The Crank is a graduate student organization that runs weekly screenings of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s extensive holdings. The Crank shows films that either are not widely available on video or are such spectacular specimens of nitrate and celluloid that merely to see them on a television set would be a crime both to the student of film and to the canon of film history.
When asked about the transition to sound, Josef von Sternberg remarked, “There never were silent movies. The actors spoke and the titles reproduced their lines. There also was the accompanying music, which I preferred to choose myself. Thus, far from being opposed to the talkies, I made sound films myself right away. I even made one before The Blue Angel.” Indeed, sound has always played a highly important role in the work of von Sternberg. Yet the director’s first sound film, Thunderbolt, is frequently overlooked in surveys of the director’s career.
George Bancroft plays the titular character, Thunderbolt, a gangster on death row, in a performance that would earn him an Academy Award nomination. Upset that his girl (Fay Wray) has moved on to a new man, Thunderbolt conspires from behind bars to frame him. When his rival is placed in the cell next door, Thunderbolt’s new goal becomes to stave off execution long enough to get revenge on the man who stole his girl. The gangster film continues in the tradition of two of von Sternberg’s earlier films also starring Bancroft, Underworld and The Dragnet (a film that is unfortunately lost to us today). Andrew Sarris is careful to note that the von Sternberg rendition of the gangster story is more akin to a gangster fantasy than to a gangster film.
Yet unlike its predecessors, Thunderbolt is a sound film. Upon its release Ludwig Berger sent von Sternberg a telegram proclaiming that it was “the first fully realized and artistically accomplished sound film.” Other critics have noted that Thunderbolt seems in some ways ahead of its time in terms of its use of sound. Ron Mottram points to von Sternberg’s constant use of asynchronous sound in the film, claiming it to be “the very opposite of the idea of the dull, static, endlessly talking early sound film.” If visually the film is, as Herman Weinberg notes, “cold and gray…unprettified in the slightest degree,” aurally we are granted a certain depth.
Von Sternberg utilizes sound quite effectively in the creation of space. Most importantly, off-screen space plays a highly important role in the film. Mottram notes that von Sternberg’s use of sound gives the impression “that the world of the film is almost always greater than that represented on-screen.” Throughout the film we are treated to the sounds of sirens, gunshots, and songs, yet the source is frequently unseen. The scenes taking place in the prison feature characters talking to each other almost constantly,
even though in many cases they cannot see each other. While these conversations play an integral role in the film, Janet Bergstrom notes the “unrealistic cadence” that characterizes the dialogue in the film.
In addition to the dialogue and sound effects, which are undoubtedly important, music is featured quite prominently in the film. Sarris notes that Thunderbolt “is in some respects as much a musical as a melodrama.” Thunderbolt features music in the foregrounding of jazz in the scenes set in Harlem as well as in the spirituals sung by prison inmates. Von Sternberg’s innovative use of sound both offscreen and on-screen works with the stunning visual qualities to make this film worth more serious consideration. Bergstrom notes that “nothing is more certain than that Sternberg’s films cannot be appreciated—not really—unless they are projected onto the big screen.” We are lucky today to have the chance to view this unique film in its original 35mm format.
Special thanks to Janet Bergstrom, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media, and the Program in Cinema and Media Studies.
Bergstrom, Janet. “Josef von Sternberg, Not Only Dietrich.” Program Notes. Bologna, 2008.
Mottram, Ron. “American Sound Films 1926-1930.” Ed. Elisabeth Weis and John Belton. Film Sound: Theory and Practice. Columbia University Press, 1985.
Sarris, Andrew. The Films of Josef von Sternberg. The Museum of Modern Art, 1966.
Weinberg, Herman. Josef von Sternberg. Dutton, 1967.