Cast & Crew
Josef Von Sternberg
Thunderbolt Jim Lang, wanted on robbery and murder charges, ventures out with his girl, "Ritzy," to a Harlem nightclub, where she informs him that she is going straight. During a raid on the club, Thunderbolt escapes. His gang shadows Ritzy and reports that she is living with Mrs. Morgan, whose son, Bob, a bank clerk, is in love with Ritzy. Fearing for Bob's safety, Ritzy engineers a police trap for Thunderbolt; he escapes but is later captured, tried, and sentenced to be executed at Sing Sing. From the death house, he successfully plots to frame Bob in a bank robbery and killing. Bob is placed in the facing cell, and guards frustrate Thunderbolt's attempts to get to his rival. When Ritzy marries Bob in the death house, Thunderbolt pretends repentance, confessing his part in Bob's conviction. He plots to kill the boy on the night of his execution, but instead his hand falls on his shoulder in a gesture of friendship.
Josef Von Sternberg
E. H. Calvert
S. S. Stewart
William L. Thorne
George Bancroft, a gangster in two previous Sternberg films and the star of his bowery romance The Docks of New York, stars as Thunderbolt Jim Lang, a notorious bank robber and gangster, and Fay Wray is his girl Ritzy, but as the film opens she wants nothing more than to leave her most wanted beau. She yearns for a normal life and is secretly dating Bob Morgan (Richard Arlen), a modest, stalwart bank teller who lives with his doting mother. The idea that his girl is throwing him over for another man, let alone a civilian, is more than Thunderbolt can endure and his ego becomes his Achilles heel. The gangster movie drama leaves the streets and hideouts and nightclubs for the stillness of death row in the final act. It's a far more ascetic set where Sternberg uses the bars of the cells the same way he uses nets and screens and smoke in other films to layer the images on the screen.
The cliché of the early sound era is that the films are all stiff and static, with awkward, overly-theatrical dialogue and performances, flat sound, and stagey direction. While that is true for some films, it's also true that many filmmakers embraced and experimented with the new dimension and brainstormed solutions to overcome the limitations of early microphones and cameras locked in soundproof booths. While Sternberg's camera is still in many shots, with action and energy created through editing and the movement of actors within the frame, he moves the camera in other scenes and introduces one of the film's defining relationships (between Thunderbolt and a stray dog) with a graceful tracking shot.
The tough-guy drama and gangster romanticism of Thunderbolt is co-written by Jules Furthman, a favorite collaborator who went on to script Morocco (1930), Shanghai Express (1932), and Blonde Venus (1932) for Sternberg, with dialogue by the witty Herman J. Mankiewicz, future co-writer of Dinner at Eight (1933), The Pride of the Yankees (1942), and of course Citizen Kane (1941). The banter among the crooks and the cops is terse and snappy, a rough draft for the patter and byplay of the rapid-fire movies of the early 1930s. In contrast to the speedy delivery of the cast, Bancroft takes his time, making the characters wait for him to respond. He lets everyone know who is in charge, even when he's behind bars.
Throughout the film, Sternberg uses sound to paint audio images. When the cops raid a speakeasy, a lively underground nightclub where black and white patrons mingle, Thunderbolt's escape is heard in muffled gunfire in the distance while the camera remains on Ritzy, sitting alone at the table she earlier shared with Thunderbolt. It doesn't only suggest offscreen action, it eloquently illustrates Ritzy's situation, once again abandoned by a man whose violent life keeps them apart and whose brazen ego refuses to let her go. Sternberg also ingeniously scores the film with music that arises organically out of the scene, from the nightclub act of the speakeasy to the prison scenes where one inmate plays a piano, a handful of condemned men form an a cappella quartet, and a small prison orchestra plays on execution days. The songs set the mood, pace the story, and provide counterpoint when appropriate (the song "Rock-a-Bye-Baby" plays when Thunderbolt knocks out a fellow inmate). German filmmaker Ludwig Berger sent Sternberg a telegram praising his use of sound: "I saw your film Thunderbolt and congratulate you with all my heart. It is the first fully realized and artistically accomplished Sound film. Bravo!"
