Bright Lights Film Journal

Auteur in Distress: On Wallace Beery, von Sternberg, and Sergeant Madden

Cinema’s supreme pictorialist surrenders to “the cop on the beat”

Wallace Beery was always a strange case. An outstanding character actor throughout the silent era and the early sound period, capable of performances both brutal and funny at the same instant in pictures like Way for a Sailor and The Big House, he didn’t become a major star until he started playing sentimental slobs. Oh, it started off innocently enough with King Vidor’s The Champ, where he achieved his only artful balance between the crusty and the “heartfelt”; and he did manage one last great burst of thuggish vitality when he and Jean Harlow spat epic invective at one another so gloriously in Cukor’s Dinner at Eight. But as the 1930s progressed, Beery’s acting took on the boozy self-consciousness of a department store Santa with a chronically overdeveloped sense of his own charm. No screen presence, with the possible exceptions of Al Jolson and Jerry Lewis, had made such a gaudy spectacle of a desire to endear themselves to the multitudes. And no matter how popular they were with moviegoers, Beery’s portrayals of everything from waterfront rumheads to (God help us) Pancho Villa could not have been less endearing. When pictures like Treasure Island and O’Shaughnessy’s Boy came in rapid succession, he had finally achieved his cheap immortality as the most bizarrely typecast star of his era; doomed to play love scenes with kid actors in MGM tearjerkers for the rest of his life.

It would have been tragic if there wasn’t a palpable, bottomless cynicism in his acting that he didn’t even try to conceal. No one needed latter-day memoirs to know what Wallace Beery’s attitude toward his craft had devolved into. Just watch him go through the motions in something like Mervyn LeRoy’s Tugboat Annie and it’s right there on the screen for everyone to see. He’s obviously a man with nothing on his mind apart from wondering when that ball-busting prick sitting in the director’s chair would yell “Cut!” so he could get back to the bottle of whatever-it-was he opened just before being called to the set. As an actor he wasn’t so much in the moment or out of it as he was turning his back to it. By the time he crossed paths with Josef von Sternberg on a picture called Sergeant Madden in 1939, a case could be made that he really wasn’t an actor any longer, just a well-paid, exceedingly tiresome screen persona; only this time with a nightstick and an Irish brogue of wavering consistency. The way Sternberg told it in his marginally reliable autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, Beery’s indifference to the role, to the film, to damn near everything on earth drove the filmmaker to lodge a complaint with the front office, who told him to get his ass back on the set, keep his mouth shut, and leave Wally alone. Beery was the star and Sternberg — in case he hadn’t been paying attention the last few years — was nothing.

The late 1930s were not a good time to be Josef von Sternberg.

How could it have gotten to this point? The first half of the decade had seen a brilliantly writ chapter, one of the great flourishes of artistry in all cinema. But by its end the man was practically washed up, nearly all his creative and commercial capital exhausted on one eerily unsuccessful, unrealized project after another. When the calendar changed and 1934 turned into 1935, he was a major aesthetic force at Paramount, having brought into the world a series of remarkable films featuring Marlene Dietrich — the most recent of which, The Scarlet Empress, had moved American cinema to distances no movie made in this country would see until the arrival of Orson Welles in the next decade (even his sole misfire during this period, the distracted, Dietrich-free rendering of An American Tragedy in 1931, had a goodly share of exhilarating moments amid the overall lassitude). And the horizon seemed without limit. Sure, there was a lot of fine, even great filmmaking out of Hollywood in the early ’30s — Busby Berkeley’s incantations of a wholly American wonderment and madness, William Wellman’s terse poetics in films like Safe in Hell! and Heroes for Sale, Tay Garnett’s deranged Prestige, the soaring sardonic joy of Gregory LaCava’s The Half-Naked Truth and Bed of Roses, Slavko Vorkapich’s eye-melting montages in movies such as Crime Without Passion; I could probably go on indefinitely — but not one of these directors, regardless of how brilliant, seemed to possess as firm a grasp on the potential of this medium as Sternberg’s. As had been the case with Erich von Stroheim in the preceding decade, one could behold his work at its best and for just a moment feel one’s spirit held aloft, ecstatic and insatiate, by the once unthinkable thought that here before us was a film artist who might just be capable of . . . anything.

