Sunday, May 29, 2016

Born Today May 29: Josef von Sternberg


1894-1969

Born Jonas Sternberg in Vienna, then Austria-Hungary (now just Austria) to a Jewish family whose father was a former soldier in the army.  When he was just two years of age, his father left for the United States in search of work; when Jonas was 7, the entire family joined him in the U.S., only to have to migrate back to Vienna 3 years later.  Still little Jonas had gotten his first taste of the place that would shape the rest of his life.  Four years later, when Jonas was 14, the whole family again set out for the U.S., settling in New York City.  He later dropped out of high school to work as an errand boy for the lace factory where his father had found work as a lacer.  He moved on to a cleaning job in a film factory that lead to work in film repair.  By 1915 he was working for the World Film Company under William A. Bradley in Fort Lee, NJ (the first "Hollywood").  The company had a cache of French directors and cinematographers; Sternberg was mentored by one of them:  Émile Chautard.  In 1919, Chautard hired Sternberg as an assistant director on The Mystery Of The Yellow Room, after founding his own production company: Emile Chautard Pictures Corp. (though, this film is considered by some film historians as being the first independent film).  Thus comes his first actual credit.  He would continue as assistant director until 1925.  In 1924, his first writing credit came in By Divine Right, a film for which he was also assistant director to director Roy William Neill.  It was in the credits for this film that Co-producer (and actor) Elliott Dexter added noble "von" to Sternberg's name, supposedly to even up the titles; Sternberg did not object (this also appears to around the time that he changed his first name).  In 1925 he took to the director's chair for the first time; directing his own project The Salvation Hunters, which he also wrote and produced.  The film was shot in Los Angeles Harbor.  Charlie Chaplin saw the film and was impressed enough to urge both Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to acquire the rights to the film.  Pickford, suitably impressed with Sternberg, then hired him to direct a film starring her (he wrote a scenario for it, which she rejected). In the meantime, he shadow directed The Masked Bride (1925), a Chester Conklin film, that sports an early appearance by Basil Rathbone.  Chaplin then commissioned Sternberg to direct a film starring his current lover Edna Purviance, after Sternberg had been fired from a previous directing job.  A Woman of the Sea (1927) (AKA The Sea Gull) has since become one the most infamous lost films in history.  In fact, it was never really properly released; Chaplin simply destroyed the film--no known copies where made (note:  in 2008, still photographs from the film did surface and were published, giving temporary hope that a copy had been made).  Starting in 1927, however, he began to get some commercial success, starting Underworld, a gangster film starring George Bancroft. He went to work for Paramount in the late 1920's and directed several late silent films during that time that are considered classics of the era.  They include:  The Docks Of New York (1928), considered a very early film noir, and Thunderbolt (1929), a film with an alternative mono sound version provided by Western Electric.  Both films starred Bancroft.  Thus ended Sternberg's career in silent films, and almost ended his tenure in the directors chair.  His career hit a serious slump after the making of Thunderbolt, so he accepted a invitation to work in Berlin. This is where his film making legend began to take shape.  He cast a little known German actress by the name of Marlene Dietrich and things turned around for him.  He would go on to contribute to the careers of other legendary actresses, including:  Rita Hayworth and Carole Lombard.  His film making slowed considerably during the 1940's and he only made 3 film in the 1950's; with his very last being Ana-ta-han in 1953; made in Japan about Japanese soldiers who refused to believe that the war with the U.S. was over; he had written, directed and produced it--the film had a limited release and was a financial failure.  The last film by year that he is credited with comes in 1957 with Jet Pilot, a film he was hired for by it's producer Howard Hughes, starring John Wayne; but the film was shot a full seven years before it release.  Between the years 1959 and 1963 he taught film aesthetics at UCLA. Two of his students, Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison, would go on to their own fame the band The Doors.  Before his death, Sternberg was able to pen an autobiography.  He died in Hollywood of a heart attack at the age of 75 on 22 December 1969.  He is interred at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.





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