George Bancroft earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance, the only one of his career. Sternberg, meanwhile, took the lessons he learned making his sound film debut and went to Germany to direct the sound debut of German actor Emil Jannings, who Sternberg had directed to an Academy Award in The Last Command (1928). The film was The Blue Angel (1930) and, under the direction of Sternberg, it launched a new star: Marlene Dietrich, who Sternberg brought back with him to Hollywood.
The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg, John Baxter. A.S Barnes and Co., 1971.
The Films of Josef von Sternberg, Andrew Sarris. Museum of Modern Art, 1966.
Fun in a Chinese Laundry, Josef von Sternberg. The Macmillan Company, 1965.
Josef von Sternberg, Herman G. Weinberg. E.P Dutton & Co., 1967.
By Sean Axmaker
Fay Wray (1907-2004)
She was born Vina Fay Wray, in Cardston, Alberta, Canada on September 15, 1907. Her family relocated to Arizona when she was still a toddler so her father could find employment. When her parents divorced, her mother sent her to Hollywood when Fay's eldest sister died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. The reasoning was that Southern California offered a healthier climate for the young, frail Wray.
She attended Hollywood High School, where she took some classes in drama. After she graduated, she applied to the Hal Roach studio and was given a six-month contract where she appeared in two-reel Westerns (25 minutes in length), and played opposite Stan Laurel in his pre-Oliver Hardy days.
She landed her first big role, as Mitzi Schrammell, in Erich von Stroheim's beautifully mounted silent The Wedding March (1928). It made Wray a star. She then starred in some excellent films: The Four Feathers (1929), the early Gary Cooper Western The Texan (1930), and one of Ronald Coleman's first starring roles The Unholy Garden (1931), all of which were big hits of the day.
For whatever reason, Wray soon found herself in a string of thrillers that made her one of the great screamers in Hollywood history. The titles say it all: Doctor X, The Most Dangerous Game (both 1932), Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Vampire Bat (both 1933) and, of course her most famous role, that of Ann Darrow, who tempts cinema's most famous ape in the unforgettable King Kong (also 1933).
Wray did prove herself quite capable in genre outside of the horror game, the best of which were Shanghai Madness with Spencer Tracy; The Bowery (both 1933), a tough pre-Hays Code drama opposite George Raft; and the brutal Viva Villa (1934), with Wallace Beery about the famed Mexican bandit. Yet curiously, the quality of her scripts began to tank, and she eventually found herself acting in such mediocre fare as Come Out of the Pantry (1935), and They Met in a Taxi (1936).
With her roles becoming increasingly routine, the last of which was the forgettable comedy Not a Ladies Man (1942), she decided to trade acting for domesticity and married Robert Riskin, who won two Best Screenplay Oscars® for the Frank Capra comedies It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). When Riskin died in 1955, Wray found herself working to keep busy and support her three children. She landed supporting parts for films like The Cobweb (1955), Hell on Frisco Bay (1956) and Tammy and the Bachelor (1957). She also found work in television on such popular programs as Perry Mason and Wagon Train before she retired from acting all together in the mid-'60s.
To her credit, Wray did remain reasonably active after her retirement. She published her autobiography, On The Other Hand in 1989 and was attending many film festivals that honored her contribution to film, most notably in January 2003, when, at 95 years of age, she accepted in person her "Legend in Film" Award at the Palm Beach International Film Festival. Wray is survived by a son, Robert Riskin Jr.; two daughters, Susan and Victoria; and two grandchildren.
by Michael T. Toole
Fay Wray (1907-2004)
A pressbook for this film calls it "a story of a hard-fighting man who lives outside the law in the hidden places of the Negro district." Quoting director Josef von Sternberg on casting for the Harlem scenes, the pressbook continues, "we were fortunate that Los Angeles has a miniature Harlem of its own in its Central Avenue district. A thorough search gave us scores of Negroes who have really lived in Harlem. Harlem, which extends from 125th to 140th streets, New York, brings heart-beats of southern plantations to metropolitan civilization. Sensation-seeking Broadwayites make these cafés possible, coming to dance shoulder-to-shoulder with habitues of this black metropolis to the beat of staccato jazz."