It was a moment that, for Sternberg, ended quickly. Bathed in the warm light of genius, neither the free-ranging, rococo exoticism of The Scarlet Empress nor the anarchic sexual politics of his final collaboration with Dietrich, The Devil is a Woman (1935), found a connection with moviegoers. He was finished at Paramount (for good, as it turned out), and the earth, not to mention Hollywood, began to cool considerably from that point forward. A year later he was over at Columbia, when they were still uncomfortably close to their days as a Poverty Row outfit, directing a musical with Grace Moore (who no one ever confused with Marlene Dietrich) entitled The King Steps Out. The year after that he was in England, leading the troops through Alexander Korda’s elephantine production of I, Claudius — which, despite all claims to the contrary (most notably those of the 1965 BBC film, The Epic That Never Was), was visited by so much turmoil that Korda had to pull the plug before anyone could tell if the thing was any good. Back in America, the echoes of his one-time glory growing ever more faint, he signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Short of trying his luck in Europe (not the wisest course one could take in 1938) or quitting the business entirely, what else could he do?

There’d been an earlier stint after his first film, 1924’s The Salvation Hunters, turned the heads of both Charles Chaplin and Mary Pickford at United Artists (a near-miraculous feat in itself), but MGM was a different studio then. If anyone at the infant motion picture behemoth thought twice about placing him under contract, they kept it to themselves. Why would they even bother? Debating whether or not to sign Sternberg in 1925, as a practical matter, would have been the same as debating whether or not to sign up a clock-puncher like Phil Rosen: a waste of time by any measure. The industry was young and Metro, believe it or not, one of the most vital filmmaking centers in America. Forget what they did to Stroheim (brutalizing his vision had become positively chic throughout the industry); MGM in the 1920s had a roster of directorial talent that already included the likes of King Vidor, Victor Sjostrom, and Tod Browning. They could easily sustain the exotic and the unusual along with the regular fare, and they didn’t mind making movies of substance, not even the kind Sternberg would later become famous for making before he fully developed his talent for making it. But in his handful of months at MGM in the ’20s he began one film, Exquisite Sinner; midway through the production he was fired, replaced (by Phil Rosen, as it happens) and shown the gate.

Now, just over a decade later he was embarking on another tour of duty at the studio which, in the intervening years, had emerged as the closest thing to a true and sovereign power in America’s film industry. Like Busby Berkeley (right) in the same period, Sternberg probably wasn’t ready to ponder the outright futility a contract with Metro in those days portended. But it’s hard to believe he didn’t see what was coming.

After a couple of false starts — a few scenes in Julien Duvivier’s Strauss biopic, The Great Waltz; a short stopover on I Take This Woman (a film subjected to so much revision that wags on the Metro lot were soon calling it I Re-take This Woman) — his moment was at hand. One can only imagine the Hieronymous Bosch visions of career immolation and the absolute spirit of dread that must have vaulted through his system like some rogue virus when he was handed Sergeant Madden, an over-plotted potboiler paying sentimental tribute to “the cop on the beat,” in the person of none other than Wallace Beery. Surely a project so front-loaded with doom fairly cried out for the mercifully indifferent workmanship of a Metro journeyman like Robert Z. Leonard or Richard Thorpe — directors who, in their entire careers, never knew the kind of frustration that had lately hit Josef von Sternberg like an out-of-control bus. But Sternberg drew this shortest of short straws and, then as now, work was work. Sergeant Madden might not have been the low point of his career to date, but back then how could it have appeared otherwise? All he could hope to achieve in a picture like this, under the thumb of a studio like MGM, was maybe some visual flourishes, possibly a subversive touch . . . if he could get away with it, that is.

New York City Police Patrolman Shaun Madden (Beery) attends the funeral of a fellow officer, with his good wife Mary (Fay Holden) and their young son Dennis by his side. Slain in the line of duty while protectin’ the fair people of that fine city, the officer has left behind his only son Al, and rather than see the boy sent to some heartless and savage orphanage, the Maddens decide to take the lad in themselves. Shortly thereafter, while walking his beat one rainy night, Madden hears bawling from an alley and . . . well well, now . . . it’s an infant, begorrah, soaked to the skin with no mother in sight; a little lassie abandoned to the kindness of man and the mercy of God. He takes the poor thing down to the station house and then home to Mary. They can’t really keep the tyke, they know that. But they can see to it that the little angel is fed and cared for, if only for a while.

