Like so many early American directors Eric Von Stroheim (“The Man You Love to Hate”) was mostly a creation of his own romantic imagination. The real Stroheim was not a descendant from the Austro-Hungarian military aristocracy as he claimed, but the son of a Jewish hat maker from Silesia. Filmgoers of the 1920s would never know the proud Stroheim was groomed in his father’s factory to take over the family business and was a disastrous washout in the Austria military before he immigrated to America in 1909.
Once settled in Brooklyn, Stroheim took a wide range of jobs from shop clerk to a singing waiter. He professed to friends he was the son of a baroness and after a couple years of scuffling in the Big Apple he headed west to try his luck. He landed in San Francisco where he would enter into violent, short-lived marriage before drifting down to Los Angeles in 1914. Nearly destitute, Erich claimed he got a small acting role in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Whether or not this really happened, the great pioneer filmmaker was impressed by the energetic young man and hired him as an assistant.
Stroheim soon convinced the unsophisticated rubes of the burgeoning film industry he was an expert in old world Europe, especially in military matters, so he began getting plum character roles as valets and intolerant boors. Feeling he had learnt all he could from the visionary Griffith, the ambitious Austrian successfully pitched a project about a romantic triangle called The Pinnacle to Universal Studios head Carl Laemmle. Within weeks the hatter’s son from Vienna would be directing and starring in a major Hollywood production and embark on one of the most controversial careers of any American filmmaker.
Tapping the pulse of America’s soon to be realized sexual revolution and the country’s post war anti-German fervor, Blind Husbands (the new moniker of The Pinnacle) cast Stroheim as the vain and jaded Lieutenant Von Steuben who sets out to seduce the pretty young American wife (Francilla Billington) of Dr. Billington (Sam De Grasse) during their visit to a European resort. The good doctor is oblivious to Von Steuben’s wanton aims but the Lieutenant doesn’t fool Sepp (Gibson Gowland), their trusty guide who proves a foil to the seduction, alerting the husband to literally take matters into his own hands. The couple leaves Europe much the wiser, but their storybook marriage will never be the same.
Audiences flocked to theatres to see the risqué film, so Stroheim was rewarded with a new project, another tale of lost American innocence, The Devil’s Passkey. Stroheim took advantage of his success to make an ornate and Parisian variation on Blind Husbands, the difference here being the military man is American and the wife decides to break off her illicit romance before scandal erupts. The Devil’s Passkey was the last of Stroheim’s films in which the director approved of the final cut but, sadly, it is lost to the ages.
Stroheim struck with this tried and true formula in Foolish Wives, playing a fake Russian Count seducing and shaking down rich, vacationing women in Monte Carlo. Wives turned out to be a much more edgy and ambitious undertaking. Stroheim would try to make the saga into a two-part film before Universal would cut it to two-thirds of its intended size. Stroheim also embellished his villainous role by having the Count use his latest conquest, an American envoy’s wife (Miss DuPont), as a dupe to pass counterfeit money.
Much of the film’s devilish fun comes with the almost incestuous interplay between Stroheim and his sleazy “cousins”, The Princesses Olga (Maude George) and Vera (Mae Busch) and the Count’s almost complete lack of a conscience. But, alas the amoral Count would meet his maker in an unholy fire set by a jealous lover. Foolish Wives drew well but ultimately couldn’t make back its exorbitant cost at the box office. Still, since Stroheim’s sophisticated movies were giving Universal Studios a welcomed cultural cache, he was given a free reign to begin another lavish production, Merry-Go-Round.
The new film would prove to be a beginning and an end for Stroheim. Set in Mittel-Europe, Stroheim’s latest Count (played by Norman Kerry) is a well-meaning playboy engaged to the icy Princess Gisela (Dorothy Wallace). While at a local fair with his male friends he takes a fancy to Mitzi (Mary Philbin), a pretty organ grinder. Her life is one of misery as she and her puppeteer father are under the thumb of Kallafati (George Siegmann), a cruel proprietor of a merry-go-round. Although the spineless Count romances Mitzi, the smitten girl soon finds her beloved has no intention of marrying her and she will ultimately be left to her own devices.
Merry-Go-Round is certainly a more nuanced and humanistic take on romance than Stroheim’s previous work but when budget costs ran amok he was taken off the film by producer Irving Thalberg. Although the film was mostly re-shot in a nondescript fashion by Rupert Julian its heartfelt grotesquery would still prove a template for the pomp and passions of The Merry Widow and The Wedding March.
