A hundred years ago, and for most of a year, Erich von Stroheim commanded Foolish Wives, as writer, director, and star. Universal had allotted him $250,000 as a budget, but the “Von” took that sum as provocation. His previous film, Blind Husbands, had been costed at just $25,000, but he had spent ten times that amount. What the hell—the film turned out a hit. So on Foolish Wives, Stroheim began to scatter more than a million dollars. The film was set in Monte Carlo, and he told Universal to build it anew with palaces and plazas on the Californian coast, and make it lavish. (This was Richard Day’s debut as art director. He later won seven Oscars and was part of Greed, Dodsworth, and On the Waterfront.)
It was Stroheim’s first plan to deliver a six-hour picture, to play on consecutive nights. He regarded it as his artistic duty to defy reason and financial modesty. As befitted Monte Carlo, he was a constant gambler and at first that overawed his studio.
Until another man opposed him. Irving Thalberg was as slender and medically problematic as Stroheim was stocky and robust. (These titans were both five feet six.) At the age of twenty, Thalberg had been hired by Carl Laemmle to introduce financial order at Universal. So he warned Stroheim about spending too much money on big scenes that had little to do with the tight, sardonic melodrama. He said he might fire the Von, to which Stroheim replied, how can you lose me—I’m the star? Fisticuffs were threatened. “Since when does a child instruct a genius?” demanded Stroheim. So Thalberg confiscated his camera.
The shooting came to a close. Foolish Wives proved to be another hit. Whereupon Stroheim strode away to the Goldwyn studio and began to make a picture from the Frank Norris novel McTeague that would be called Greed. But he took so long over it there was time for a business merger—the formation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—and who would he find as his production chief there but Irving.
Instead of his desired six hours, Universal had cut Foolish Wives down to 117 minutes. We are showing a newly restored version of 147 minutes (the project of this festival and MoMA in New York), with ravishing hand-tinted color passages, and it’s natural for film festivals to believe in regaining every precious minute. But have a care: I knew one of the few people alive in the late 1980s who had seen Stroheim’s full-length Greed. Irene Mayer Selznick had spent a day with the director’s cut. She admired the film enormously, and understood its daring, but she believed it was absurdly long because Stroheim could not control himself. He had to show everything, and then show it again and again.
So the budgetary splendor of Foolish Wives—Universal promoted it as the first million-dollar movie—and the re-creation of a Monte Carlo more Ruritanian than Mediterranean actually distracts us from the incisive intimacy in psychological scenes. But that requires a fuller appreciation of Stroheim and his self-destructive urges.
He had no right to that “von” and its suggestion of aristocracy. Born in 1885, Erich Stroheim was not Prussian (as he sold himself in Hollywood), but the son of a Viennese hatmaker. He was Jewish, with no advantages, except for the utter conviction that he should pretend to be tall, all-conquering, and a genius. He may be the first great trickster in American film (though the field is crowded with such upstarts).
He came to America in 1909 and not enough is known about him for several years, until he turned up in Hollywood and offered himself for what you might call “Hun” parts—cruel, arrogant officers to match the stereotype that Germany after 1914 was a very bad thing. He had the extra insight to announce his expertise on military uniforms so that he would also be employed to advise on costume. This was smoke and mirrors: he had never done any military service.
The trick worked, and so in Foolish Wives he dominates the screen in a white tunic, crossed belt and medals, boots and breeches, and a military cap worn at a rakish angle to rhyme with the slant of his cigarette holder. Plus, he has a monocle for class.
I say dominates because the Von reveled in his bogus image. He photographs his character with an awe and an erotic suspense that surpasses his eye for women. The film has several female characters but they are variously stupid, pathetic, or vicious. The count exploits them all but then smiles at us as if to say, “Well, wouldn’t you do the same?” He was about to be labeled for eternity, by Universal and the media, as “The man you love to hate.”
Exulting in this fakery, he was a pioneer in understanding how America and Hollywood depended on outrageous pretending. So he appears to be established in Monte Carlo as “Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin,” impeccably uniformed, with two “cousins,” both “princesses,” as entourage. They are actually his former lovers, with criminal records; the trio are desperately on the make, close to going broke. So the count makes a play for Mrs. Hughes, the twenty-one-year-old wife to the new American envoy to Monte Carlo, a man more than twice her age. (She is played by “Miss Dupont.” That was not her real name; why shouldn’t an actress aspire to class?) This is where you can begin to feel the master arranger in Stroheim and the icy humorist.
The count makes himself evident to Mrs. Hughes on the veranda outside her hotel. He says nothing, but watches her and taps his boot with his stick. She begins to be disconcerted or wooed, and can hardly concentrate on the romance novel she is reading. But Stroheim lets us see that book: it is Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim! This is as funny and rueful as the moment in Sunset Blvd. when we realize that his Max von Mayerling is not just Norma Desmond’s butler, but her ex-husband and constant director.
The very expensive public buildings of Monte Carlo are conventionally impressive, but Foolish Wives is most gripping in one-on-one confrontations, where Stroheim filmed watchful faces with an acuity that few matched in 1922. In one scene, the counterfeit count takes Mrs. Hughes for a country outing. Marooned by a storm, they retreat to a humble cottage. The drenched woman needs to change her clothes. The count sits on the other side of the room in a high-backed chair. But then he uses his hand mirror (he’s never without it) to gloat over the woman’s bare back. Not many scenes that early had grasped the intrinsic voyeurism of the medium.
The gloomy self-delight in the bond between Stroheim’s camera and his wolf’s face is a mark of how far ahead of his time he was. There were plenty of villains in films of the early ’20s, and we were seldom in doubt about what to think of them. So the count is a fraud, a user, a coward, and a suave monster. But what keeps this film alive is the way we are compromised in watching him. Here is a picture fascinated by a medium that cannot keep a straight or disapproving face for wickedness. The count comes to a bad end in the way of another Viennese charmer, Harry Lime from The Third Man. But Stroheim films the count like a rascal passing hours in front of his own mirror. His balancing of love and loathing in our response opened up whole rooms of psychological intrigue, richer than his cardboard Monte Carlo.
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Timothy Brock conducting the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra
Before the screening New York’s MoMA received the 2022 SFSFF Award for commitment to the preservation and presentation of silent cinema.