Before you can say Christian Metz, there’s a knock upon the door. It’s the mother, and she’s had herself a change of heart, bejesus, wanting to take the child to the old country to feel beneath her toes the wild colonial ground of old Erin. She only left the baby out in the cold, pouring rain where a good man such as Officer Madden could find her because she couldn’t afford the passage for two souls. No matter. The Maddens see that Eileen — for that is the lassie’s name — and her threadbare, repentant mother make their way ‘cross the Atlantic to the Emerald Isle. Good thing, too. Can’t have a delicate flower of a tyke around, can they, what with young Dennis being such a bully these days, playing cops and robbers with the other neighborhood ruffians like it was the real thing. But when he grows up, the patrolman avows, he’ll make a fine officer in a fine police force. Time passes as it often does. Patrolman Madden is now Sergeant Madden, with chevrons on his sleeve and everything, bearing up as well as can be expected after the loss of his Mary, who’s gone on to her great reward, God rest her soul. He and Al (Tom Brown) are busy preparing for the return of Eileen (Laraine Day) from the old country. It’s all been arranged. The Sergeant wants her to live in their home, just like the daughter he never had. As she alights from the boat, why, they hardly recognize the colleen; all grown up, pretty as a picture. Soon after she settles in as lady of the house, she catches the eye of Dennis (Alan Curtis). Romance ensues.

Turmoil impends in love’s long looked-after land, however. Dennis finally joins the force, but things are not what they were back in the day. As a patrolman walking his old man’s old beat in the old neighborhood, he rapidly becomes an irritant to the community, a hard-ass, small-minded cop lowering the hammer left and right on youthful miscreants and petty thieves. It would be one thing if he were on some twilight crusade to preserve law and order, but he isn’t. He just doesn’t want to spend any more time in the uniform pounding a beat than he has to. Making these piddling, penny-ante collars, he thinks, will put him on the fast track to a detective’s shield through the sheer volume alone; but all they do is make him look like a climber. Eventually he runs afoul of a local hood, Piggy Ceders (Marc Lawrence), plugging his girlfriend’s brother in the back after the kid heists a 20-buck fur and tries to make a getaway. The brass, who’ve had it up to here with this insubordinate, pain-in-the-ass rookie since his days at the Academy, would love to exile him out to Staten Island or give him a mop job, anything. But out of respect for the old man they just reprimand him for overzealousness in the performance of his duties and wait for the next body to drop. The Sergeant tries, but with Ceders now out for Dennis’s sorry hide, there’s little that he or anyone can do to save his only begotten hothead.

Sergeant Madden may be a terrible film, but it is an important one; albeit not in the sense cinephiles have come to understand that term. As an example of how utterly unmanned great filmmakers can become when they’re merely the appurtenance of someone else’s storytelling machinery, it is without peer; a lesson straight from the pages of a textbook written in the low-rent district of aesthetic hell. Considering its mandate, Sternberg was so far outside his competence directing this film that it’s sometimes painful to behold the restless camera movements — arcing around the actors, advancing on them for no discernible purpose — as they slam up against scenes so static and saccharine as to cause even the most jaded hack on the Metro lot to cringe with embarrassment. If any director ever cried out for help, ever sent the audience an S.O.S. through sloppy workmanship and sheer indifference, Sternberg does it here.

Which is not to say that he lacked a facility for this kind of material. Buried ‘neath the hearts and flowers slop MGM lavished on the project, after all, is the core of a solid piece of crime cinema, precisely the sort of film Sternberg had made his mark with both critically and commercially before he ever latched onto Dietrich. If he’d directed Sergeant Madden for a poverty dump, or if it had been made over at Warner Bros. with William Keighley or Raoul Walsh directing (when it came to genre exercises — not to mention Irish-American stereotypes — those directors at least had their priorities straight), it might have been a good film; possibly a landmark, given that much in Wells Root’s screenplay directly anticipates some of the more corrosive themes that later emerged in film noir — particularly Dennis Madden’s descent into criminality. But there was simply no way Josef von Sternberg could make it into the kind of movie it had the potential to be. Not with Wallace Beery dragging his heels, or with the persistence of what can only be described as MGM’s authorial voice.

