This is my first go with von Sternberg and Emil Jennings too. And my first look at Dietrich in the 30s. Previously, I had seen her only when she was older in some films from the late 50s. I’ve got a few more films on my lists with her in them; I look forward to seeing more of her.
What’s interesting about her in this film is that she isn’t astonishingly beautiful. She has a pretty face and a nice pair of legs, but what really makes her so appealing is her lack of inhibition. She flaunts herself as though she doesn’t give a shit. She could be naked the whole picture and still strut around with maximum confidence. Most of the film she is in her underwear or exposing her legs and she does it all like a natural. She has a liberated sexual presence that I’m sure made her insanely desirable to film audiences all over at the time.
Jennings has a great face, I agree. Definitely the face of a silent film actor. He’s splendid in the role of Rath, especially near the end when performing on stage as the cock turned cuckold or when lurking around backstage after going mad. I don’t know if he performed in any horror films at the time, but he certainly had the face for ‘em.
I’d also agree that the set-up for the film is pretty preposterous though it seems to work. It plays like a fantasy turned nightmare, which isn’t a bad thing at all. There’s no way Dietrich would be interested in Jennings unless her character makes a habit of seducing and devouring men without a thought. This is probably the case, as her first moves when meeting him are to undress and drop her underwear on his head. The uptight Rath becomes a desiring animal for her after that. This initial meeting is almost like Hawk’s Ball of Fire. The stuffy professor meets the sexually unrestrained performer and gets a taste for a whole new side of life. But obviously this plays out much differently as the professor lowers himself considerably and the “performer” doesn’t really have a heart of gold.
I like the clown in the first half of the film too. A presage for Rath’s eventual degradation and his future role. It’s a nice touch.
Does anyone else think this plays like a silent film? You can tell that von Sternberg was just making his transition into using sound. The dialogue isn’t that great or even that necessary (though it is helpful); most of the film is communicated through its images and visual performances. Dietrich's singing is really when the sound is needed the most.