Stroheim’s choice for his first project at MGM was unusual even for a maverick filmmaker as himself. Frank Norris’ novel McTeague was an early example of the Naturalist school of writing and the downward spiraling saga of a struggling San Franciscan miner turned dentist (Gibson Gowland) and Trina (Zasu Pitts) his odd young wife, seemed to be a far cry from the continental cuisine the director had offered in his first four films. But, Norris’ deeply pessimistic portrayal of the human condition proved to be right up Stroheim’s dark alley. In fact, the director was so consumed by the author’s vision he filmed the entire book.
The new title Greed aptly describes Trina, McTeague’s newlywed wife who zealously her lottery winnings, her early suitor Marcus (Jean Hersholt) , who claims his friend McTeague married her for her money, and finally McTeague, who after seeing his business destroyed by vengeful Marcus, demands money from the now completely demented Trina.
Von Stroheim’s cut of Greed was screened for members of the press in early 1924 and the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. Unfortunately, old nemesis and boy wonder Irving Thalberg had been hired by MGM as an executive producer. Thalberg and penny-pinching studio head Louis B. Mayer had little use for an eight hour film and Greed was cut down to one hundred and thirty minutes for a commercial release.
Greed suffered a dismal fate. Like any number of ambitious Hollywood projects butchered in post-production the excised footage was destroyed and lost forever, leaving film scholars only to grasp at straws at what Stroheim might have intended for his most personal work.
What remains is artistically and intellectually ambitious given the period, but in the end Stroheim’s bitter irony and sour compassion wreaks more of worldly brilliance than transcendent art. By the time McTeague and Marcus grapple in their sweaty and endless Death Valley struggle the audience is just as worn out as its protagonists. There is little to be gained from McTeague’s hollow victory.
Stroheim’s monumental, risque take on MGM’s The Merry Widow would have little to do with the Franz Lehar operetta which Ernst Lubitsch, more or less, faithfully filmed in 1934. Stroheim returned to the studio of the Greed debacle as a hired gun because, as Mayer and Thalberg must have realized, no other contemporary director could have done justice to such a sumptuous continental production.
In the imaginary European country of Monteblanco Three powerful men vie for the love of saucy American dancer Sally O’Hara (Mae Murray). Two dashing princes, Danilo (John Gilbert) and Mirko (Roy D’Arcy), seem to have the inner track to the girl’s heart, but when Danilo’s royal request to marry Sally is turned down, she faces the grim prospect of a union to a lecherous old Baron (Tully Marshall). Their wedding proves too much for the baron’s heart and he dies before he can consummate the marriage.
Sally moves to Paris and becomes the talk of the town. Again, the jealous princes argue bitterly over Sally leading to a duel where Danilo is badly wounded. Sally attends to the stricken prince and declares eternal love for him. After the death of Monteblanco’s King, cruel Mirko ascends to the throne but gets his just desserts in assassination. Danilo and Sally marry and in a humungous ceremony are crowned King and Queen.
The Merry Widow was not one of Stroheim’s more personal projects, but it may well be his most enjoyable film. The perverse and sadistic characters of the Baron and Mirko steal most of the scenery—the former as a foot fetishist and pervert who dies just as his fondest desires are to be realized. A hedonist who lusts for Sally, Mirko succeeds in throwing a raunchy party worthy of Nero or Hugh Hefner. Mirko’s sinister side is revealed when he connives to follow and manipulate Sally in an effort to control her new fortune.
It is clear Stroheim had little use for the bland, noble character of Danilo and he voiced disapproval of the studio’s insistence on a happy ending. Resigned to losing that fight he threw everything he had into the magnificent wedding and coronation which closes this weirdly entertaining bon-bon.
With the box office success of The Merry Widow, Stroheim now had enough clout to secure an elaborate new project set in pre-war Vienna to be made as a two-part epic (The Wedding March and The Honeymoon) at Paramount. For the haunting and surprisingly reserved romance The Wedding March, Stroheim would also star as Prince Nikki von Wildliebe-Rauffenberg, a Lieutenant of the Guard.
Having lived a life of wine and song the ne’er do well Prince is finally cut off by his weary parents who turn down his latest request by telling him to either commit suicide or marry money. At a military procession Nikki is charmed by the innocent Mitzi (Fay Wray), an inn-keeper’s daughter, who has the misfortune of being trampled over by Nikki’s runaway horse. The Prince visits the young girl at the hospital and wins her heart but this pure love will prove impossible as Nikki’s parents have already arranged a marriage between him and Cecilia (Zasu Pitts), the simple and hopelessly lame daughter of a rich industrialist.
