#517) The Last Command (1928)

#517) The Last Command (1928)

OR “From Russia Without Love”

Directed by Josef von Sternberg

Written by John F. Goodrich. Story by von Sternberg & Lajos Bíró. Titles by Herman J. Mankiewicz

Class of 2006

The Plot: In 1928 Hollywood, Eureka Studios is casting extras for a war epic, and hires Sergius Alexander (Emil Jannings), who claims to have been a General in Czarist Russia. A lengthy flashback to 1917 Russia reveals that Sergius was indeed a General, as well as the Czar’s cousin. While in command, Sergius learns of Leo Andreyev and Natalie Dabrova (William Powell and Evelyn Brent), two actors who are secretly revolutionists with a mission to assassinate the General. Sergius has Leo imprisoned, but begins to develop feelings for Natalie, who reciprocates after seeing his devotion to Russia. Can this romance last in the face of revolution?

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “powerful” and says that Jannings’ performance “towers over the screen”. The write-up also calls the ending “one of cinema’s most memorable”.

But Does It Really?: Am I missing something? Everything I’ve read talks about “The Last Command” being an unforgettable masterpiece, but nothing about my viewing could back that up. Yes, it’s well made, and Jannings is giving a great central performance, but overall it didn’t grab me. Josef von Sternberg is represented elsewhere on this list (see “Morocco” and “The Docks of New York”), so this seems like an excuse to include another one of his movies. In fact, almost everything I’ve read about “The Last Command” clumps it together with these other films as an example of von Sternberg’s early work. “The Last Command” is a fine showing for von Sternberg, but can it stand on its own as a classic?

Everybody Gets One: By the late 1920s, German actor Emil Jannings had found success on both stage and screen (including F.W. Murnau’s “The Last Laugh”). Through an agreement with his home studio UFA, Jannings (as well as other actors and creatives) was loaned out to Paramount in Hollywood, and was immediately cast as the lead in films like “Last Command” and “The Way of All Flesh“.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly the Hollywood system of the late 1920s, complete with gate-crashing extras and mood music. Also, the $7.50 a day Sergius makes as an extra would be about $114 today.

Title Track: Towards the end, the revolutionist in the movie-within-a-movie tells Sergius “[y]ou’ve given your last command”. So close.

Seriously, Oscars?: At the very first Oscar ceremony, “The Last Command” received two nominations. The film lost Best Writing, Original Story to “Underworld” (another von Sternberg picture), but Emil Jannings won the first Academy Award for Best Actor (along with his performance in the now-lost “The Way of All Flesh”). The winners were announced prior to the ceremony, and knowing he would be leaving America for his native Germany, Jannings wired the Academy with the message “Hand me now already the statuette.” Jannings received his Oscar a month before the ceremony, making him the first Oscar recipient. 

Other notes

  • The idea for “The Last Command” came from Ernst Lubitsch, still an up-and-coming director/screenwriter in the late 1920s. Years earlier, Lubitsch had met General Theodore Lodigensky, who had fled the Communist revolution in Russia and was operating a Russian restaurant in New York. Lubitsch later spotted him in Hollywood as an extra, wearing his general’s uniform. Lubitsch recounted this to Lajos Bíró, who turned the story into a screenplay, originally titled “The General” (I guess he had never heard of Buster Keaton).
  • Following brief stints with MGM and Charlie Chaplin, Josef von Sternberg landed at Paramount, and his first movie for the studio – the gangster picture “Underworld” – was a huge success. Paramount essentially gave von Sternberg carte blanche for his next project, and the director picked “The General”, now known as “The Last Command”, as his follow-up.
  • I will say, Emil Jannings is quite good in this. Of course it helps that everyone in the opening Hollywood scenes are hamming it up quite a bit, making his performance seem all the more subtle by comparison. Side Note: With the beard, Jannings kinda looks like The Man Who Came to Dinner.
  • Once we get to the 1917 portion of the movie, you can see that no expense was spared: big sets, large crowds of extras. Almost 100 years later you can recognize that this film had a larger budget than your normal fare.
  • It’s nice to see William Powell playing a down-and-dirty revolutionist, as opposed to the more sophisticated Nick Charles types he would later be pigeonholed as.
  • The main thing that threw me off about “The Last Command” is its tone. The Hollywood prologue suggests a more light-hearted movie: not a full-on comedy, but something more in line with Lubitsch’s later work. The Russia storyline, however, becomes more dramatic (and melodramatic), with an occasional bit of comic relief. “The Last Command” feels like an early pass at “To Be or Not To Be“, complete with actors getting mixed up in political intrigue.
  • This is the second movie I’ve covered this month that devotes extended screentime to an elaborate military processional. Coincidentally, one of Josef von Sternberg’s first jobs at Paramount was assisting with the mammoth editing of “The Wedding March“.
  • This is my first venture into the work of Josef von Sternberg, and while I didn’t care for the movie overall, “Last Command” definitely shows off von Sternberg’s mastery of composition, close-ups, and effective editing. I look forward to viewing his later, better known films.
  • The final scene between Sergius and Natalie is definitely a heartbreaker, but is somewhat stunted by the obvious model train used for its climax. Cool stunt, though.
  • Easily the most dated reference in the movie: a film extra is told his beard “looks like an ad for cough drops”, which I assume is a reference to Smith Brothers Cough Drops, but that’s only after some deep Googling.
  • While I disagree that the film’s ending is “one of cinema’s most memorable”, it is an effectual bit of cinematic irony (He’s the actor now. Get it?). This ending may also be one of filmdom’s first examinations of the kind of PTSD experienced by war veterans.

Legacy

  • Janning’s Hollywood career ended with the advent of talkies, his thick German accent being too difficult to understand. He returned to Germany, and spent the rest of his career making Nazi propaganda. That’s right, the first Oscar winner for Best Actor was complicit with the Nazis. Maybe they should have given the Oscar to Rin Tin Tin after all.
  • Josef von Sternberg continued cranking out movies for Paramount, but it was a loaned-out assignment for Germany’s UFA that gave him his first classic. “The Blue Angel” was intended as a vehicle for Emil Jannings, but his co-star Marlene Dietrich stole the show. Von Sternberg would bring Dietrich back to Paramount with him and make six more movies together, including “Morocco“.
  • In terms of legacy, “The Last Command” has received no remakes or homages, and it barely gets mentioned in the conversation of classic silent films. It wasn’t even that successful when it came out! I suspect it’s our continued reverence to Josef von Sternberg (and the film’s place in Oscar history) that has kept “The Last Command” from completely fading away.

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