February 20, 2020
The Docks of New York – US, 1928
Ahh, the Hollywood hangout - where everyone knows your name, where boisterous crowds of cheerful partygoers dwell and revel at pitches that mere mortals could not, where you and your friends will always find a vacant couch to facilitate your witty banter. It is a place where crowds swell to hear a poet in a business suit dazzle you with a self-righteous hymn, only to be outdone a second later by a flirtatious bartender who speaks of drinks as if they are popular sexual positions. If you’re wondering, that’s Cheers, Friends, and Tom Cruise’s underwhelming 1988 film, Cocktail, but I’m sure you could come up with a number of other examples – Titanic, perhaps. It is an image of sheer absurdity, presenting us with a vision of such excitement that our favorite haunts are made to seem rather pedantic upon comparison.
Much of Josef Von Sternberg’s 1928 film, The Docks of New York, takes place in such a spot, and since Von Sternberg was famous for placing his films in settings he conjured up in his mind – even places like Shanghai and Morocco – I have to assume he didn’t have much experience in the kind of establishment that stokers went to during their brief respites between adventures at sea. Thus, Von The Docks of New York, and it would work fine, were it not for an ending that defaults to that most Hollywood of inventions, the unearned happy ending.Sternberg creates a place where patrons have boundless energy, where employees have the physiques of bouncers and fist fights break out with uncommon frequency. It is a place of sin and unconcealed infidelity, and it is hardly where one would realistically expect to find a fairy tale involving a tarnished princess and an insincere, promiscuous knight in shining armor. But that is indeed what Von Sternbrg presents us with in
In the film, George Bancroft plays Bill Roberts, a jovial brute whom you’d be forgiven for thinking didn’t have a sincere bone in his body when it comes to the opposite sex. One night, he thwarts a young woman’s suicide attempt, and, for some reason, elects to take her back to his room to recover. The woman’s name is Mae (Betty Compson), and in a telling moment, she describes her predicament with the following revelation: “I’ve had too many good times.” Bill doesn’t inquire any further; he knows exactly what she’s implying. So, he makes the following illogical remark: “Well, you’ve never been out with [me].” Keep this in mind. This is a woman who has just been pulled out of the water and resuscitated. She’s likely deeply depressed and still contemplating suicide. And there’s George suggesting that all she needs is a good romp with him to be as good as new. I didn’t buy it, not even from a guy with the social etiquette of a gnat.
There’s another couple worth mentioning here. Early on, we see a woman partying as if she were having the time of her life. A moment later, she spots a man (Mitchell Lewis) staring at her, and her emotions turn on a dime. The man, referred as The Third Engineer in the opening credits, had previously looked as if he were about to hook up with a woman sitting at a table alone, but we soon learn that they are husband and wife. More importantly, they’ve been separated for three years. She remarks that he’s undoubtedly surprised to find her in a place like that, and indeed, there’s no evidence that he was even interested in reuniting with her while he was in town. In short, we are witnessing a land where broken dreams and unkept promises are commonplace.
Like Von Sternberg’s other films, The Docks of New York is exceptionally well-directed. Von Sternberg was a master with lights, shadows and interiors, and here he created a realistic setting for a film about regular people. We feel the grunginess of the surroundings, as well as the addictive carefree attitude of its inhabitants. In one scene, Von Sternberg bathes Compson in angelic white light, as she sits on Bill’s bed smoking a cigarette, a look of sheer indifference to life on her weary face. Later, he contrasts conversations that hint at budding love and promises of happiness with the room’s dilapidated walls, and we are made to wonder if love has a chance under these conditions. In other scenes, Von Sternberg uses quick pans to give us a glimpse of the various stories underway in the speakeasy that night. It’s rare that we’re reminded that for each character up there on the screen, there is a story in progress.
I can’t say for sure whether the ending of the film is the result of studio interference or not. However, watching it, I couldn’t escape the feeling that it is a cop out. There’s a realistic finale to the story of these two characters, and it is not the one we see on the screen. Characters like these certainly deserve happiness, but nothing in the circumstances Von Sternberg presents us with screams that this is the beginning of theirs, especially since the events in the film take place over twenty-four hours. Just watch the characters’ body language – they both know that their whirlwind romance is a performance, a long tease crafted to make a desired one-night stand a reality.
Alas, this is not the conclusion we get, and it mars what has come before. The Docks of New York is most interesting when it focuses on the envy that Andy feels when he sees someone he views as being below him getting the girl; on the complicated characters of Andy’s wife (played by Olga Baclanova), a woman whose compassion is matched only by her pessimism; and on the face of young Mae, at times resigned to fate, at others appreciative of the distraction that brief glimpses of hope can bring. We empathize with her; we wish her happiness. Von Sternberg gives us that ending, and it is a mistake. A more realistic “Bill” would have been on the ship as the film faded out. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
*The Docks of New York is a silent film.