Divine "Salvation:" Josef von Sternberg's "The Salvation Hunters" is a brilliant rediscovery playing the Pacific Film Archive. (Photo courtesy PFA)

Josef von Sternberg Gem

Dennis Harvey August 12, 2009

Josef von Sternberg is remembered today as bringing "Continental" sophistication, sensuousness and aesthetic refinement to an industry that ultimately found him a bit too rarefied for its tastes. Of course he also brought a protégé, Marlene Dietrich, whom he made a star in The Blue Angel and directed in six more features of escalating ornateness and decreasing commercial success—movies that, when first giddily discovered, can turn a film enthusiastic into a fanatic.

The official story, crafted by publicists and maintained by the subjects themselves for decades, goes that an aristocratic Austrian artiste plucked his Galatea from total obscurity. He unleashed such sultry sexuality that Paramount begged both to export their exotic selves across the Atlantic.

The truth was a little different. Dietrich had already carved out a decent enough career on the German stage and screen, much as she preferred to claim being summoned forth like Venus on the clamshell. And he wasn’t exactly the New World émigré steeped in Old World blueblood privilege, but a poor Orthodox Jewish scion who’d spent childhood days in Queens. After a stint back in Vienna, he returned to work for a New York City film company and the U.S. Army Signal Corps before moving to Hollywood—for the first time—in 1924, at age 30.

Was it plain "Joe Sternberg" then? It certainly wasn’t "von"—a producer’s idea, back when the studios routinely upscaled name talent.

The occasion for that three-letter promotion was one of the most remarkable directorial debuts in film history, as much circumstantially as artistically. You’ll get a rare chance to see it this Sunday as part of the Pacific Film Archive’s series "Secrets Beyond the Door: Treasures from the UCLA Festival of Preservation." It’s called The Salvation Hunters, and just might be the first "independent" feature—admittedly, a flexible term—ever made in Hollywood.

Sternberg, who’d already worked on other people’s films, was dying to make a name for himself. He found a like mind in young British actor George K. Arthur, who wanted to star in and produce a vehicle that would re-launch his already peaked/crashed career. Arthur had $5,000—and Sternberg had a script.

The Salvation Hunters
caused a small sensation within the industry. Charlie Chaplin (who cast female lead Georgia Hale as his co-star in The Gold Rush) called it one of the greatest films ever made. United Artists, the company Chaplin founded with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, picked it up for distribution. Nearly everyone involved was—at least briefly—welcomed into High Hollywood hierarchy. It was the Sex, Lies and Videotape of 1925.

First, the bad news: The Salvation Hunters starts out drenched in another era’s wet notion of morally upstanding "art." "Dedicated to the derelicts of the Earth," it introduces metaphorically named protagonists living in the depressing, trash-strewn environ of San Pedro Harbor. Horribly pretentious, verbose intertitles tell us what to think between every freaking shot.

The good news: Von Sternberg’s visual assurance (plus the curiosity of seeing an unvarnished Los Angeles of so long ago) carries us through even that dross, and things rapidly improve. The Boy (Arthur), a jobless "failure," coaxes pretty but bitterly disillusioned Girl (Hale) and orphaned tyke The Child (Bruce Guerin) into leaving this cruel milieu. The makeshift family wanders into the city, where some slickers offer them shelter, if not food—hoping hunger will induce her to join prior recruits in practicing the world’s oldest profession. It almost does. But she demurs, prompting a driving daytrip to the country—Boy, Child and already-corrupted Woman (Nellie Bly Baker) in tow—curiosity designed to wear down her resistance.

The Salvation Hunters
gets looser, funnier, and less predictable as it goes along. (Even if those florid intertitles do return for a parting gush or five.) The performances are very good—especially disarming is the rapport between Arthur and Guerin, a wonderful child actor.

There’s more playful warmth here than you’d expect from the potentially maudlin, melodramatic story or von Sternberg’s sardonically witty later efforts. While on one hand a remarkable time capsule of urban poverty and landscapes (plus long-since-developed L.A. "country" ones) of another era, on another, Hunters feels utterly undated, as fresh as whatever you saw last weekend.

It’s a wonderful rediscovery. You’ve got to muse upon what alternative career Josef von Sternberg might have mapped out had its immediate success panned out. Because it didn’t, quite: He actually directed three subsequent features for major studios, fired from the first two when executives disliked his work. The third was shelved by a producer (Chaplin!) who thought it too sophisticated for audiences, though those few who saw preview screenings called it dazzling. All three original features are now lost.

He finally finished a released film with Underworld, which won 1929’s first-ever Best Original Screenplay Oscar (for Ben Hecht). Several other significant Paramount successes followed in a hurry. But von Sternberg’s real heyday didn’t arrive until he flew to Germany to direct Emil Jannings and Dietrich in Der blaue Engel for UFA, then hastily did an English-language remake for Paramount.

He directed almost nothing save Dietrich vehicles until 1935, when those had been run into the box-office ground—by his extreme fetishization of her as glamazon centerpiece in wildly stylized objets d’art, delightful as they may seem now. But while she soon flourished with a new, more self-kidding image (via Destry Strikes Again), he struggled to find a foothold in the industry. 1937’s Roman spectacle I, Claudius is one of the most famous and lamented unfinished movies in history, its funding collapsed mid-shoot.

He did uncredited work on several other features, wrestling with producer Howard Hughes on a boring couple more. But his underemployed genius only flared on two more fully realized pictures, marvelous 1941 camp intrigue The Shanghai Gesture and the entirely studio-artifice-bound (von Sternberg was disappointed they used actual running water; he preferred lighting/stage effects) 1953 Japanese production Anatahan.

He died in 1969, knowing he was adulated by academics—but where does that get us? There’s any number of unmade Josef von Sternberg movies one could fantasize about. Some are extravagant rave-ups of star-vehicle glamour and excess, a la Blonde Venus and The Scarlet Empress. Some reflect the more plainly, emotionally, socially grounded truths of lesser-remembered Salvation Hunters.

Von Sternberg may well be just as much a tragedy as Orson Welles in terms of thwarted promise—though he certainly complained about it less. Forget Welles: Josef von Sternberg just might be the biggest "What if" in Hollywood history.