Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Foolish Wives

Saia on Film

By Jonathon Saia

Foolish Wives (Universal, 1922) – Director: Erich von Stroheim. Writers: Erich von Stroheim (story, scenario & titles), Marian Ainslee (titles), Walter Anthony (titles). Stars: Rudolph Christians, Miss DuPont, Maude George, Mae Busch, Erich von Stroheim, Dale Fuller, Albert Edmondson, Cesare Gravina, Malvina Polo & C.J. Allen. Silent, B&W, 117 minutes.

So, you won’t go back to Hollywood unless you have a job?”

No, why should I? If you lost your job on a newspaper it would make you very unhappy to hang around a newspaper waiting for something to happen.”

Art Buchwald interviewing Erich von Stroheim for the Paris Herald Tribune, 01/26/54 

At the time of this quote, Erich von Stroheim, one of the silent cinema’s greatest (or at least grandest) of directors, was living in France for the second time. The first was in 1936. Toiling in the story department at MGM – where ironically, his established masterpiece Greed (1925) was “butchered” from its original nine and a half hour run time down to a marketable two hours – von Stroheim was invited to come to France to make a spy film called Marthe Richard (1937) in where he played yet another military officer; one of the many variations on the character he created in the earliest days of his career, The Man You Love to Hate: the suave, manipulative, sexual, and at times thoroughly unlikeable cad. His follow up project on this first self-imposed exile to France was playing, yes, another military officer in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937), one of two projects for which von Stroheim is known today (if he is known at all); the other, his final Hollywood film: Billy Wilder’s masterpiece, Sunset Blvd. (1950), where he plays probably his most autobiographical character, Max von Mayerling. But more on that later. 

Stroheim personified – or at least his legend personifies – what we think of as the Silent Film Director: intense, obsessive, and dictatorial. Unbeholden to anything but his vision, von Stroheim’s singular focus on making The Great Film was his inevitable downfall. His attention to detail (fussing over things in the background that no one would see; making sure uniforms were completely authentic; shooting in the exact locations featured in McTeague for Greed, including the sweltering Death Valley) and perfection (requiring actors to do his blocking exactly, which he noted point by point in his mammoth screenplays of 300 pages or more, even down to “when they blinked their eyes,” according to von Stroheim; or demanding they say his dialogue verbatim, even though his films were silent) created budgetary and creative conflicts with his producers and their studios (first Universal, then MGM). 

And while Hollywood respected his genius, he continuously turned out films that were of an “unreleasable” length (ranging anywhere from four to ten hours) and severely needed to be cut for distribution: some of them edited with von Stroheim’s approval and participation (The Devil’s Pass Key); some of them taken from him and edited without his approval – and with his ire – when they proved to still be too long after his own edit (Foolish Wives, Greed, The Merry Widow, The Wedding March; the latter of which was edited by Josef von Sternberg at Stroheim’s request, a decision he later regretted); and some that were taken from him during production when the producers saw the costs were mounting and the film would yield yet another unworkable edit (Merry-Go-Round, Queen Kelly, Walking Down Broadway; the latter of these three being the last time anyone would give him a chance in the director’s chair). The only film that seems to have been released with von Stroheim’s approval and pride intact was his first. Yet even that created a point of contention when Carl Laemmle changed the title from The Pinnacle to Blind Husbands (1919), causing von Stroheim to take out a full page ad in Motion Picture News, lambasting Laemmle for “spoiling” his masterpiece by giving it an incendiary title. If only he had known that much harder battles were to be fought. And lost. 

The legend of Erich von Stroheim – like most legends – is part truth and part fiction; the fictional usually being supplied by the legend themselves. Long touting himself as Prussian nobility, Erich Stroheim (adding the “von” when he came to America to sound more aristocratic) was born and raised in Vienna as the son of a Jewish hat maker; his Judaism also swept under the rug as he presented himself as a Christian (was this for fear of anti-Semitism?). And while Stroheim played an array of military men on film, his own military history is much less regal; having been rejected at first to the armed forces for being the Austrian version of 4-F and only being accepted (and then later rejected again) because he offered to pay for his own uniform and horse. 

