Clyde, a poor boy whose mother runs a home for the needy, attains a job as a bell hop. From the very first he wants more; he's trying to break a date to see a ritzy dame who has taken a shine to him carrying her bags. Ma don't approve of his new friends though "Boys and girls like that are the only friends I've got" and after he's involved in a drink driving accident he sets out for New York (Mum's praying here is ludicrous. A sentimental note out of keeping with von Sternberg films.)
Now Clyde has risen to foreman of the stamping department in his uncle's Samuel Griffiths collar and shirt factory. These are the best scenes of the film the depth in the composition of the shots is incredible with the girls squeaking away on their stampers and flicking their hair as Clyde walks passed.
Sylvia Sydney catches his eye and is very Dietrich like in her mockingly wry approach to Clyde with "I hope you like the collar business" and "You really seem happy Mr. Griffiths" as he pulls a sulk when she won't let him come to her room. If it's not the sensual sound of the water the film is divided into chapters with dream-like, ominous shots of the water it's the sound of the girls stamping away, all examples of von Sternberg recording sound in an artificial manner. Listen to the bit where the newsboy is chanting "bad results of accident."
Most of which von Sternberg directs in a perfunctory manner. He isn't interested in the effect that social conditions have on people's motivations/ actions (surely the theme of the book). In his films, people are only roused from their world weary inertia because of their own feelings.
In short, von Sternberg is unsuited to the material. With such an unwieldy novel to film there are too many scenes where he simply points the camera at the actors (like almost every other director does) in boring scenes necessary for plot advancement. Compare this with the contemporaneous Shanghai Express, a film conceived and written by von Sternberg which never fails to be visually compelling, and the Scarlett Empress whose visual quality is unprecedented, perhaps in the whole of cinema.
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