This historical reprint was published in conjunction with the screening of Foolish Wives at SFSFF 2022.
Erich von Stroheim, clad in the bemedaled uniform of His Grace, Count Sergius Karamzin, and with the California sunshine bringing beads of uncountly perspiration to his brow, stood on a bench and waved a megaphone.
“Move, please move!” he shouted. “Show a little life, can’t you. You stand around like—a bunch of dead fish!” And many million dollars’ worth of extra people, who had never in all their expensive lives been called fish, dead or otherwise, obediently quickened their steps and displayed the required life as they strolled up and down the promenade at Monte Carlo.
It all happened on a certain warm afternoon at Point Lobos on the California Coast, and the “dead fish” were the top bubbles of the cream of San Francisco society, three hundred of them, who had motored down in their own limousines to provide the Monte Carlo crowds for the Universal feature, Foolish Wives, and to receive from President Carl Laemmle of Universal a check for five thousand dollars for two San Francisco charities. Allured by the prospect of “getting into the movies,” enjoying a unique week-end’s entertainment, and garnering a goodly sum for the needs of the Children’s Hospital and the Girls’ Recreation League, society set aside other engagements, packed its most fashionable afternoon garb, and provided Director Stroheim with almost an embarrassment of riches in the way of crowds.
Foolish Wives is a story that takes place principally at Monte Carlo. Universal City furnished a sufficiently satisfactory location on which to erect the Plaza with the Hotel de Paris, the Casino, and the Café de Paris. But Universal City’s resources in the matter of rocky coastline are limited, and Director Stroheim, stickler for detail that he is, demanded nothing less than a real ocean dashing against real cliffs along the Monte Carlo promenade. Along the cliffs was constructed the Monte Carlo promenade, three hundred and five feet long and sixty feet wide. Above this were the terraces and the Casino; below, the white-walled villa perched on a rocky point. Like its original, the Casino turned its back on the sea. You might stroll through the back door, but if you insisted on coming out at the front door, it meant a journey of some five hundred miles, for the other half of the Casino showing the front view, was built at Universal City, far away in southern California.
The first thing that society learned about “working in the movies” was that it meant getting up early. In the lobby of the Hotel Del Monte, where the extras assembled the night before the big day, stood a businesslike call-board. “Leave hotel at eight-thirty. Be on lot and made up at nine,” it said. Despite the late hours of a dinner dance the night before, society heroically got up at sunrise, yawned a little over breakfast, and embarked on the half hour’s drive to the location. So did all Monterey, Carmel, Del Monte, and way stations. To accommodate the many business men and women of many social engagements who took part, the scene was taken on Sunday. By the time the most belated extra had arrived, the motor display outside the gates made the ordinary automobile show look like the motor transport division of a two-reel comedy.
Some lucky extras won assignments to the tea-table brigade and sat comfortably at the terrace tables where correctly garbed waiters served them with real soft drinks and received real tips. The fortunate ones who might sit down were the envied of those whose lot it was to stroll from one end of the promenade to the other and back again. “All right,” telephoned Stroheim from the camera platform. “All ready!” shouted the assistants. “Walk—keep on walking—don’t all go one way—look out, don’t get in a bunch!”
Then came the first real test. Close-up shots of the same scene were wanted, and it became necessary for the crowd to hold the pose while the cameras were hastily moved down from the platforms. They did it like veterans, these first-time people. When hands that had been raised to hats when the whistle blew were cautiously lowered to relieve weary muscles the owners of the hands besought their neighbors to help them remember which hand had been up. At the tables, extras sat clutching their glasses and sipped not one forbidden sip. Out of the corners of their eyes they watched the fascinating and mysterious process of setting up cameras, placing reflectors, and getting ready for the next scene, but they obeyed orders and kept still.
For eight good hours the work went on, stopping only for a brief luncheon interval at noon when the basket lunches sent from the hotel vanished in short order under the onslaught of hungry crowds. The principals of Foolish Wives were luxuriating in as near to a day off as is likely to happen to principals working under such a busy and energetic director as Stroheim. Maude George in the black draperies of the romantically mysterious Princess Olga Petchnikoff, Marguerite Armstrong, one of the “foolish wives,” Mae Busch, Cesare Gravina, and the others were there, taking part in scenes upon call, but leaving most of the work to the extras. Not until sunset, when the light began to fail, did Director Stroheim finally release his actors.
When for the last time Director Stroheim shouted, “Cut!” the camera men picked up the precious reels. Long before then the audience had remembered that supper time was approaching and had started to drift away. For hours the narrow mountain road between Point Lobos and Del Monte was alive with an unbroken line of automobiles, bumper to tail light for the whole eleven miles. Last of all came Stroheim, tired but refusing to admit it.
“A good day’s work,” he said. “They all did beautifully. Only I’m sorry we had to stop. I wanted to get such a lot more.”
Editor’s note: The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the “cream of society” included the Joseph Tobins, the Raymond Armsbys, the Max Rothchilds, George Garitt, F.B. Morse, Harry Hunt, Prescott Scot, Clifford Weatherwax, Andrew Welch, Mrs. William Mayo Jr., Mrs. S.S. Hopkins, Mrs. Bernard Ford, and Mrs. Elkins de Guigne.
Condensed from the original published in Picture-Play magazine’s March 1921 issue.