, which doomed his prospects in the postwar years. Sternberg's career declined for different reasons, including the fact that he was too obsessive an artist to flourish in Tinseltown over the long haul. In all his finest films, he concerned himself less with niceties of acting than with nuances of light, shadow, and décor, and The Last Command deserves high praise in those departments, especially during its climax on Sergius's delusional battlefield. Look beyond the film's anguish and occasional bathos, moreover, and you'll see a sharp-eyed satire of Hollywood politics, crafted by a director whose creative personality contained more than a trace of mischief. Director: Josef von Sternberg Producers: Jesse L. Lasky, Adolph Zukor Screenplay: Lajos Biró, story; John F. Goodrich, writer; Herman J. Mankiewicz, titles Cinematographer: Bert Glennon Film Editing: William Shea Art Direction: Hans Dreier With: Emil Jannings (Sergius Alexander), Evelyn Brent (Natalie Dabrova), William Powell (Lev Andreyev), Jack Raymond (Assistant Director), Nicholas Soussanin (Adjutant), Michael Visaroff (Serge), Fritz Feld (Revolutionist) BW-88m. by David Sterritt

Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg - A New DVD Collection from Criterion


Josef von Sternberg's reputation as one of the great auteurs of classic cinema is generally focused on (but certainly not limited to) the seven magnificent melodramas he made with star Marlene Dietrich, from The Blue Angel (1930) to The Devil is a Woman (1935). This handsome three-disc collection is a reminder that Sternberg was also one of the great directors of the late silent era, a period almost unequalled in Hollywood for its consistently high level of craft and technique. Sternberg, who worked in almost every aspect of the filmmaking process before making his directorial debut in 1925 with The Salvation Hunters, was by 1927 a master of the medium and the three films in the set--Underworld (1927), The Last Command and The Docks of New York (both 1928)--show that he was as strong a storyteller as he was a creator of magnificent images in motion.

Underworld, Sternberg's third feature (not counting uncredited reshoots and re-edits of other films), has been called the first gangster film, but apart from anticipating some of the conventions taken up in films like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and especially Scarface, this proto-gangster film is far more of an atmospheric character piece than the rat-a-tat movies that blasted through the throes of the early sound era. Gangland legend Bull Weed (George Bancroft) is no mob boss but a loner who pulls off jobs solo and Rolls Royce Wensel (Clive Brook, later to reappear in Sternberg's Shanghai Express) is a one-time lawyer turned fulltime drunk who witnesses his escape from a bank robbery. It's the beginning of a beautiful friendship--Bull's confidence in this drop-out inspires Wensel (who, as he says, may be a bum but is no squealer) to clean up and dry out and Wensel returns the favor by with his unflagging loyalty, to the point that he denies his attraction to Bull's girl, the elegant jazz baby Feathers (Evelyn Brent).

Where later gangster films were largely violent rise and fall tales of a street hood with Tommy gun and a Shakespearean story arc, Sternberg transformed the story by Ben Hecht (a former Chicago newsman who filled it with references to real Chicago crime history) into a nocturnal fantasy of the urban criminal underworld, a tale of loyalty and love in a violent world. Sternberg's direction is both classical and modern, with an expressive approach to storytelling and his distinctive visual style already apparent (as in the streamers filling the screen in a party scene). But it's his direction of actors that defines the film: measured, underplayed, full of long, measured looks and half smiles that communicate trust, loyalty, disdain, suspicion and understanding, with a dynamic contrast between Bancroft and Brook that perfectly captures their character. Bancroft's Bull is a street thug who has become a big shot, guided by a code of behavior but no real social manners, and he plays it big and broad. Brook, by contrast, plays Rolls Royce with restraint and reserve, held in check at all times, his every move deliberate and measured. He bows ever so simply to offer his thanks and his respect and he just barely cracks a smile to signal his affirmation and appreciation. And then there is Evelyn Brent as Feathers, a bumped-around beauty who starts out hard and brassy and softens over the course of her story. Behind her strength and a poise is a carefully constructed show of nonchalant confidence and apathy, a thoroughly modern performance and a portrait of a woman who knows that to show emotion is to show vulnerability.