Ironically, it was Stroheim’s military “expertise” (heavily exaggerated upon his arrival to Hollywood) that broke him into the business, serving as an adviser on a number of films; specifically on military attire and protocol. These films also led to his employment as an art director (fostering von Stroheim’s obsession to mise-en-scène and detail), an assistant director (though not for The Birth of a Nation, as is widely disseminated as fact; perhaps another rewrite of history by Stroheim himself), and as an actor (though not for Intolerance, even though he is listed in the credits). Like many young Hollywood hopefuls, he floundered in a variety of odd jobs as a traveling salesman, a telephone repair man, and a clerk gift wrapping presents for Christmas in a department store before getting his first break: appearing as an extra in Captain Macklin (1915). Stroheim did eventually work for D.W. Griffith as both an art director/assistant director on Hearts of the World (1918), where the villain was named “Von Strohm” after the director’s first choice for the role: Stroheim himself; legend has it he lost the role due to his height. Stroheim’s first major acting role came one year later in The Heart of Humanity (1919) where he solidified his The Man You Love to Hate persona by throwing a real baby out of a window; supposedly Stroheim’s own suggestion was to use a real child. Talk about a need for realism. But it was this need for realism and a passion for his work that helped him sell Carl Laemmle, then head of Universal, to take a chance on the would be writer/director and green light his first film. 

After the success and artistic achievements of his first two films – Blind Husbands (1919) and the now lost The Devil’s Pass Key (1920) – Erich von Stroheim had hoped to embark on a film version of McTeague, a very American story of greed in the heartland. However, Universal feared that the property would not guarantee profits so they encouraged Stroheim to continue making films with a European bent (it should be noted that it was Irving Thalberg, a then employee at Universal, that later greenlit – and eventually took away – Greed for Stroheim at MGM).

Foolish Wives tells the tale of Sergius Karamzin (Stroheim himself), a fake Prussian Count, (holding the mirror up to nature, as it were) and his two “cousins,” “Princess” Vera (Mae Busch) and “Her Highness” Olga (Maude George). They seem to live the high life on a palatial vista, having a servant (Dale Fuller in a glorious debut performance), and eating caviar for breakfast (typical Stroheim, using real caviar). But the truth is, all three are on holiday in Monte Carlo to swindle money from unsuspecting Americans by running a fixed roulette wheel. They survive in part by passing counterfeit money, provided for them by a local named Cesare (Cesare Ventucci). When he arrives at their villa with his mentally challenged daughter Marietta (Malvina Polo) and the latest crop of bills, Stroheim’s sense of humor and cynicism is on display here. Olga pays Cesare for the counterfeit bills; Cesare checks to see if this payment is legitimate money. Meanwhile, Sergius is in the corner trying to ply Marietta with alcohol, as she clutches her doll, seemingly unaware of his seduction.

Sergius reads in the paper about the arrival of Andrew Hughes (Rudolph Christians), the American envoy to Monaco. Olga and Vera encourage him to seduce his young wife, Helen (Miss DuPont), in order to gain them favor if they are ever caught – and of course to extort money from her. The cousins warn him to remember his intentions: money and protection, not sex. It seems Sergius’ lust has gotten them in trouble before. 

One of Stroheim’s poetic title cards gives us the film’s theme:

Woman’s Vanity - Flattery - Subtle - Insistent - Busy Husbands - Idle - Foolish Wives.”

In a Stroheim version of a Meet-Cute, Sergius follows – stalks? – Helen at her hotel lobby’s veranda. He bribes the young porter to page his name so she can hear it aloud in all its grandeur: Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin, Russian Captain of Hussars (again, Stroheim seems to be winking at his own ridiculous pseudonym: Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim). Leering at her from a nearby chair, puffing on his long cigarette (no doubt a phallic symbol), Helen – after pulling down her dress to avoid his gaze – drops her book and Sergius dashes in to pick it up. In a touch of pre-Post Modernism, the book she is reading is Foolish Wives by – who else? – Erich von Stroheim. He charms her and soon after introduces him to her husband.

The married couple and the counterfeiters rent boats and float around the lake. What is curious here and the first thing that rings as somewhat false is, Why would a husband let his wife ride alone in a boat at night with another man? Presumably a romantic atmosphere. Perhaps there is a missing exchange here in the more than five hours of footage cut from the film; perhaps Andrew had no qualms about Helen riding with Sergius since he was being fawned over himself by two beautiful women. Regardless, Sergius takes this opportunity to get closer to Helen and earn her trust. 

