Only three of Josef von Sternberg’s silent films are generally available—one other is hard to find and the three others are considered lost. Of the three available—Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928) and The Docks of New York (1928) (the Asheville Film Society will get around to them all eventually)—The Last Command may not be the best, but it’s certainly the biggest, the most spectacular and the most complex. It’s a rich tale that manages to combine a Hollywood satire, a Hollywood tragedy and a drama of the Russian revolution. That may sound preposterous, but it works with the satire/tragedy at the begining and ending and with the revolution drama—the longest stretch of the film—sandwiched in between. It’s the story of an Imperial Russian General Dolgorucki (Emil Jannings) reduced to trying to eking out a meager living as an extra in Hollywood. When director Lev Andreyev (William Powell) spots his photo, he insists on hiring the old man to play a general in his latest film. The revolution flashback explains why and reveals the events that have brought both men to Hollywood. It’s a tale of bitter irony laced with humor and sexuality (it is, after all, a Sternberg film)—and no little spectacle. Evelyn Brent makes for a pretty good Sternberg heroine, if not quite the level of Marlene Dietrich in his talkies, and there’s something to be said for any movie that can get a relatively restrained performance out of Emil Jannings.
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