When Erich von Stroheim directed his first movie in 1919, it quickly became apparent that Hollywood wasn’t ready for him. Hollywood may still not be ready for him. Today, directing a movie means overseeing the creation of 90 easy-to-follow minutes of entertainment, delivered on time and within a reasonable budget. Stroheim wasn’t in this game to make mere movies—he wanted to create worlds, infinitely detailed macrocosms where actors spooned out real caviar instead of look-alike blackberry jam, strolled among sets architectural enough to pass for real city squares, thumbed through prop banknotes so authentic the director faced charges of counterfeiting, and limped across the real Death Valley.
He wanted stories that unfolded languorously, at the pace of real life, around the complicated interactions of his lusty, conflicted characters. He wanted to be supreme and autocratic dictator of a reality he nurtured from the tiniest blade of grass into a multitudinous, multifaceted portrait of existence. Hollywood, however, just wanted movies. And that inability to deliver what Hollywood wanted was the end of director Erich von Stroheim.
Before he began inventing worlds, Stroheim invented himself. He arrived at Ellis Island in 1909, the self-declared son of an Austrian count, or a colonel, or a commanding officer, depending on what story he was sticking to that day, grandly inserting the “von” into his surname when prompted by the immigration clerk. The 24-year-old shuffled through several menial jobs and somehow wormed his way into the movie business as an extra by 1915. His big break came the day Stroheim (always the fetishist for detail) pointed out that an actor playing a European was wearing the wrong type of ribbon of honor. Stroheim was hired as technical consultant for the film, an opportunity he springboarded into being cast as dapper, dastardly “Prussian type” villains for the newly Germanophobic movie going public.
Finally, “Count von” Stroheim could wear the monocle, crisp white gloves and shiny boots befitting real nobility. So what if was as a leering, bestial caricature of his countrymen? Demeaning or not, he played it well. In The Heart of Humanity (1918), he’s so enraged at how a baby’s cry is distracting him from raping the child’s mother that he grabs the infant—a real, screaming child, not a dummy—by the shirtfront and hurls it out the window(!), a sequence that’s still terrifying and ripe with menace today.
The Heart of Humanity made Stroheim a recognizable commodity, “The Man You Love To Hate”. But like the cliché of every actor who makes his way to Hollywood, what Stroheim really wanted to do was direct. Powerfully persuasive, he convinced Carl Laemmle, boss of Universal Pictures, that he was ready to helm a whole feature—an original story entitled The Pinnacle. Laemmle agreed, but mid-production he announced Universal would change the title, concerned the great unwashed would confuse it with the card game “pinochle”.
If you were a first time director, granted near carte blanche to write, cast, and direct a feature film that could possibly begin a long and fruitful career, how would you respond to this minor request? Stroheim took out a ranting full page ad in Motion Picture News decrying the title change to Blind Husbands, “a name in which there is no beauty—no sense of the artistic. A name which I would have rejected in disgust had it been submitted to me.” Lucky for him, Blind Husbands did well enough at the box office for Laemmle to hire him again to direct The Devil’s Pass Key. That movie (now one of the legion of lost silent films) was probably about 134 minutes, pretty long in an era when the lengthiest features topped out at 80. Surprisingly, Stroheim didn’t raise a stink when Universal demanded it be edited down to a manageable running time, but that’s because he was deeply immersed in his next, grandest, and most hubristic undertaking.
Foolish Wives was Stroheim’s first masterpiece, a richly convoluted, decadent roll in the Eurotrash gutter with Monte Carlo flimflam artist Count Karamzin (Stroheim) and his two live-in “cousins” Her Highness Olga and Princess Vera Petchikoff (Maude George and Mae Busch, respectively). The ménage-a-trois finances their high-roller lifestyle through counterfeiting and by shamelessly siccing the darkly charming Karamzin on moneyed, naïve, and sexually neglected tourists like American Helen Hughes (Miss DuPont). When Karamzin (a character so explicitly vampiric he takes a jigger of oxblood for breakfast) eyes Helen reading in the hotel lounge, his gaze is redolent with wolfish intent. Helen’s taken with his veneer of old country manners, however, and falls under his sway.
