Somewhere on the Paramount lot in 1928, Joseph von Sternberg filmed a wonderful silent picture called “The Docks of New York.” It stars George Bancroft as Bill Roberts, a boat stoker who saves a women attempting to drown herself. Betty Compson plays Mae, a passive-aggressive prostitute who falls into despair. After he jumps into the water and saves her, Bill becomes her protector.
As Bill nurses Mae back to life, it exposes a conflict within himself. As a seaman, he responds to the pull of the next ship sailing out. But, as Mae’s protector, a new and not entirely unwelcome feeling overcomes him. For the first time, he wonders about life ashore. To add emphasis to the contrasting worlds, von Sternberg shipboard scenes feature a smoky and dirty stokehole full of sweat and masculine energy. The docks include the strong presence of Mae and another bar girl, Lou, played by Olga Baclanova. Lou can hold her own against the sailor crowd, and she becomes a key figure in the story involving Bill and Mae.
von Sternberg gets all the atmospherics correct, but the strong acting of Bancroft and Compson keeps our interest. Bancroft’s offish Bill has his own sense of right and wrong, and Mae immediately recognizes that her brutish savior is not so bad. Compson is extraordinary as Mae — intermittently resigned to her miserable life and then able to express optimism at her good fortune. Mae doesn’t overdue her initial suspicions about Bill, even though she’s heard it all before, which makes her subsequent vulnerability so convincing.