The breadth of Josef von Sternberg's satire is laid out in the passage at William Powell's office, where the elegant axis (perfect casting via a phantom from Czarist Russia with "no film experience") is complemented by sang-froid gagwork (the émigré filmmaker ponders a studio portrait, half a dozen lighters spring into the frame as he reaches idly for a cigarette). Emil Jannings is brought to the Hollywood breadlines, old and pitiful, his head quavering due to "a great shock" from the past; a lateral pan navigates him through the mob grabbing uniforms, beards and bayonets, he stares into a mirror to apply makeup for a role, and relives history. Imperial Russia, 1917: The tumultuous masses line up, Jannings parades with supercilious majesty, a grand duke swathed in furs and smoke. The Revolution draws near, Powell lies among the rebels disguised as a theater director, his leading lady (Evelyn Brent, "the most dangerous revolutionist in Russia") is invited for supper by the general. The etiquette of seduction (where some things "should always be done after caviar" -- Lajos Biró's scenario is lapidated from a rich Lubitsch anecdote) is one of glittering surfaces cultivated and torn asunder by Sternberg. Upheavals shake the nation, yet the central moment finds the heroine's mask cracked by emotion, a trembling hand before the assassination attempt in the boudoir and a poker face smeared with tears; when the Revolution explodes and the aristos are lined up against a wall and shot in a contorted mural, she switches from Mata Hari to Mother Russia with red flag in the wind, the only way to save her new love from the rabid mob. All grist to the mill of Hollywood, where orders are now barked by studio executives and the old man is fitted into his imperial uniform, the vengeful Powell mans the cameras. Enacting a battle charge in the studio is meant as the deposed general's ultimate degradation, but the stirred Jannings rises to the occasion, usurps the mise-en-scene from Powell and, taking a cue from Sternberg's art, fills it with passion and illusions. With Jack Raymond. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce