#607) The Docks of New York (1928)

#607) The Docks of New York (1928)

OR “Stoker’s Wild”

Directed by Josef von Sternberg

Written by Jules Furthman. Titles by Julian Johnson. Based on the story “The Dock Walloper” by John Monk Saunders.

Class of 1999

The Plot: A steamer ship arrives in turn-of-the-century New York, with all of the ship’s coal stokers getting a night of shore leave. The ship’s engineer Andy (Mitchell Lewis) heads to the seedy saloon The Sandbar, where he discovers his estranged wife Lou (Olga Baclanova) in the company of another man. Meanwhile, stoker Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) is on his way to the Sandbar when he rescues Mae (Betty Compson), a prostitute attempting to drown herself. After commiserating over their shared unhappiness in life, Bill impulsively proposes to Lou, who accepts. The two quickly marry in the saloon, but will this newfound commitment last when the morning comes and Bill ships out?

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film for being “[m]asterfully directed” by von Sternberg and “expertly photographed” by cinematographer Harold Rosson. The write-up also, however, cribs from the Daily Variety review, which called the film “a good entertaining picture that misses greatness by a whisker.” Seems a little backhanded to me.

But Does It Really?: This is the third and god-willing final installment of my “Maybe I Just Don’t Get von Sternberg” trilogy. Like “The Last Command” and “Morocco“, there’s nothing inherently wrong with “Docks of New York”, but it never fully gelled for me. Sure I don’t mind melodrama, but I didn’t care about any of these people or their predicaments. And while the film’s visuals (like many of its contemporaries) are a notch above your standard silent film, the story relies too much on the dialogue and intertitles. “Docks” is not without its supporters, but no one has made a compelling argument for its NFR inclusion, other than being another film lumped in with von Sternberg’s other classics. Until then, I’m content to sit here on the fence about “Docks of New York” and move on with my life.

Everybody Gets One: Eleanor “Betty” Compson started acting in silent films in 1915, quickly becoming one of Paramount’s first big stars. She left Paramount after a salary dispute, and worked with Hitchcock on a few of his early British films before returning to Paramount, where she made “Docks of New York”. Compson made the transition to talkies, but she started getting smaller roles and diminishing box office returns before quietly retiring in 1948.

Wow, That’s Dated: One little piece of historical context: “Docks” was released at the height of the prohibition era, so it would have been exciting for an audience in 1928 to watch a movie set primarily in a rowdy bar at the turn of the century.

Seriously, Oscars?: Although “Docks of New York” received zero Oscar nominations, both of its stars were nominated that year for different movies: Bancroft as a jealous criminal in “Thunderbolt” (also directed by von Sternberg) and Compson as a seductive carnival girl in “The Barker”. Side note: There were no official nominees at the 2nd Oscars, but Bancroft and Compson are considered de facto nominees based on Academy records of which films were under serious consideration by the judges.

Other notes

  • One of the things keeping “Docks” watchable is Josef von Sternberg working with his trusted group of collaborators, including screenwriter Jules Furthman, cinematographer Harold Rosson, and leading actor George Bancroft. The film comes across as confident, with each of these artists comfortable enough to stretch themselves and create the best possible product. Even if you didn’t know that going into the film, there’s a slickness that suggests quality and professionalism.
  • We don’t get a lot of the artistic, cinematic compositions I have come to associate with von Sternberg’s films, but the few that do make it really stand out. The establishing shot of the Sandbar is a tracking shot moving its way through an assortment of lowlifes and characters, not unlike the café shot in William Wellman’s “Wings” the previous year. A+, everyone.
  • I don’t know why, but it tickles me that Russian actor Olga Baclanova is credited here as simply “Baclanova”. Clearly an attempt to exoticize her in the same vein as fellow Russia-to-Hollywood film actor Alla Nazimova. If Baclanova looks familiar, she’s a few years away from playing Cleopatra the trapeze artist in the cult classic “Freaks“.
  • Part of my problem with this movie is that the two male leads look very similar, as do the two female leads. Both George Bancroft and Mitchell Lewis are bulky, broad-shouldered men costumed in dark longshoremen outfits, while both Betty Compson and Olga Baclanova are pale, petite women with short bleach-blonde haircuts. It makes for a confusing viewing experience trying to remember who is who.
  • I couldn’t place where I knew Mitchell Lewis from, but it turns out I just needed to imagine him with green skin: he’s the Captain of the Guard for the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz“.
  • Everyone at this bar looks like Willem Dafoe.
  • With its romance via suicide rescue, “Docks” is kind of a blue-collar “Vertigo“. Thankfully, there’s far less creepy obsession here, though still an uncomfortable amount of leering. Similarly, the film’s impromptu love story between two lowlifes (one of whom is a prostitute) gives this movie some “7th Heaven” comparisons as well.
  • As previously mentioned, “Docks” has a lot of dialogue intertitles, which leads me to believe that it might have fared better as one of those newfangled “talking” pictures that was starting to catch on in 1928.
  • German character actor Gustav von Seyffertitz shows up a handful of times in the Registry, but he is put to his best use here as the parson “Hymn Book” Harry, his stern facial features casting a judging shadow over the bar patrons and this impromptu marriage. By the way, did they ever end up paying him?
  • Well this movie took a turn. Everything was going along pretty even-keeled with its character development and romantic entanglements, and then there’s a hard right into melodrama. I was not expecting someone to get shot during this.
  • While I ultimately didn’t care about whether or not Bill and Mae would get together, it helps that thanks to the film’s pre-Code sensibilities, that was still a genuine mystery. There’s no guarantee of a happy ending in pre-Code Hollywood. Side note: Mae’s prostitution was allowed by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (now the MPAA) because it was not forced prostitution, and no element of her profession is explicitly shown on screen.
  • The other great composition from this movie: in a last minute attempt to keep Bill from leaving, Mae tries to mend his shirt. We cut to a POV shot of the needle and thread, with the camera quickly going in and out of focus to simulate the tears welling up in Mae’s eyes. Nicely done, Rosson.
  • What a…happy ending? I really don’t know what to think about it. And I recall going to night court was a lot funnier than it’s depicted here. Where’s the sex-craved prosecutor and the dim-witted bailiff? Where’s Mel Torme?

Legacy 

  • “The Docks of New York” opened in September 1928, the same week as “The Singing Fool”, Al Jolson’s “Jazz Singer” follow-up which overshadowed every other movie at the box office. Despite good reviews, “Docks” was virtually ignored by moviegoers, although it did find an audience in Europe a few years later. In the ensuing years, “Docks” has been rediscovered by multiple generations of movie lovers and film historians, almost always in conjunction with von Sternberg’s contemporaneous filmography.

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