She’s not the only one. The family’s Frankenstein-faced maid Maruschka (Dale Fuller) has also been ruined by Karamzin and begs him to marry her, a charade he upholds until he’s stripped her of her meager savings. Plus, he’s got designs on the counterfeiter’s daughter, Marietta (Malvina Polo), perversely because she’s pretty, retarded, and carries a dolly everywhere. Depravities abound until the family’s respectable façade falls and Karamzin’s corpse is stuffed down a manhole.
Even discounting its not-ready-for-Peoria storyline, Stroheim had problems with Universal over Foolish Wives from the get-go. The cost of the production spiraled close to one million, if not over—not surprising when you realize the scenes in Monte Carlo’s grand city squares, casinos, and mansions were not shot on location but on elaborate, specially constructed sets. By the end of 11 months of shooting, Stroheim had 320 reels of exposed negative. (By comparison, the longest D.W. Griffith epics maxed out at 12 or 13 reels of raw footage.) One of Stroheim’s lead actors, Rudolph Christians, died before the shoot’s conclusion. Unwilling to shoot the entire movie over with a new actor, per Stroheim’s request, Universal pulled the plug, insisted the necessary scenes be shot with a double, and demanded Stroheim deliver a marketable film. Stroheim instead delivered a marathon piece of cinema, clocking out at eight—count them, eight—hours of interlocking narrative, symbolism, debauchery, and spectacle. He declared it “a perfect story.” Universal did not agree.
Who has the patience to watch an eight-hour movie? Nobody in 1922, that’s for sure. But think of it this way: could you, or have you accidentally, watched an entire season of The Sopranos, or Sex In the City, or Queer as Folk in one day? To watch what’s left of Foolish Wives is to see a director waiting for episodic dramatic television, the medium that’ll showcase him best. Stroheim is not a sweeping cinematic director like Griffith or John Ford—he’s not in love with wide vistas or showy camera moves that long to stretch out on a big screen. His frames are tight and stationary—mediums, close-ups, the occasional long shot just for a sense of place. His films don’t feel crammed when you see them on TV. In fact, they feel like they’re sized to fit. His narratives aren’t marked with the thunderbolt cues of a three act story, but instead develop gradually out of complex character interactions and small, self-contained side plots. Stroheim would have been a fantastic television director, free to spin out 13-hour movies as a full season of edgy, mature, character-driven drama. How far is Foolish Wives, really, from Desperate Housewives?
Don’t blame Laemmle for not being visionary enough to see the future of cable TV. He just needed to make his money back. After several rounds of editing, a three-and-a-half hour version of Foolish Wives premiered in January 1922. It was a miserable compromise—Stroheim hated how they’d shaved his story down to nothing, but Universal still thought it was too long. They chopped it up again. Then the censors had their turn. The end result was a mutilated, incoherent 85 minutes. Imagine the first season of Lost edited down to an 85 minute movie and how much would be, well, lost. Stroheim mournfully referred to this final print as “the skeleton of my dead child”.
Watching Foolish Wives today is an exercise in frustration. There’s so much to admire: the ballsy story elements, the glamorous vistas, the subtle shifting of loyalties and intrigue, the way the actors don’t mug and gern like their silent film contemporaries but instead convey natural and subtle nuance of feeling, and of course, the incomparably, deliciously evil presence of Stroheim the actor. But I still can’t say I’ve seen the film. Despite the best efforts of film historian and Stroheim biographer Arthur Lennig (who, upon discovering an alternate European print containing shots not in the American release, combined the two and restored the film to the most complete version that will ever exist), Stroheim’s eight-hour work of art is forever lost. To still be considered one of the great directors on the basis of two maimed films (Foolish Wives and the equally slashed Greed) is an incredible achievement. But for Stroheim, it was an accolade with a bitter core.
The Foolish Wives fiasco was the first nail in the coffin of Stroheim’s directorial career. It ended where he began, as an actor, often playing the same evil Hun caricature that had given him his start. Which brings us to Sunset Boulevard, and his most-recognized modern role as Max von Mayerling, the once great director reduced to butler-cum-lapdog for deposed movie queen Norma Desmond. “There were three young directors who showed promise in those days,” he lectured the cynical screenwriter Joe Gillis. “D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and Max Von Mayerling.”. But we know who he really meant.