Stroheim was a popular director, despite all the howls of protest against his movies by self-appointed tribunes of middle-American morals. He was marketable in his own right as both a director and an actor, making him a calculated risk that nearly every studio in turn took up until he'd finally burned all his bridges. He made himself a star during World War I by playing the definitive Hun, the evil Prussian enemy. Stroheim was actually Austrian and when he gained creative control over his own career he changed his persona from brute to decadent, though some observers seem hardly to have noticed the difference. But from the way moralists complained against his films you would think he was advocating depravity as fun for everyone. On the evidence of Foolish Wives that's just not so. He presents himself here as a completely contemptible villain who gets a most fitting comeuppance for his offenses; his corpse is dumped into a Monte Carlo sewer. Yet the film was condemned as if Stroheim had made himself the hero, and you could actually argue the point. A star, arguably, is the hero of any star vehicle, the center of attention, the person you came to see, no matter how wickedly he acts. In this case, Stroheim was "The Man You Love to Hate," and that famous slogan probably gets us quickest to the heart of the problem. People wanted to see Stroheim do his evil thing, the same way they flocked to see Lon Chaney play his grotesque roles. In both cases, the actor's charisma transcends the repellent characters he plays. Stroheim playing evil was like Chaplin playing the tramp; you knew what you were in for and you went for that reason. So the outraged moralist might well conclude that if Americans threw their money at Stroheim repeatedly to watch his decadent act, he must have corrupted them somehow.
Stroheim sneaks a peek at a married woman in this nicely-composed shot. Below, he seems to be waiting for us to go away before he goes to work on his victim.
Butchery it may be, but what we have of Foolish Wives is quite good. Kino's DVD features the restoration by Arthur Lennig, who is the local cineaste in my territory. I never took any of his classes at SUNY Albany but I did quite religiously attend the old film showings he hosted at the Troy Public Library back in the 1980s. It's too bad that he didn't do the commentary track, since he's a great talker about cinema and even did a brief stint as a movie host on a local indy channel way back when. But I digress. Wives proves Stroheim to be a paradoxical director. Visually he was one of the most advanced filmmakers of his time. He wasn't big on camera movement but he was all over the place with angles and encouraged his cinematographers to innovate with lighting effects.
Stroheim built massive sets on the D.W. Griffith model for Foolish Wives (above) while looking forward to the film noir era in his lighting effects (below).
Stroheim's movies, as we see them now, are adaptations of Stroheim's movies the way other movies adapt other stories from other media. We ought to regret not having them in their true forms, but at the same time each film as is is still considered a classic of silent cinema. We should have them as he made them, but maybe there's no use crying over the spilt milk of movie history. Instead, maybe we should give Stroheim extra credit for producing raw material of such consistent high quality that even the most ruthless editing couldn't screw them up.
Here's gregoryagogo's homage to a man who knew how to smoke a cigarette: