The first film that director Josef von Sternberg made in the U.S. cost only $5,000 and had only eight characters, none of whom bore anything but descriptive names. We meet the three main characters—The Boy, The Girl, and The Child—at the docks in San Pedro, California, where the center of attraction is a huge dredge sucking up mud from he harbor to deposit into a barge. The Boy (George K. Arthur) makes several attempts to get a job, but to no avail. The Girl (Georgia Hale) hangs around the docks and is hit upon by an oafish character called, simply, the Brute. The Child (Bruce Guerin) is a young boy who is beaten by the Brute until the Boy saves him from his clutches. The three drift together, a kind of centripetal relationship in which they care for and defend one another, but do not have a dime.
When a black cat suddenly jumps out of a closed chest full of harbor mud, the three decide to leave for the city, which presents no improvement. It is full of smoke, telephone wires, and broken-down slums. Here they attract the attention of a pimp (called in the credits simply The Man) who offers them a seedy apartment next to one of his women. He then hangs around trying to figure how how to draw The Girl into the trade.
Georgia Hale was cast by Charley Chaplin as the leading lady in his next film, The Gold Rush (also 1925). In The Salvation Hunters, she is remarkably beautiful without any make-up whatsoever. When she thinks of hooking for The Man, she uses a burnt-out match the accentuate her eyebrows and borrows a dab of lipstick from her neighbor.
This is the second time I saw The Salvation Hunters. The first time was at UCLA in the period 1968-1972. I was initially so impressed by von Sternberg that I wanted to do my master’s thesis on him. In fact, I visited the director at his house in Westwood around 1969 (the year in which he died) and asked if he had access to any prints of his films which I could screen. He was actually very kind as a host, though his reputation is as something of an ogre. My friend Joe Adamson, who introduced the film at Cinecon 53 today, told of his answering questions of his painterly vision in film when he had taught at UCLA by saying, simply, “I did it because I am an artiste.” He wrote a book about his career entitled Fun in a Chinese Laundry, in which he takes a couple of hundred pages before mentioning, in a subordinate clause, that he was married.
Von Sternberg is best known today for the films he made with his protegeé, Marlene Dietrich. Some of these are among the greatest films ever made. Included among them are:
- The Blue Angel (1930)
- Morocco (1930)
- Dishonored (1931)
- Shanghai Express (1932)
- Blonde Venus (1932)
- The Scarlet Empress (1934), my favorite of his films
- The Devil Is a Woman (1935)
That said, I think all his films are worth seeing. Even if you may not like them, they will change the way you experience film.
I cannot but think that The Salvation Hunter was something of a flop in 1920s America: It depicted a European sense of allegory and universality (a la Murnau’s Sunrise) and poverty. It is not a film that is presented purely for your entertainment. But it is one of the best films made in that decade, along with several other von Sternberg offerings such as Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928), and The Docks of New York (1928).