The next day, Olga and Sergius invite Helen to lunch at a cafe while Andrew is tending to his business affairs. But the real plan is for Sergius to get more alone time with Helen to  continue to bond with – seduce? – her. So the would be lovers leave Olga and go on another boat ride. It is curious that Helen doesn’t seem to have qualms about this arrangement. Maybe she has begun to fall for the dashing officer; maybe she is naive. Either way, Helen is living up to the film’s title. 

During their boat ride, they get “lost” and a torrential downpour begins. Sergius must rescue Helen from the storm, his seeming intention all along. But for a man whose goal is explicitly fraud and even more explicitly not sex – at least not until he can get his hands on her money – Sergius finds himself in a precarious situation: a wounded woman (Stroheim loved to work in injuries, amputations, and disabilities to his scripts; here Helen has twisted her ankle) in his charge is now isolated in a rain storm in a cabin in the middle of the woods in a bed in a night gown. What’s a lecherous man to do? Money be damned, Sergius is ruled by other forces. 

The scene in the cabin is extraordinary for its suspenseful pacing and overt sexual content and intention. Stroheim had dealt with lust and sexual imagery in his debut, Blind Husbands – the protagonist having a symbolic sex dream about Stroheim’s character and watching his finger slowly rise; replace “finger” for what you think it is – but that was a fantasy. Foolish Wives takes these ideas very much into reality; so much so that reviewers found the film pornographic and were appalled, calling it “a story you could never permit children to see.” Stroheim’s comment was a hilarious no-brainer: “… you Americans are living on baby food…I had not one thought for children, any more than Hugo, or Voltaire, or Shakespeare, or any writer of intelligence and sincerity.”

The material that drew such passion and disgust is mostly contained at Mother Garoupe’s cabin, a hag who has clearly cavorted with Sergius and his fellow con-women before. Mother Garoupe (Louise Emmons) suggests that Helen get comfortable for the evening and offers her a night gown; although it is a night gown that Mother would not seem to have worn herself. Does she have a supply for when Sergius – or others – “get lost” with unsuspecting women in the woods? Sergius seems to turn his back to Helen to give her privacy, but quickly he produces a mirror from his pocket to watch her change. (This camera in the mirror shot is one of the more beautiful in the picture and shows off Stroheim’s artistic flare.) Mother puts Helen to bed and quickly “goes to sleep” herself in her arm chair – or is she faking it? – and leaves Sergius to do what he may. 

He removes his belt in full view of Helen’s sleeping body; his intentions seem clear. He approaches her slowly, yet purposefully, almost like Dracula (another fake Count) creeping to Lucy’s neck. Before Sergius can get his hands on his quarry, a monk – yes, a monk – appears in the window (one of many instances of Stroheim mixing the religious and sexual in his career). Sergius lets him in, yet strangely does not completely give up on his hunt. Clutching her hand, Sergius places it out of view from the monk in what appears to be...Sergius’ lap. 

Meanwhile, it is getting late and Olga waits at an inn for Sergius and Helen’s arrival. She can obviously not return to anywhere where Andrew may see her without her fellow travelers. Suddenly, a dog enters, carrying a note from Sergius explaining that they have stopped at Mother Garoupe’s for the night. Olga calls Andrew and lets him know that they – all three of them – have been detained by the weather, but not to worry. Helen will be home safely just as soon as the storm passes. 

The next morning when the three are reunited, Olga suggests that Helen lie to her husband and say that they all stayed at the inn to avoid making it look like she (hilariously, not they) had done anything untoward. She does and Andrew is pleased to have her home safely. 

Back at their villa, we learn that Marushka their maid has been strung along by Sergius; no doubt one of many women he has sweet talked into bed and out of pocket. Flinging herself before him, she begs, “Your Majesty, when are you going to keep your promise to marry me?” The fact that she calls him “Your Majesty” is a testament to the level of chicanery present by Sergius and his cousins: even the live in help thinks they are royalty. Soon, he promises. Soon.

Sergius visits the counterfeiter at his home to get more money (and to ogle his ill daughter). Cesare, sensing Sergius’ carnality, warns of the impending death for anyone that would harm his daughter, flashing a pocket knife as punctuation. 