Aside from a few scenes of densely-layered textures, such as the streamers littering the tables and floors and screen in the gangster party scene, Sternberg strips detail from the imagery in most scenes in Underworld, creating a sleek, austere visual world of empty streets in the night. Not so his subsequent film The Last Command, where he was promoted to a bigger budget and a bona-fide international superstar: Emil Jannings, who had just arrived in Hollywood from his success in such German classics as The Last Laugh and Faust. Jannings channels the humiliated doorman from The Last Laugh to play a frail, broken old Russian émigré reduced to extra work in Hollywood who is hired to play a General in a Russian revolution film, which prompts a flashback to his past life as the proud and arrogant commander of the Czar's armies in 1917.

What opens as a satire of the Hollywood assembly-line process turns into a lavish and lush fantasy of Russian in the revolution, which Sternberg and his art director Hans Drier appear to have created entirely in the studio. Jannings is all aristocratic dignity and privilege as Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, his appearance as carefully sculpted as his effortlessly commanding manner, and this theatrical performance earned Jannings the first Academy Award for Best Actor. It also stands in marked contrast to the restraint, the masked glances and still stares of William Powell (as the Hollywood director who was also a revolutionary in old Russia) and Evelyn Brent (as the revolutionary agent who falls in love with Sergius), but it's more than just old school skills versus modern film acting. Sternberg uses the contrast to differentiate the sides of the battle, emphasize the class difference and create a dynamic of old Europe and new. And if the film presents the "revolutionists" in generally dismissive portraits, as either drunken mobs or scheming backroom plotters, Sternberg presents Czarist Russia as a decadent and oppressive regime out of date in the modern world.

The Docks of New York, completed at the dawn of the sound era, is the simplest, most delicately visualized and most perfect film of the set, a turn-of-the-century bowery answer to Sunrise, with a romantic idealism fighting its way out of hard-scrabble lives and resigned characters of the waterfront culture. George Bancroft is Bill, a stoker on a steamship who plans to add to his gallery of female conquests on his single night of shore leave. After he saves despondent street angel Mae (Betty Compson) from drowning, he decides to show her why life is worth living without with a single night of fun that culminates in a marriage the no one, least of all Bill, takes seriously.

This the film where Sternberg really perfected his sculpting of screen space in depth through light, shadow, scrims, smoke and fog, and his simple effects and visual touches (an image smears to a blur when a character starts to tear up, a gunshot is signaled by startled pigeons and two puffs of smoke that drift over the window) are as evocative as they are inventive. His direction of the actors is just as evocative. Bancroft is more measured and restrained than in Underworld but no less direct; his Bill is a man who acts upon his impulses with no reflection or restraint, with a compassion both genuine and short-lived. Betty Compson makes Mae yet another of Sternberg's magnificent women, a bruised romantic who has learned not to give in to her dreams, but continues to dream regardless, and under her rag doll looks is a young woman who has been kicked around, body and soul, for so long that she hasn't much hope left. She's both a resigned pessimist and the biggest optimist in the film. The Docks of New York was a box-office disappointment in its day, lost in the rush to sound in 1928, but today is revealed as a masterpiece of the late silent era, a beautiful and tender film that earns its romantic triumph.

The films look excellent for their age, somewhat scratched and scuffed at the ends of the reels but with strong images and a sharp focus that gives Sternberg's images a sense of depth. The three-disc box set presents each disc in a separate paperboard digipak and each film is offered with two scores. Robert Israel contributes dramatic scores for small combo and small orchestra, very satisfying and the closest to an "authentic" score that the set offers (the original scores no longer exist but Israel consulted cue sheets). for each film.. The Alloy Orchestra offers original compositions for Underworld (both moodier and jauntier than Israel's) and The Last Command, and Donald Sosin presents a score for piano and voice (soprano Joanna Seaton) for The Docks of New York, including an original lyric that serves as Mae's theme.

