Sunday, January 24, 2010


Erich Von Stroheim's career as a director was a two-front war. On one side he faced the American moralists who saw him as a degenerate foreigner out to corrupt the country's youth. On the other he faced studio executives who often sided with him in favor of mature content in film as long as it made money, which Stroheim's movies often did. The problem for the money men was that Stroheim spent too much and shot too much film. He seemed to think that a movie couldn't be too long. He thought his films could be shown in installments, and with that in mind television might have been his ideal medium. This film, like Greed, could be considered a miniseries fifty years ahead of its time. But since there was no market for a miniseries, Stroheim's films were edited into shambles of their former selves. The DVD of Foolish Wives is only about 2/3 the length of the first-run theatrical version, and even that 3.5 hour cut was regarded with horror by the director, who was shut out of the editing room, as the skeleton of his cinematic child. But it made money for Universal so the studio hired him again, on the condition that he not act in the next picture. That made it easier to fire him when he went over budget yet again. But even after that Irving Thalberg, the executive who sacked Stroheim, brought him to MGM for another tempestuous production, The Merry Widow -- which also made money.

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.

What were they seeing this time? In Foolish Wives Stroheim is Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin, formerly of the Russian imperial army and dispossessed of his estates by the Bolshevik Revolution -- or so he claims. It's never proven that he's not what he claims, but he's consorting with two "aristocrats" who are proven at the end to be criminal impostors. They're in Monaco living on borrowed and counterfeit money, looking for a big score either at the gambling tables or at some gullible person's expense. Their target is the wife (played by the unstellar-sounding "Miss Dupont") of the new American diplomatic representative, whom Karamzin is to seduce into a compromising position. The seduction never quite comes off but the wife is put into a compromising position. Unfortunately for Karamzin, he's in his own compromising position, having promised to marry his maid. He's quite the tom cat, even having the hots for the "half-wit" daughter of his counterfeiting colleague. When the maid, after getting suckered into giving him all her savings, overhears Karamzin pitching woo at the American, she snaps and burns the impostors' house down. Karamzin makes an ungentlemanly escape ahead of the diplomat's wife, only to be thrashed by the diplomat. He attempts to takes out his frustration on the half-wit girl, and from there it's on to the sewer.

What made Stroheim's loathsome characters palatable, even entertaining to 1920s American audiences may have been a certain clownishness that really comes through in Foolish Wives. For someone supposed to be the personification of the depraved Old World, Karamzin comes off, or came off to me, as an overgrown child, a spoiled brat. We're introduced to him by the ocean as he takes early morning target practice, telegraphed to us in pantomime when one of his co-conspirators turns her hand into a mock gun and pulls the trigger. Called to breakfast from his play, he hogs all the deviled eggs as the women look on with almost motherly knowingness. His military uniform can be seen as a big kid's playsuit as well as a fetishistic or simply iconic detail of Stroheim's stardom. Karamzin's comeuppance is no more final for Stroheim the star than a spanking would be; he dies the way a slapstick comedian might die before going to work on his next short subject.

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.

I don't mean to dismiss Stroheim completely as a menace. In fact, there's a scene in a gypsy's hut in which Karamzin is on the verge of raping the diplomat's wife in her sleep, only to be interrupted by a friar seeking shelter in the middle of a thunderstorm. As it all played out, the thought hit me that Stroheim would have made a great Dracula. He had the same evil charisma that Bela Lugosi often displayed, and was two years Bela's junior. And wouldn't you know? On the audio commentary a few minutes later Stroheim's persona was equated with Dracula as an archetypal foreign corrupter. Yeah...I can definitely see Stroheim as Dracula -- though he'd probably insist on the vampire wearing a uniform.

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 had a great eye but his narrative sensibility was novelistic rather than theatrical. He created stories by accumulating detail gradually and subtly, leaving it for desperate editors to find the decisive scenes that make a photoplay. We're supposed to have lost lots of enriching nuances in all of his films because Stroheim made movies the hard way and never learned to do otherwise. It's too bad, but the man was playing with other people's money. He was the sort of artist who needed a Medici for a patron but got Thalberg instead. The irony of that, for someone who's just read a Thalberg biography, was the way the producer himself succumbed to the stroheimliche temptations of gigantism and "prestige" in some of his own pet projects, but that may be a tale for another time.

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:

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

Great movie. I enjoyed it a lot more than Greed, but of course that movie is difficult to judge since it was cut by the studio to a fraction of its originasl running time.