Much like John, I always feel a little out of my element talking about silent film, but then again, who doesn’t? Not only is this the oldest, most archaic era of film history, it’s also the one that’s been most lost to history. Just looking at director Josef Von Sternberg’s filmography, this film is sandwiched in between two “lost films” (The Dragnet and The Case of Lena Smith), the latter of which was hailed as one of Von Sternberg’s best films. You’d think there would be some sort of apparatus in place for keeping great films from being lost, but alas, human beings make mistakes and even physical media can be just as fleeting as that on the internet. Still, you have to be thankful a film like The Docks of New York is able to survive and that a company like Criterion is willing to keep its availability alive.
The Docks of New York is incredibly straightforward from a storytelling perspective, but in that simplicity lies its ability to revel in some amazing imagery and a few memorable set pieces. The film starts off on a steamship headed for New York City, presumably sometime in the early 20th century before prohibition. We’re introduced to a gruff sailor with an appropriately no-nonsense name, Bill Roberts (played by George Bancroft), who’s looking to have a good time during his one night on land. He finds it at this raucous dance hall where everyone’s boozing and smoking and getting out of hand in the way that folks would only be able to do at a speakeasy when the film was shot. While stumbling around the edges of the saloon, Bill sees a prostitute named Mae (Betty Compson) jump into the water, attempting to commit suicide. However, Bill jumps in and saves her, then helps her into a bed in one of the rooms above the dance hall.
The next day, Bill nurses Mae back to health while the two of them get more acquainted and find themselves becoming infatuated with each other. Bill then steals her a dress and invites her out for a fun night at the tavern downstairs. As the night unfolds, Bill starts to feel as if he’s running out of time before he has to leave for another job, so he proposes to marry her on the spot. Despite the ridiculousness of this proposal, Mae obliges and their comrades at the bar are able to find a priest who reluctantly marries them. After Bill slips out the next morning for another assignment at sea, Bill’s boss, who has been lurking in the background of the movie, tries to force himself on Mae and is shot by his wife. However, Mae is blamed for the killing, and when word gets to Bill of her arrest, he hops off his boat and swims ashore, ready to clear Mae’s name.
As you can probably tell from that plot description, this is very clearly a pre-Hayes Code film. The amount of drinking and smoking and debauchery presented on screen is not what you typically equate with Hollywood’s Golden era, which makes it a bit surprising to see it so matter-of-factly depicted here. You kind of get the sense the film is a little giddy that it was able to set itself a few years prior, when drinking was legal. Though it’s also unsurprising that this would be a harder thing to put in a movie just a few years later, as the America of the early 20th century was clearly undergoing a moral makeover, even though it almost certainly had bigger problems to solve.
Paired with this honest depiction of the seedier side of New York life is a look at working-class people that I also don’t necessarily equate with the filmmaking of the post-sound era, but doesn’t feel out-of-step with Charlie Chaplin’s affinity for the poor and destitute. While this does add a hint of gritty realism to the film, it’s also awash in this whispy filmmaking style that feels like something out of a sailor’s weird dream. At least for the film’s first half, this combination of smoke and steam is wafting through every frame, both from boats that these shoremen are working on, but also from them smoking up a storm at the saloon.
Von Sternberg also employs several other impressive visual flourishes, as one that comes to mind is a long, proto-tracking shot where we first move through the bar and see all of it’s various patrons. Then there’s also a shot where we see Mae’s POV while reading a letter and moisture forms on the camera lense, indicating she’s starting to cry. This was my first Josef Von Sternberg movie, and from what little I’ve read about him, he’s heralded as more of a technical filmmaker than one obsessed with story or emotion, which makes sense considering his most notable films came from this period where the much more visual silent films were transitioning into talkies. I would say that’s more or less the case with The Docks of New York, as I don’t know that I was ever that invested in Bill and Mae’s romance, but the panache with which Sternberg brings this world to life is often breathtaking.
Another thing that makes The Docks of New York hold up is its willingness to incorporate comedic elements into what could be an overbearing slice of life. It seems that most of the silent films that hold up the best are comedies, so it helps that a stark drama like this doesn’t always take itself too seriously. There’s something inherently farcical about Bill and Mae’s whirlwind romance and the film milks that especially when they’re taking their vows. George Bancroft’s turn as the lead is compelling because he can be quite funny, but also doesn’t look at all like your typical leading man, which adds to his believability as a crusty sailor.
The Docks of New York was not particularly popular when it came out, which isn’t especially surprising considering the subject matter, but is even less surprising considering what period it came out in. The film was previewed by the New York press the same week as The Singing Fool, Al Jolson’s follow-up to The Jazz Singer that would further cement the sound era of filmmaking. But as it is, The Docks of New York doesn’t need sound. Its visuals alone are enough to make the film watchable, while it’s also a film that’s almost impossible to imagine being filmed in color. Not only does the black and white add to the dinginess of the characters’ lives, but its combination with all the smoke and water and haze makes it this wondrous concoction of dreamy greys.