The set also features two superb original visual essays, a relatively recent form of DVD supplement that combines lecture, documentary and commentary. Janet Bergstrom's 36-minute "Underworld: How It Came to Be" chronicles Sternberg's early career and explores the way he shaped Underworld through production details and film analysis. Tag Gallagher's 35-minute "Von Sternberg till '29" explores his visual style through all three films with perceptive observations and a critical analyses that verges on poetry. Also features an archival 40-minute interview with Josef von Sternberg conducted in 1968 for Swedish television plus a 96-page booklet with essays on each film, Ben Hecht's original story for "Underworld" and an excerpt from Sternberg's autobiography.

For more information about Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker

Three Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg - A New DVD Collection from Criterion

Josef von Sternberg's reputation as one of the great auteurs of classic cinema is generally focused on (but certainly not limited to) the seven magnificent melodramas he made with star Marlene Dietrich, from The Blue Angel (1930) to The Devil is a Woman (1935). This handsome three-disc collection is a reminder that Sternberg was also one of the great directors of the late silent era, a period almost unequalled in Hollywood for its consistently high level of craft and technique. Sternberg, who worked in almost every aspect of the filmmaking process before making his directorial debut in 1925 with The Salvation Hunters, was by 1927 a master of the medium and the three films in the set--Underworld (1927), The Last Command and The Docks of New York (both 1928)--show that he was as strong a storyteller as he was a creator of magnificent images in motion. Underworld, Sternberg's third feature (not counting uncredited reshoots and re-edits of other films), has been called the first gangster film, but apart from anticipating some of the conventions taken up in films like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and especially Scarface, this proto-gangster film is far more of an atmospheric character piece than the rat-a-tat movies that blasted through the throes of the early sound era. Gangland legend Bull Weed (George Bancroft) is no mob boss but a loner who pulls off jobs solo and Rolls Royce Wensel (Clive Brook, later to reappear in Sternberg's Shanghai Express) is a one-time lawyer turned fulltime drunk who witnesses his escape from a bank robbery. It's the beginning of a beautiful friendship--Bull's confidence in this drop-out inspires Wensel (who, as he says, may be a bum but is no squealer) to clean up and dry out and Wensel returns the favor by with his unflagging loyalty, to the point that he denies his attraction to Bull's girl, the elegant jazz baby Feathers (Evelyn Brent). Where later gangster films were largely violent rise and fall tales of a street hood with Tommy gun and a Shakespearean story arc, Sternberg transformed the story by Ben Hecht (a former Chicago newsman who filled it with references to real Chicago crime history) into a nocturnal fantasy of the urban criminal underworld, a tale of loyalty and love in a violent world. Sternberg's direction is both classical and modern, with an expressive approach to storytelling and his distinctive visual style already apparent (as in the streamers filling the screen in a party scene). But it's his direction of actors that defines the film: measured, underplayed, full of long, measured looks and half smiles that communicate trust, loyalty, disdain, suspicion and understanding, with a dynamic contrast between Bancroft and Brook that perfectly captures their character. Bancroft's Bull is a street thug who has become a big shot, guided by a code of behavior but no real social manners, and he plays it big and broad. Brook, by contrast, plays Rolls Royce with restraint and reserve, held in check at all times, his every move deliberate and measured. He bows ever so simply to offer his thanks and his respect and he just barely cracks a smile to signal his affirmation and appreciation. And then there is Evelyn Brent as Feathers, a bumped-around beauty who starts out hard and brassy and softens over the course of her story. Behind her strength and a poise is a carefully constructed show of nonchalant confidence and apathy, a thoroughly modern performance and a portrait of a woman who knows that to show emotion is to show vulnerability. Aside from a few scenes of densely-layered textures, such as the streamers littering the tables and floors and screen in the gangster party scene, Sternberg strips detail from the imagery in most scenes in Underworld, creating a sleek, austere visual world of empty streets in the night. Not so his subsequent film The Last Command, where he was promoted to a bigger budget and a bona-fide international superstar: Emil Jannings, who had just arrived in Hollywood from his success in such German classics as The Last Laugh and Faust. Jannings channels the humiliated doorman from The Last Laugh to play a frail, broken old Russian émigré reduced to extra work in Hollywood who is hired to play a General in a Russian revolution film, which prompts a flashback to his past life as the proud and arrogant commander of the Czar's armies in 1917. What opens as a satire of the Hollywood