Combustible Celluloid
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With: George Bancroft, Betty Compson, Olga Baclanova, Clyde Cook, Mitchell Lewis, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Guy Oliver, May Foster, Lillian Worth
Written by: Jules Furthman, based on a story by John Monk Saunders
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 76
Date: 09/16/1928

The Docks of New York (1928)

4 Stars (out of 4)

'Dock' Stars

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This masterpiece is proof that director Josef von Sternberg could find inspiration even without Marlene Dietrich. It's set among the dingiest, grungiest places imaginable, and Sternberg allows rundown, tattered, filthy objects to share the frame with his equally rundown, tattered, filthy characters.

These objects fill the corners of the frame, and sometimes the foreground, as if we viewers were planted at some corner table in some waterfront dive, peering through some netting or around a post to see the action. (The camera sometimes tracks along with the characters, and sometimes dissolves rather than cuts, all in an attempt to create a more organic, spontaneous flow.) As a result, the movie is totally grounded, and finds its art and beauty there, rather than from some other, loftier place.

A steamship stoker, Bill Roberts (George Bancroft), gets off work for some shore leave. But first we see him at work, covered in coal grime and/or grease, using a filthy rag to wipe the sweat and gunk from his skin, and lighting up a cigarette. On land, he rescues a pretty girl, Mae (gorgeous Betty Compson) from a suicide attempt and becomes fascinated with her, even stealing some new clothes for her (he was going to buy them, but the shop was closed).

They go out for a night on the town, i.e. the usual dive hangout, and after some drinking they decide on a hasty marriage. A character named "Hymn Book Harry" (Gustav von Seyffertitz) marries them with a scowl, perhaps convinced that they're heading for trouble, but unable to stop them. In the cold light of morning, things look a bit different, and the characters must make some hard decisions.

In other hands, this could have been a pretty ordinary dimestore romance, but Sternberg gives it depth and, as a result, greatness.

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