Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. John Ford and John Wayne.
There have been any number of great director-actor pairings throughout movie history. But none of these cinematic love affairs (such as they were) can hold a candle to the union of Josef Von Sternberg and fellow émigré Marlene Dietrich.
Dietrich and Von Sternberg’s incomparable six-year, seven-film stint making movies together resulted in some of the most opulently over-the-top melodramas in Hollywood history.
Their movies together are a “best of both worlds” proposition. They have all the visual poetry and Jazz Age abandon of the best 1920s silent films, as well as Von Sternberg’s eye for vertiginous set design.
And at the same time, they boast one of the first undeniably distinctive voices to grace the silver screen — nearly every Eurotrash movie that’s ever come out in the wake of Morocco, Shanghai Express and The Scarlet Empress owes some small debt to Dietrich’s, um, unique delivery.
Though Von Sternberg had three wives over the course of his life (not simultaneously), Dietrich was not one of them. Without meaning to cast any serious aspersions on the personal lives of either, one comes away from these films wondering if the one didn’t inform the other.
At the very least, Von Sternberg clearly poured so much of himself into these collaborations with Dietrich that it feels like you’re watching the consummation of their marriage, from 1930’s The Blue Angel, which set the tone with its tale of the ultimate temptress, all the way through 1935’s The Devil is a Woman, the title of which screams “postnuptial.”
The Trylon Microcinema in Minneapolis is presenting all of their movies together this month, and I can think of no more perfect way to treat your Valentine than to sit down together, watch Dietrich slip off her gorilla costume, don a blonde Afro wig and proceed into a disinterested rendition of “Hot Voodoo.”
At the very least, see the wedding sequence from Scarlet Empress with the one you love. If they’re still by your side after witnessing Von Sternberg’s hellish depiction of wedding bells and gauze, you’re probably in it for the long haul.