Challenge Week 39: The Docks of New York

I’ve actually had this on my media server for quite a while unwatched, so I was really glad that Jeremy gave me the boost to go ahead and watch it. Unfortunately, I’ve had it for long enough that I have no idea if it had the score he recommended (Gaylord Carter) or not, but I didn’t mind whatever music was with it, so I guess it was all right.

Josef von Sternberg is kind of hit or miss with me – I’ve mostly seen his films with Marlene Dietrich, and I loved Shanghai Express, but am only fair to middling on the other two or three I’ve seen. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this, but it’s a fairly simply story of a boilerman (George Bancroft) on leave from his boat saving a girl (Betty Compson) from committing suicide by the docks and then falling for her.

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The romance itself is both sweet and kind of unbelievable, but also I guess kind of like Marty in the sense that both of these characters feel unworthy of serious attention from the opposite sex – him because he’s kind of a lug and her because she’s basically tainted goods. I wish she’d had a bit more to do – most of the actions (other than trying and failing to commit suicide) are his to do and she just kind of goes along with a bewildered look on her face. I think the idea is she’s supposed to just be flabbergasted that anyone would want to MARRY her and then unsurprised and resigned when he leaves the next morning, but it comes across more like she’s just a pawn in his story.

Still, there are a lot of really great things here. Bancroft’s larger than life movements are one of the things I love about silent films – even just walking across the room has a heft and physicality to it, which works especially well for his blue collar character. The wedding scene is hilarious and lovely, even if it does feel like Compson is getting married by accident, and the support work from Olga Baclanova is spot-on. I also appreciated that the film didn’t shy away from the physical dirtiness of Bancroft and his job, but somehow (the von Sternberg touch) made it attractive on-screen. The very best thing is the cinematography.

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This movie post-dates German Expressionism, but it feels more like a precursor to the Poetic Realism of the late 1930s. The docks are foggy and backlit, there are a number of scenes done in high-contrast silhouettes, and many of the shots have a moody beauty to them, especially the outdoor ones. It doesn’t take too many breathtaking shots like these to get me on a movie’s side, though my issues with the story did keep it from going too high up my chart.

When I return to this, and I’m sure I will, I promise I’ll take the time to make sure I have the right score, Jeremy!

Stats and stuff…

1928, USA
directed by Josef von Sternberg, written by Jules Furthman and Julian Johnson
starring George Bancroft, Betty Compson, Olga Baclanova, Clyde Cook

I’m ranking all my Challenge films on Flickchart (as I do all the films I see), a movie-ranking website that asks you to choose your favorite between two movies until it builds a ranked list of your favorites. Just for fun, I will average out the rankings and keep a running tally of whose recommendations rank the highest. When you add a film to Flickchart, it pits it against films already on your chart to see where it should fall. Here’s how The Docks of New York entered my chart:

The Docks of New York > The Spanish Apartment
The Docks of New York > Rango
The Docks of New York < The Three Musketeers (1973)
The Docks of New York < The Myth of the American Sleepover
The Docks of New York > Revanche
The Docks of New York > The Time Machine (1960)
The Docks of New York < Old Yeller
The Docks of New York > Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
The Docks of New York < Four Daughters
The Docks of New York < Terminator 2: Judgment Day
The Docks of New York < Dodge City
The Docks of New York < Winter Light

Final #738 out of 3708 films on my chart (80%)

It is now my #2 Josef von Sternberg film, my #1 George Bancroft film, my #1 Betty Compson film, my #30 Melodrama, my #34 Silent Film, and my #5 film of 1928.

The Docks of New York was recommended by Jeremy Bond, a friend from Twitter. Averaging together this #738 ranking with my #660 ranking of his other film, Little Man, What Now?, gives Jeremy an average ranking of 699.

A few more screenshots…

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