When Mitzi’s old boyfriend, the gross butcher Schani (Matthew Betz), learns of her love for Nikki he pursues the Prince to the Royal wedding with aims of shooting him down. Mitzi succeeds in stopping Schani in his mad scheme leaving Nikki to enter into a loveless match of convenience.
Shaved from a whopping nine and 1/4 hours to a commercially viable four hours Paramount released The Wedding March and The Honeymoon as separate films leaving Stroheim devastated by the desecration of his art. Sad to say, by the time the films were released in 1928, Stroheim’s most delicate and heartfelt work was felt to be dated by audiences pining for sound movies and jazz age stories.
By the 1950s the only remaining print of The Honeymoon was loaned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art to the Cinematheque Francaise of Paris, where it languished in an adjacent warehouse before being consumed by a fire in 1959. Despite his spotty record at the nation’s turnstiles the prestige of a Stroheim project was enough to intrigue two independent producers to engage the Austrian iconoclast for what would be their Hollywood Waterloo.
Eager to get into the business of motion pictures alleged Boston rum-runner Joseph Kennedy—father of future President John F. Kennedy—found an unlikely partner in Gloria Swanson who was looking to become her own producer. Swanson had ended a long-time association with Paramount to move to United Artists where her second film the Raoul Walsh directed Sadie Thompson, in which she played a prostitute, was unlike any role she had taken on before.
Looking for another strong presence behind the camera Swanson and Kennedy negotiated with Paramount to free Stroheim from his contract so he could direct her in The Swamp, a silent scenario he had written. Renamed Queen Kelly, the film follows the travails of Kelly (Gloria Swanson) an innocent convent girl who charms a playboy Prince (Walter Byron) slated to marry the jaded and jealous Queen (Seena Owen) of a small Ruritanian country.
The Prince kidnaps Kelly for a night of love but when they are discovered the next morning by the Queen the enraged woman savagely horsewhips Kelly out of the royal mansion. Kelly returns to the convent where she is quickly summonsed to Africa by her sickly aunt. The second part of the film would have followed Kelly’s tawdry adventures in East Africa, including marriage to a gruesome benefactor, played by Stroheim favorite Tully Marshall.
Saddled with the prospect of talking films and a director who had little concern for budgetary issues, Swanson and Kennedy closed Queen Kelly down in mid-production and patched together a slipshod edition with sound effects for public consumption.
The film was partially restored in the 1980s by using stills and title cards. There remain several luminous, erotic and cruel scenes which are pure Stroheim, but in the end it’s difficult to pass judgment on the beguiling curiosity that is Queen Kelly.
By 1929, Stroheim’s excesses (such as having extras dress in silk underwear so they could feel the part) had caught up with him. He would continue to get jobs as a script doctor and an occasional acting role but his directing career looked to be over.
In 1932, Stroheim was signed by Fox to direct the gritty, low-budget Walking Down Broadway based on a story by the brilliant young novelist Dawn Powell and a screenplay written by Stroheim. Though the film was actually completed, a front office squabble led to Fox completely ditching the footage and reshooting the film under the title of Hello, Sister.
Stroheim would continue to act in memorable roles such as the aristocratic German POW camp head in Renoir’s La grand illusion and as the deluded Norma Desmond’s butler and ex-director in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. The film would provide a bittersweet swansong for Gloria Swanson as Norma, but in his masochistic role Stroheim must have felt strange having to screen some of the best scenes from the aborted Queen Kelly to the woman who fired him.
Like Griffith, Sternberg and Welles, Stroheim is one of Hollywood’s great director-martyrs, unyielding and unbending to number-crunching producers for the sake of their art. But unlike that unholy trio, Stroheim’s career is ravaged and seems incomplete. Sad to say, given the cost of making movies, it’s difficult to believe an uncompromising temperament such as his would have ever flourished during any period in Hollywood.
Books on Stroheim:
Von – The Life and Films of Erich Von Stroheim – Richard Koszarski **** The most authoritative work about this difficult and elusive early Hollywood master is not an easy read, but the documentation of Von’s sketchy early years and the behind the scenes stories are second to none.
Stroheim – Joel W. Finler ***1/2 A generally solid overview of Stroheim’s work as a director. However, the author’s reassessment of Stroheim’s place in the cinematic pantheon doesn’t hold up too well.
Films by Stroheim:
1919 Blind Husbands ****
1922 Foolish Wives ****
1923 Merry-Go-Round ***1/2 (signed by Rupert Julian)
1924 Greed ****
1925 The Merry Widow ****
1928 The Wedding March ****1/2
1929 Queen Kelly ***1/2 (incomplete)