Now, only a film writer aspiring to a career in the food service industry would ever speak of a Hollywood studio in terms of its authorial voice, or entertain the thought that such unmentionables could ruthlessly invade the vision of a conscious film artist. It’s an understandable, if naive, viewpoint. Cinephiles, as a rule, are bound by their faith to mine even the most woebegone filmographies for errant nuggets of glory, and the imperatives of directorial hero worship demand that no great director ever be seen as a mere cog in a system of someone else’s devising. In the long contagion of “auteurist” thought — particularly that which purported to address the work of luminaries who toiled in the deepest recesses of the studio system — there originated over time a set of more or less official, albeit anti-historical pieties, chief among them the notion that a director’s “personality,” the imprimatur of his or her vision, must always prevail in retrospective judgments, whether in whole or in part. If, as is the case with Sergeant Madden, the film under review is so poor that any attempt to imbue it with a quality it never had is laughable, then the film must never be written or spoken of.

As fundamentally utopian orthodoxies go, it’s not a bad one. Where it goes horribly wrong, of course, is in its tacit assumption that these other visions or voices or personalities — or whatever those superannuated school-kids wanna call them — reveal nothing of value about the art of cinema; which they very often do, either in concordance with the director’s vision or in competition with it. Because whether we warrant their significance or not, these non-directorial voices reside in the work of Sternberg, as well as other Hollywood directors who never learned to behave themselves, as veritable ghosts in the machine. And in the case of a film like Sergeant Madden, I do mean “machine.”

It’s instructive to remember that by 1939, thanks to the positively occult stewardship of Louis B. Mayer, MGM had attained the dubious distinction of being the most severely regimented studio in the history of motion pictures, boasting a system of production honed to diabolical perfection and immense profit. Mayer — as well as the people he surrounded himself with after Irving Thalberg was finally shoved into an early grave — held as an article of faith that the process of mass-producing motion pictures in America was (and for its own economic survival would always have to be) an inextricable offshoot of modern industrial capitalism — which is why they took the factory paradigm more closely to heart than any other producing entity in Hollywood. To them, talking about something like art in the context of motion pictures — even thinking about it as anything other than market terminology meant to pull in the diehards who still had pre-industrial visions of aesthetic purity dancing like sugar plums in their heads — was all very nice, but it was absolutely beside the point, like talking about love while operating a whorehouse.

Out of this mode of thought evolved a true sensibility at MGM (a “personality,” if you will), as well as an audience-driven art whose imperatives dared not speak their name. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had a deep understanding of what their public would pay to see, and movies that dealt with gangsterism, urban violence, and troubled cops were to be avoided at all costs. It was a strategy pitched less at what an audience wanted than at what they would settle for. And in nearly every respect it was the fundament of that studio’s unconscionable, decades-long success at the box-office. By serving up the kind of so-called family entertainment that helped to give movies (not to mention families) a bad name from pole to pole, MGM could deliver undreamt-of revenue to the parent corporation, Loew’s Incorporated, and Mayer could insulate himself for a time from the blood-oath of vengeance its chairman, Nicholas Schenck, swore upon him back in 1929. As a harbinger of noir, Sergeant Madden might have been an anomaly at the time of its production — Metro hadn’t made a halfway decent crime drama since Charles Brabin’s amazing The Beast of the City (above) in 1932 (the one that carried a foreword from then-President Herbert Hoover demanding more movies that glorified essentially lawless law enforcement), and they would not make another until Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence in 1949, when Mayer’s grip on the studio began to loosen considerably. But that didn’t mean the crime drama could not be brought to heel. Making it into a Wallace Beery vehicle, putting that actor in the center of a film he otherwise had no business being in, MGM thereby insured its mediocrity as well as its success (it did quite well when it was released on March 29, 1939).

“It is not possible for a director, no matter how skilled, to carry out someone else’s orders on how and what to direct,” Sternberg, or his ghost, would later write in yet another self-deceiving reflection. But be not with him deceived, fellow cinephiles, and do not look away, for it is all too possible. Sergeant Madden was not only a bad movie, it was a deliberately bad movie, and Josef von Sternberg, the film’s nominal “auteur,” could do not a damned thing to escape its destiny as the worst film he would ever put his name to.

In this sense it’s possibly more important to film scholarship than The Last Command, The Scarlet Empress, The Shanghai Gesture,” and The Saga of Anatahan combined. For it is redolent of a dystopian history that is nothing less than the true, unalloyed history of American cinema itself; a film where Wallace Beery is indeed the star, and no amount of idealistic “auteurist” dreaming that you or I do can make it appear otherwise.