Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 344
A story of mother love would, at first sight, seem strange material for Joseph von Sternberg's directorial genius. The director of The Salvation Hunters, Underworld and The Last Command has a record of achievement which would hardly qualify him to glorify motherhood in the exaggerated, hysterical manner which has been so much the mode on the screen….
So it was at least to be expected that von Sternberg would treat the motherhood theme with a difference, would divorce it from the obvious and perhaps even point it up with a touch of irony.
These expectations The Case of Lena Smith largely fulfills. (p. 11)
[The plot] is not altogether proof against criticism. The concealment of the marriage until almost the end, does seem a little tricky though it is effective in confounding our moral snooper. Also, parts of the court proceedings seem somewhat arbitrary. On the one hand it is news to us that a woman in Lena's position would have been deprived of the custody of her child simply because it was illegitimate, and on the other hand it would have been immediately restored to her after she waved her marriage certificate. Nor is the conviction on the contempt charge convincing….
Von Sternberg directs with his usual insight and his feeling for the scene, giving, in particular, a believable picture of Vienna. But sometimes he hurdles over difficulties somewhat too airily missing thereby the dramatic strengthening of his story by showing obstacles convincingly overcome. It is dangerous practice to confront a character with an insurmountable will and then to show him suddenly on the other side of the wall. We refer particularly to Lena's all too easy kidnapping of her son. She walks into a children's home in which there are apparently no locks, no night watchmen and no nurses on duty. But again this is a minor flaw in an otherwise exceptional picture, possibly a privilege of mother love seeking its own. (p. 12)
"Exceptional Photoplays: 'The Case of Lena Smith'," in National Board of Review Magazine (copyright, 1929), Vol. IV, No. 2, February, 1929, pp. 11-12.