The International Writers Magazine: Film Talk
The Docks of New York (1928)
The critical and commercial success of “The Artist” proves that the art of black and white silent cinema still holds value as a kind of celluloid (to coin an antiquated, but still charming expression) Kabuki Theater, where broad acting, exaggerated reactions and mime techniques convey the progress of the story line in place of spoken dialogue.
Indeed, with all the scientific techniques at hand, story line as an element of cinema seems to have gone extinct as movie producers seek to justify obscene ticket prices and ten dollar popcorn with ever more grotesque visceral thrills. Sorry, but teams of supermen leveling whole cities and swinging aircraft carriers like baseball bats to knock asteroids out of the solar system are not my cup of baloney.
The idea of an exciting narrative executed by talented artists under the direction of a reflective and cultivated director is what appeals to me, and the new digital enhancements applied to antique prints lend them immediacy and appeal that is impossible to resist.
||A delightful case in point is “The Docks of New York”, a 1928 production directed by Josef von Sternberg about one night in a brawling, riotous waterfront saloon starring George Bancroft as Bill Roberts, a tough stoker in the furnace room of a freighter who has one night ashore before his ship is due to depart in the morning. Naturally, he heads straight for the Harpoon Bar, but on the way to the saloon he witnesses Mae (Betty Compson), a bleached-blonde hard boiled girl with round heels who, driven to the end of her wits by desperation, decides to put an end of her days by jumping into the harbor. Roberts fishes her out of the drink and carries her into the saloon, where they revive her in an upstairs room.
The sets for this movie, designed by Hans Dreier, who subsequently designed “Sunset Boulevard”, reflect a certain Teutonic nostalgie de la boue, which delights in portraying New York as a bombed-out shambles. This tendency I remarked in a much later German adaptation of Hubert J. Selby’s harrowing novelistic portrayal of life in Red Hook, entitled “Last Exit to Brooklyn”. For the Germans, the real Red Hook was not nasty enough – they made it resemble the burnt-out dregs at the bottom of a full ashtray, which was not necessary. In the cinematic “Last Exit”, the sets are revolting while the characters are so sanitized that it’s impossible to picture them as being anywhere but poolside in Beverly Hills.
“The Docks of New York” was photographed by Harold Rosson, who later filmed “The Wizard of Oz”, just to show the high class of talent involved in the project. I don’t feel I’m giving much away when I allow that the film consists of a series of bar fights, riots, drunken revelry, a marriage conducted in the bar by Hymn Book Harry uniting Bill and Mae, who decide to tie the knot about a half hour after he has saved her from the fishes; a shooting; and Bill’s desertion of Mae the next morning. In a fit of remorse, Bill jumps ship as it sails out of New York harbor, swims back to the Harpoon Bar and, being informed that Mae has been arrested for possession of some clothes he stole for her the night before, runs down to Night Court, where she is being sentenced and confesses to the judge that he is the guilty party. The judge releases Mae and sentences Bill to sixty days. Before being led away, Bill embraces Mae and professes his undying devotion to her if she will just wait for him, which she promises. To coin a phrase, they don’t make movies like this anymore. Heck, every element in this film would stand up today, except that these kinds of actors, who can make a film like this believable, simply no longer exist.
|George Bancroft is totally convincing as an enormous brutal coal stoker who can express tender feelings and emotion. Betty Compson, whose dress Bill has stolen by kicking in the door of a used clothing peddler’s shack and which resembles a costume from the silent version of “The Ten Commandments”, perfectly expresses a modern Jezebel whose luck has gone sour and who is clutching the one thin reed of Bill’s interest in her.
Today’s cinematic world would be hard-pressed to duplicate the lyricism expressed in “The Docks of New York”, even though it contains all the elements of a successful movie: sailors, bar girls, action and romance. Sound has ruined everything. Whom would you cast for a remake? The only male lead who comes to mind is Bruce Willis, who looks the part but the minute he speaks, what comes out is pure New Jersey. Many years ago, in Paris, where I attended design school, a woman remarked about me, “He’s nice looking until he opens his mouth”. Although I’m sure it had a lot to do with my French accent at the time, I’m sure the same could be said for just about anybody, including the classical marble statues in the art museum.
“The Docks of New York” might seem quaint by today’s extravagant standards, but by the standards of the day it was state of the art. One can only imagine the pageantry and panoply that must have obtained at the film’s premiere on Hollywood Boulevard, with searchlights, blaring crowds of fans and glittering stars emerging from long limos, like “The Day of the Locust”, Nathanial West’s apocalyptic evocation of the film business.
People are just not clever enough to have their voices recorded. Does hearing them talk really make them more seductive? “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn” is hardly memorable enough of a phrase to justify sitting through three and a half hours of deadening dialogue expressed in “Gone With the Wind”. Sometimes I think that it would be a lovelier world if everybody would just shut the fuck up.
More Film Talk
© Dean Borok June 14th 2012
* Editor Comment: See also 'Girl on a Bridge'
Director: Patrice Leconte
Writers: Serge Frydman (screenplay)
Stars: Vanessa Paradis, Daniel Auteuil
An homage perhaps to 'Docks of New York' but a whimsical talkie with a surreal edge