assembly-line process turns into a lavish and lush fantasy of Russian in the revolution, which Sternberg and his art director Hans Drier appear to have created entirely in the studio. Jannings is all aristocratic dignity and privilege as Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, his appearance as carefully sculpted as his effortlessly commanding manner, and this theatrical performance earned Jannings the first Academy Award for Best Actor. It also stands in marked contrast to the restraint, the masked glances and still stares of William Powell (as the Hollywood director who was also a revolutionary in old Russia) and Evelyn Brent (as the revolutionary agent who falls in love with Sergius), but it's more than just old school skills versus modern film acting. Sternberg uses the contrast to differentiate the sides of the battle, emphasize the class difference and create a dynamic of old Europe and new. And if the film presents the "revolutionists" in generally dismissive portraits, as either drunken mobs or scheming backroom plotters, Sternberg presents Czarist Russia as a decadent and oppressive regime out of date in the modern world. The Docks of New York, completed at the dawn of the sound era, is the simplest, most delicately visualized and most perfect film of the set, a turn-of-the-century bowery answer to Sunrise, with a romantic idealism fighting its way out of hard-scrabble lives and resigned characters of the waterfront culture. George Bancroft is Bill, a stoker on a steamship who plans to add to his gallery of female conquests on his single night of shore leave. After he saves despondent street angel Mae (Betty Compson) from drowning, he decides to show her why life is worth living without with a single night of fun that culminates in a marriage the no one, least of all Bill, takes seriously. This the film where Sternberg really perfected his sculpting of screen space in depth through light, shadow, scrims, smoke and fog, and his simple effects and visual touches (an image smears to a blur when a character starts to tear up, a gunshot is signaled by startled pigeons and two puffs of smoke that drift over the window) are as evocative as they are inventive. His direction of the actors is just as evocative. Bancroft is more measured and restrained than in Underworld but no less direct; his Bill is a man who acts upon his impulses with no reflection or restraint, with a compassion both genuine and short-lived. Betty Compson makes Mae yet another of Sternberg's magnificent women, a bruised romantic who has learned not to give in to her dreams, but continues to dream regardless, and under her rag doll looks is a young woman who has been kicked around, body and soul, for so long that she hasn't much hope left. She's both a resigned pessimist and the biggest optimist in the film. The Docks of New York was a box-office disappointment in its day, lost in the rush to sound in 1928, but today is revealed as a masterpiece of the late silent era, a beautiful and tender film that earns its romantic triumph. The films look excellent for their age, somewhat scratched and scuffed at the ends of the reels but with strong images and a sharp focus that gives Sternberg's images a sense of depth. The three-disc box set presents each disc in a separate paperboard digipak and each film is offered with two scores. Robert Israel contributes dramatic scores for small combo and small orchestra, very satisfying and the closest to an "authentic" score that the set offers (the original scores no longer exist but Israel consulted cue sheets). for each film.. The Alloy Orchestra offers original compositions for Underworld (both moodier and jauntier than Israel's) and The Last Command, and Donald Sosin presents a score for piano and voice (soprano Joanna Seaton) for The Docks of New York, including an original lyric that serves as Mae's theme. The set also features two superb original visual essays, a relatively recent form of DVD supplement that combines lecture, documentary and commentary. Janet Bergstrom's 36-minute "Underworld: How It Came to Be" chronicles Sternberg's early career and explores the way he shaped Underworld through production details and film analysis. Tag Gallagher's 35-minute "Von Sternberg till '29" explores his visual style through all three films with perceptive observations and a critical analyses that verges on poetry. Also features an archival 40-minute interview with Josef von Sternberg conducted in 1968 for Swedish television plus a 96-page booklet with essays on each film, Ben Hecht's original story for "Underworld" and an excerpt from Sternberg's autobiography. For more information about Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg, go to TCM Shopping. by Sean Axmaker

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

The working title of this film was The General. In later interviews, director Josef von Sternberg claimed that he wrote the original scenario, basing it on an idea given to him by Ernst Lubitsch. As part of the first Academy Awards, Emil Jannings won a Best Actor Academy Award, in part for his work on this film and for his work on The Way of All Flesh (see below). Lajos Biro received a certificate of honorable mention in the Best Writing (Original Story) category.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1928

Released in United States 1928