Friday 5 November 2021

On Josef von Sternberg's THE LAST COMMAND (USA, 1928) - An entry from David Stratton's new book MY FAVOURITE MOVIES:FROM A CENTURY OF FILMS AND THE WORLD'S BEST DIRECTORS

Editor’s Note: What follows is one of the one hundred and eleven entries in David Stratton’s new book “My Favourite Movies: From a Century of  Films and the World’s Best Directors” 

Here’s the publisher's blurb for the book

Australia's best-loved film critic shares the movies which are his personal favourites of all time, as well as titbits and insights from the leading directors and actors he has met over half a century.

Wondering what to watch next? Discover a new movie or a new director among David Stratton's personal favourites!

These are the movies Australia's best-loved film critic, David Stratton, has watched again and again. There are dramas, comedies, thrillers, musicals, westerns and arthouse classics from a century of filmmaking. From Casablanca to The Big SleepOn the Waterfront  to Lorenzo's Oil, and Jaws to Animal Kingdom, here are hundreds of hours of great entertainment. 

Each movie is reviewed, with details and behind-the-scenes stories that will enhance your experience of movies you have seen before. David has met many of the directors and actors, and he includes anecdotes and memories you won't find anywhere else. 

Keep David Stratton's My Favourite Movies on your coffee table, and you'll find yourself dipping into it time and time again.

Author bio:

David Stratton AM is an award-winning film critic, film historian and lecturer, television personality and producer. He has served as President of the International Critics Jury for the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals, and was for 28 years co-host with Margaret Pomeranz of SBS's The Movie Show and ABC's At the Movies. A former critic for international film industry magazine Variety, he currently writes for The Australian. He is author of four books on film, The Last New WaveThe Avocado Plantation and 101 Marvellous Movies You May Have Missed, and a memoir I Peed on Fellini.

A perfect Christmas gift. To buy David’s new book from Booktopia JUST CLICK HERE




The Last Command (U.S.A., 1928)

Paramount.  Director: Josef von Sternberg.  88 mins.

First seen: Union Theatre (University of Sydney), August 26, 1967


‘Hollywood 1928! The Magic Empire of the Twentieth Century.’ These opening titles – written by Herman J. Mankiewicz who, 13 years later, would be the co-author of Citizen Kane– introduce Leo Andreyev (William Powell), a Russian director preparing a film about the Russian Revolution.  A photograph of an extra who is willing accept payment of only $7.50 per day catches his eye; his assistant says the man claims to be the cousin of the late Czar.  

William Powell, Emil Jannings, The Last Command

Former Grand Duke Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings) is living in a squalid boarding house and eagerly goes to the Eureka Studio next day, joining a large crowd of potential extras (‘The Bread Line of Hollywood’).  As he dons costume and makeup, and pins on himself a medal the Czar himself had given him, Alexander remembers the year 1917 when he was Commanding General of the Russian Armies.  He orders the arrest of two civilians: one is Andreyev, “Director of the Kief [sic] Imperial Theatre”, and the other Natacha Dabrova (Evelyn Brent), an actress; both are supporters of the imminent Revolution.  Andreyev escapes from custody, but Natacha stays to (presumably) become Alexander’s mistress. 


At the outset of the Revolution she helps him escape and shortly afterwards dies when the train in which she’s travelling crashes into an icy river.  In the present, Andreyev prepares a scene in which Alexander hits a dissident soldier with a riding crop (just as Alexander had hit Andreyev ten years earlier).  With the Russian National Anthem playing and the camera rolling, Alexander gives his last command: “Forward to Victory.  Long live Russia”.

Evelyn Brent, Emil Jannings, The Last Command

The Last Command is a showcase for the great Swiss-born German actor Emil Jannings, who specialised in roles in which he was humiliated, usually by a younger woman.  He had worked for the best German directors, Ernst Lubitsch and F.W. Murnau, and his role as a loyal hotel doorman demoted to the squalid role of washroom attendant in Murnau’s Der Letzte Mann– mis-translated in English as The Last Laugh(1923) - had made him world-famous.  