Back home, Sergius’ hedonism continues to flourish. Marushka once again begs him to marry her only this time, he gives a reason why he can’t: he is broke. Using his finger bowl to fake tears, he begs Marushka for her life savings. When she agrees, he feigns pride, but she insists. She loves the old fraud and hopes this will seal her fate. Which it does. Only not how she could ever have envisioned. 

Back at the roulette wheel (the first time we see this ominous symbol since the film’s opening shot), the cons play roulette – with Marushka’s money, no doubt. Helen “wins” a big payday – 90,000 francs with presumably the help of the crooked staff – and the final act of the film’s plot is set in motion. 

Helen is tired and wants to retire; Andrew and Sergius walk her to her room. Unbeknownst to Andrew, Sergius slips Helen a note:

My life and honor are at stake! You can save me! Come to the villa tonight, I will wait for you at the gate. Your unhappy, Sergius”

Against her better judgment, Helen decides to meet him and heads to the villa, purse in hand. 

Meanwhile, Sergius tells Marushka to fix up the study. He is having company and will not be disturbed. When she discovers that the company he is having will be a woman, she realizes the purity of his intentions to marry her. After ushering Helen into the study, Marushka weeps on her bed. Then, in the only camera move in the entire film, we dolly into Marushka’s face, as a smile creeps above her broken heart. A plot is brewing. 

Sergius launches into his expected song and dance and Helen gives him the money. But before anything else can happen – not even another attempt at her rape – Marushka locks them in the room and sets fire to the house. By this point, Andrew has discovered Sergius’ note to Helen, found her missing, and goes looking for her in the place he knows she must be. They leap from the window – he first, the coward – into the fireman’s net. She is taken away in Andrew’s arms, but not until he punches Sergius to the ground. The money burns in the fire, Helen leaves with her honor, Marushka throws herself from atop a cliff into the ocean, and the “cousins” are arrested for fraud. All that is left is Sergius and his lust.

He stumbles to Cesare’s home and climbs the trellis to his daughter’s bedroom. Something will go in his favor this evening. But true to his word, Cesare defends his daughter and murders Sergius, throwing his body into the sewer.

Stroheim ends the film with Andrew and Helen, reunited and reconciled. Finishing the book that heralds the film’s title and its author, we read: 

And thus it happened that disillusionment came finally to a foolish wife, who found in her own husband the nobility she had sought for in – a counterfeit.”

While those who thought that the film was immoral or celebratory of deplorable actions, they clearly missed the ending. Stroheim is indicting their behavior. Olga, Vera, and Sergius are met with prison and murder; while Andrew and Helen are met with if not a new found understanding of each other, at least an appreciation for the other. A presumably happy ending. And by taking its sister film Blind Husbands’title (yes, the title that Stroheim hated), we get a mirrored image of marriage. That both parties must stay present and never take the other for granted.  


Erich von Stroheim continued to work in Hollywood as a writer/director for another ten years; each film a battle, each edit a war. A sound version of Blind Husbands was scrapped for fear of editorial problems, an operetta was scrapped for budgetary problems, and when he was finally cut off at the knees after Walking Down Broadway, Stroheim turned to acting and writing full time, but never gave up hope that someone else would give him the chance to make the masterpiece he felt the studios cheated him of. Stroheim’s directors, in deference to his expertise and respect for his talent, usually gave him the ability to rewrite his parts or punch up scenes, but not all. 

Billy Wilder refused to let Stroheim play the part of Max with a limp (again Stroheim’s obsession with the infirm coming to light) and would not let him smoke, something he had done in most of his films. However, Wilder’s stroke of genius was in the casting of Stroheim as the butler (and first director/first husband) of a great silent screen star. Sunset Blvd.’s theme is about Hollywood’s seeming indifference to its past and the people who created it and as Max says, “In those days there were three directors who showed promise: D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and Max von Mayerling.” Exchange Mayerling for Stroheim and you would have the truth. Stroheim, the great director, had been reduced to playing butlers and mad scientists; just as Max, the great director, had been reduced to being a butler and sycophant. Max, the great director, had to visit Paramount and knew that DeMille was still working, arguably at the top of his game and respect; just as Stroheim, the great director, had to visit Paramount to see DeMille, directing his real film Samson and Delilah on the set of a real film, lampooning his own past. One touch that Wilder did allow Stroheim to include – and it is arguably one of the film’s crowning achievements for cinephiles and lovers of irony – is the use of his own film, Queen Kelly (1929); a film starring Gloria Swanson that led to the demise of his career. To be inside Stroheim’s mind as Max watching his/Max’s film starring Norma/Gloria on the set of a film he didn’t want to do and saw as an embarrassment (and went on to be revered as a masterwork and gained him an Oscar nomination to boot) while a film of his own creation (that was canceled and derailed his livelihood) flashed in shadows in the distance would have been a Freudian’s dream. 

