Josef von Sternberg and The Docks of New York

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Some thoughts about Josef von Sternberg, silent films and Betty Compson, inspired by The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound and Colour.

Josef von Sternberg’s name is inextricably linked to Marlene Dietrich’s, but before there was Dietrich (and indeed, The Blue Angel) there were nine von Sternberg-directed pictures. Many of them have now been lost, and the four that remain were, and are still, overshadowed by the director’s later works. Apparently The Docks of New York (1928) premiered the same week as Al Jolson’s The Singing Fool, and von Sternberg’s offering was lost under the fanfare that the first all-talking picture attracted. In fact, 1928 was a difficult year for silent films, it was the ‘end of the era’ but also the apex – other silent releases included Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman and Chaplin’s The Circus.

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Almost all of the action in The Docks of New York is centred around a dockside saloon and the adjoining hotel, and the action takes place over two days. The plot isn’t complicated – a stoker (Bill Robert, played by George Bancroft) arrives in port, with the aim of spending his one-night stay in the closest bar. A young woman (Mae, played by Betty Compton) attempts suicide by jumping into the river, Bill dives in and rescues her, takes her to the hotel and steals some clothes for her to wear – and then invites her out for a ‘good night’ at the bar next door. That same evening they are spontaneously married, although he still plans to return to sea the following day. Although happy, the ending is slightly clumsy.

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As a silent film director, von Sternberg valued the beauty of image over plausibility and plot and introduced a variety of visual methods to highlight ‘sound’ in silent. When Bill’s ship is docking, a powerful shot of the anchor and chain dropping into the sea signifies the power and size of the ship, Mae’s suicide is only depicted in the ocean’s reflection; the audience is never really sure why she chose that place and moment to commit the act. Despite the abstraction, these images are much more real and grounded than the techniques Borzage employs in Street Angel, and there’s a greater emphasis on the everyday. The audience is invited to feel the heat of the furnaces on the ship, to dislike the mean drunks that populate the saloon. This is not a place where happiness and romance dwells; this is a cold, cynical and dispassionate world where love (and marriage) isn’t taken seriously.

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The hotel is seedy and squalid. Through the window, seagulls roost – a reminder of the location but also a nod to the desperation that pervades their lives. After the wedding, Bill and Mae surprise both the audience and themselves with a display of tenderness. In a gentlemanly gesture, he puts his coat about her shoulders, and she plays with the scarf that’s wound round his neck – a moment of short-lived happiness, but in a impassive world it’s a moment of compassion that takes on a greater meaning within the context of the film.

The film ends with a track back shot, a technique von Sternberg also used when introducing the bar. This allows the audience to see the whole ‘picture’ and asks them to make their own judgements based on all that they can see. It’s an understated and accepting way to introduce (or conclude) a scene, and one that’s used to great effect in The Docks of New York.  The audience is left to question the final scene – as other ‘criminals’ are bought into the courtroom for sentencing they are asked to question the validity of Bill and Mae’s romance. Will it last? Do we believe in it? This ending wasn’t well received at the time of release; Photoplay claimed it was ‘inartistic’ and ‘added as a sop to the box office’; perhaps it’s a touch contemporary audiences are more willing to overlook.

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Further reading: The Docks of New York: On the Waterfront by Luc Sante

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