He arrived in Hollywood a star; The Last Command was the second film he made there and he would subsequently work again with Josef von Sternberg on Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930), one of the first talkies produced in Germany, in which Jannings’ character suffers humiliation from a dazzlingly youthful Marlene Dietrich.  Jannings’ role as the Russian aristocrat reduced to working as a Hollywood extra is one of his most powerful; he is a brutal but charismatic leader of men in the Russian scenes, and a pathetic shadow of a man, given to uncontrollable shaking, in the Hollywood scenes.


The screenplay expects the viewer to believe that Evelyn Brent’s revolutionary falls in love with this character, who represents the opposite to everything she stands for, which is frankly a big ask; but Sternberg just about gets away with the contrivance (such narrative improbabilities were more acceptable in the cinema of the silent era).  


With its impressive sets, and boasting Bert Glennon’s fluid photography, The Last Command looks wonderful, and it also offers intriguing insights into “the Mecca of the World” (as one title describes Hollywood) in the dying days of the silent era.


Emil Jannings (and medal),
The Last Command

At this time the writing of inter-titles was a specialised task and was rarely given to the official screenwriter, who in this case was John F. Goodrich (working from a story by Lajos Biro).  Mankiewicz’s titles are suffused with dark irony (“She [Natacha] is pretty enough to merit my personal attention”, Alexander remarks when warned she is “the most dangerous revolutionist [sic] in Russia”.  Later, when he presents her with a pearl necklace, one of his men – eavesdropping – remarks that “That sort of thing should always be done after caviar.”  These are the pearls Natacha returns to Alexander to help finance his escape from Russia just before she is killed.  


Mankiewicz is disdainful of the Bolsheviks: a scene of men and women engaged in plotting is described as “A group of obscure people meet[ing] to decide the fate of Russia.”  The film’s ending foreshadows the resolution of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, made thirty years later.  “He was a great actor,” says the Assistant Director (Jack Ramond) as Alexander dies. “He was a great man” responds Andreyev – an unlikely line, perhaps, but in the context a satisfying one.


Josef von Sternberg

Josef von Sternberg (real name, Jonas Sternberg) (1894-1969) was born in Vienna and came to America with his family when he was seven years old.  His first film, The Salvation Hunters (1925) was a semi-experimental feature made entirely outside the studio system.  It was well-liked by influential people but Sternberg, who had a reputation of being difficult to work with, had major problems on his next two pictures, The Exquisite Sinner(1925), which he made at MGM and which was taken away from him and completely re-shot, and The Seagull, aka A Woman of the Sea(1926), which was a drama produced by Charles Chaplin as a vehicle for his long-time leading lady Edna Purviance.  Chaplin, it seems, disliked the film and shelved it; it has never been seen publicly.  


Despite these setbacks, Sternberg persevered and signed a contract with Paramount where, in 1927, he scored his first big success with Underworld, one of the earliest gangster pictures.  This was followed by The Last Command, The Drag Net (1928), another lost film, The Docks of New York(also 1928), and The Case of Lena Smith(1929), of which only fragments survive.  The Blue Angelwas so successful that Sternberg was able to bring its star, Dietrich, back to Paramount where together they made a delirious series of stunningly photographed melodramas: Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931),Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus (both 1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934) and The Devil is a Woman (1935).  His post-Dietrich period had its ups and downs, especially when he was unable to complete a prestige Alexander Korda production, I Claudius, in England in 1936.  The final film he completed was The Saga of Anatahan (1953), which he made on a sound stage in Tokyo (though Jet Pilot, which he started filming in 1949 for producer Howard Hughes, was finally released in 1957).  Sternberg was an innovative director and an unparalleled visual artist whose films repay repeated viewing.

The young unbearded David Stratton (l) with Josef
von Sternberg & Dugmore Merry (SFF President)
at the Sydney Film Festival, 1967

In 1967 I invited Sternberg to attend the Sydney Film Festival.  When he first arrived he certainly lived up to his advance reputation and proved to be a demanding guest, but during his stay we became friends and were on first name terms by the time he left after a two-week visit.  We remained in touch and I visited his home in Los Angeles in December, 1969.  He delighted in showing me some of his memorabilia (a letter from Sergei Eisenstein, photographs taken on the set of Duel in the Sun) and he took me to dinner at a Japanese restaurant before driving me back to my hotel in his ancient Jaguar.  Eighteen days later he died of heart failure.    

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