The Docks of New York (1928)

I asked how young Joe Sternberg fared after the unexpected success of Underworld. Unfortunately, with the loss of the two films he worked on in 1928 after The Last Command (which, as I said, was a vehicle for its star more than its director), it’s hard to fully appraise Sternberg’s situation. However, by the end of 1928 it may have been kind of precarious again; this appears to have opened on the same day as Al Jolson’s The Singing Fool, whose enormous box office (not exceeded for nearly another decade) kind of damned whatever silent films were still being made in the US to comparative obscurity (or quick updating with talking scenes). Which appears to have been the case for Docks of New York (obscurity, not talkification), which would probably have been a hit just a year earlier… We’re back into the somewhat smaller-scale romantic mode of the first film in the set; no Russian generals and revolutionaries here, just a ship’s stoker on a night’s shore leave who unexpectedly finds his life transformed, and all it took was a girl jumping into the river to drown herself. Plotwise, this really is quite minimal stuff: man rescues girl from suicide attempt, man marries girl, girl is lusted over by man’s superior on the ship, the latter’s wife is unimpressed, things will not end particularly well. The narrative really does boil down to that sort of melodrama, and again Sternberg’s visual handling of the material is what really matters here; I got a much stronger feeling that he must’ve thought this was a project he could perhaps inject a bit more of his own style into. Consider the suicide attempt where he just films the reflection and ripples in the water; consider too the great big dockside tavern set which the camera just roams all over. I thought the story itself kind of carried on past the point where it needed to in the last 15 minutes, but this still wasn’t a big enough problem to spoil it.

As a final observation on Criterion’s Sternberg box: where’s The Salvation Hunters? Cos unlike quite a number of his other early works, that one does exist, and even if it were just included as a bonus feature (cf., for example, Lubitsch’s Fidele Gefängnis being a bonus feature on Criterion’s Trouble in Paradise) it would still have rounded up all the extant Sternberg silents on DVD. Obviously it’s still a very solid set but that was a bit of a missed opportunity, especially since I can’t see the film getting much of a DVD release any other way…

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