Foolish Wives, Erich von Stroheim
Flicker Alley

Erich von Stroheim Outraged Those Who Lined Up To Be Outraged with ‘Foolish Wives’

In monocle and leather boots, waving a whip, and fetishizing his character into a camp masterpiece, Erich von Stroheim never winks in Foolish Wives, but you see the glint in his eye.

Foolish Wives
Erich von Stroheim
Flicker Alley
14 July 2023

“The first real million dollar picture” was how Universal advertised Erich von Stroheim‘s 1922 silent film Foolish Wives, and that was an example of how the publicity machine turns a bug into a feature. Flicker Alley’s DVD/Blu-ray combo of the film’s 2020 restoration, as conducted by the Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, gives us a new chance to appreciate the extravagance of Stroheim’s achievement.

Stroheim’s third feature for Universal was conceived as a kind of companion or answer to his 1919 debut feature, Blind Husbands. One of the anecdotes in the disc’s extras is that Stroheim wondered aloud that if husbands were blind, what were wives? His wife, Valerie Germonprez, answered “Foolish”, and a title was born.

It’s as good an origin story as any, but the opening credits proclaim that Foolish Wives is based on a novel of the same title by Stroheim. With no such title found in Geoffrey D. Smith’s American Fiction, 1901-1925: A Bibliography published in 1997 by Cambridge University Press, I believe that’s a bogus credit signaling a meta-fictional thread that runs through Foolish Wives‘ narrative, in which the heroine reads Stroheim’s novel and never seems to realize it’s about her.

The opening scene introduces three alleged Russian royals occupying the Villa Amorosa, a huge cliffside house. Prince Karamzin (Stroheim) is a crack shot. His two “cousins” are just cracked: Princess Olga (Maude George) and Princess Vera (Mae Busch). They sit down to breakfast on the terrace, where Karamzin imbibes his daily “oxblood” wine and slathers caviar on his dainties. The browbeaten little maid Maruschka (Dale Fuller) skulks and whimpers. Olga has pinched her arm for some infraction.

A counterfeiter named Ventucci (Cesare Gravina) arrives to conduct business, accompanied by his “half-witted daughter” Marietta (Malvina Polo), who clutches a doll baby like a slovenly zombie. Karamzin eyes her up and down and licks his lips, as he did with his oxblood, and we know his character is pushing at the standards of lascivious scumbaggery in cinema.

This is all part of why Stroheim proudly embodied a persona as “the man you love to hate”, always at the expense of Old World military aristocrats. Stroheim created this image for himself and affected it for the rest of his life rather than tell people he was the son of a Jewish milliner in Vienna. Dolled up in monocle and leather boots, sporting a white coat with medals, waving a whip, and generally fetishizing his person into a camp masterpiece, Stroheim spent his career puncturing the class of people who wouldn’t have given him the time of day, and it must have felt good. He never winks, but if you gaze deeply, you see the glint in his eye.

Just as the audience is wondering whether these Karamzins are what they claim to be, either as decadent aristocrats or as relatives, our trio reads in the paper about a new American ambassador to Monte Carlo arriving today. (In a typical Stroheim touch, the underwhelming Prince of Monaco looks rather like a cleaned-up street bum.)

The “cousins” fall to scheming that if Karamzin can use his, let’s say his charm, to make friends with the ambassador’s “lonely” wife, they can all benefit from public acceptance in the face of malicious (or accurate) gossip. And if he really makes friends with her, perhaps they can get some cash out of it. “But remember, this is business,” warns Olga before they go out to walk their two Borzois.

The rest of the machinations are equally oily and queasy. If you’re expecting Karamzin to redeem himself with the recognition of an American wife’s sweet, trusting purity, you’ll be waiting a long time. The cluelessness of Helen Hughes (Patty DuPont) would wear on anyone’s nerves, and her older and duller husband Andrew (Rudolph Christians, who died during production) is only slightly more on the ball.

Many upright and uptight critics in 1922 complained that Foolish Wives was a slur on American womanhood for Helen’s allowing herself to be fooled by Karamzin’s continental airs. We might agree if they called it a slur on her intelligence, but we already know Karamzin goes in for the halfwits. He introduces himself to her while she’s on a patio reading a novel called Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim. Is the book named for the film or vice versa?

The action takes place very convincingly in post-WWI Monte Carlo, as populated by thousands of extras. Some people are lavishly dressed members of the best upper set, and many others are uniformed officers and soldiers. Some of these are visibly wounded or in wheelchairs.

Watching Foolish Wives today, the viewer can easily believe it was shot on location in Europe, and that’s part of Stroheim’s meticulous audacity in sparing no expense to fool us. Bonus features explain how everything was shot in California. Interiors were on Hollywood stages, while the massive seaside exteriors recreated a casino, a promenade, and a castle-like mansion at Point Lobos on the Monterey Peninsula. These constructions are staggering. Rich locals from up and down the coast were invited to show up as extras (in their own clothes and jewels) for charity. That’s extravagance and economy in the same breath. According to news reports and photos, everyone had a marvelous time.

Universal watched the production go very far over time and budget due to Stroheim’s insistence on expensive details and also to a string of disasters ranging from a storm that destroyed the initial sets to the death of a main star. Rather than pull their hair, the studio promoted all this cost and turmoil, thus generating a frenzy of anticipation and turning Foolish Wives into a kind of cultural event.

New production chief Irving Thalberg eventually shut down production and forced the miles of footage to be assembled into a film, rejecting Stroheim’s six-hour cut and eventually settling on a general release in the neighborhood of two and a half hours. What we have in this restoration is still more than 4,000 feet short of the original premiere.

We still haven’t mentioned censorship problems. At least two pregnancies got removed from the final cut, which shows how far Stroheim was prepared to outrage the middle-class sensitivities who lined up to be outraged. That footage couldn’t be found, nor the reels of material prior to the breakfast scene that now opens the film. The resolution is also strangely truncated and indirect, which makes it all the more sinister.

This restoration does what it can by comparing two existing prints (both problematic), consulting ancillary references, cleaning and restoring the image with tinting and toning, and commissioning a new orchestral score by Timothy Brock. One of the most striking elements is the hand-tinted fire during a climactic sequence. In conjunction with the extras that shed light on the restoration process and details of the production and a booklet full of excellent historical material, the Flicker Alley Blu-ray/DVD of Foolish Wives provides the best account yet of a film that’s been inducted into the National Film Registry and still has the power to impress.