The desired length of Stroheim’s films – the derailing of his directorial career – were not completely unheard of in the silent era: Griffith’s two most famous works are close to three hours, Ben-Hur (1923) is two and half hours, and Napoleon (1927) showed in a variety of lengths from three to five hours. Although no one was releasing eight to ten hour films…not yet. Nor was he interested in making long films to make them seem grandiose. Stroheim had an earnest desire to explore the human condition on film; the full breadth of a character’s emotions, their triumphs, their failures, and most of all the internal conflict to show that Black and White are all shades of Gray. The John Cassavetes of the 1920s, if you will. He wanted his films to unfold like novels, full of backstory to give the characters room to breathe (in fact, he approached Greed like a live action novel, filming many scenes from the book and expanding them with further detail). The difference between Intolerance (1916), for example, and Greed is that Intolerance is an interwoven tale of numerous eras, complete with giant sets and casts of thousands while Greed is an intimate tale of a family unraveled by avarice. Today, he would make mini-series for television; then, his hands were tied by producers whose sole motivation was well...greed. One can’t help but think of Stroheim and smirk when Norma turns to Joe in Sunset Blvd., hands him her behemoth screenplay, and warns him, “I will not have it butchered.”

Would Erich von Stroheim’s films have been “better” longer? Maybe. Maybe not. In the age of the Director’s Cut, we definitely value preserving the director’s version of their films, even if they are not the released, commercial version; something impossible in Stroheim’s day when the negatives were destroyed and recycled. He also didn’t have the luxury of living during the auteur era like Robert Altman or John Cassavetes, whose own films were sprawling and heavy on character (though just ask Elaine May if all auteurs retained autonomy over their...creative indulgences, shall we say); or the digital age like Quentin Tarantino or Lars von Trier who released their extra long films Kill Bill and Nymphomaniac as two parts, something Stroheim fought to do with The Wedding March, Greed, and Foolish Wives. So, yes, it would be nice to have his films’ excised footage to make the decision ourselves on what version we would have preferred. But it should be noted that the two hour version of Greed is what has long been heralded as one of the greatest films ever made (though the extra two hours – created using stills – does add considerably; not only to the characterizations of Trina and McTeague, but also to the overall theme by expanding the lust for wealth to many of its characters, not just its leads). And while the original cut of Foolish Wives was eight hours, the reconstructed two and a half hour version – built using an American and European print – is tight, focused, and wildly enjoyable. And though Erich von Stroheim may be unknown today to many casual film fans (or even to cinephiles) three of his movies, even in their truncated forms, have been preserved and honored by the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress: Greed in 1991 (one of the first years of the registry), The Wedding March in 2003, and Foolish Wives in 2008.  

It is a testament to Stroheim’s acting and palpable charisma in Foolish Wives that we, amidst all of his deplorable actions, align with his character. In a sense, root for his character; he wasn’t The Man You Love to Hate for nothing. Perhaps the massive cuts to Foolish Wives did the audience a favor by doing away with Helen and Andrew’s backstory, needs, and wants and instead decided just to focus on the man himself. 

AUTHOR’S NOTE: For further reading, check out my primary source material, Arthur Lennig’s biography Stroheim (2000). Much like his biography of Bela Lugosi, The Immortal Count (1974 and updated in 2010), Stroheim is thoroughly researched – sometimes to the point of minutiae – and debunks some of the more apocryphal tales of its subject’s life. As an interesting side note, Lennig edited the current and “definitive” cut of Foolish Wives so is intimately familiar with the film and its maker.

In addition, if I had not committed myself to writing about films in which the director was also the star, I would have chosen to write about Greed, a film I had been putting off watching for 15 years in the hope that more of the missing footage would have appeared, but decided to finally view it for this essay. Everything written about the film’s quality is true. And then some. It is an extraordinary film and, yes, I would argue one of the greatest films ever made, even in its “butchered” form. 

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