Screens

Hollywood’s First Million-Dollar Movie

Erich von Stroheim and Miss DuPont in Foolish Wives (1922). A restored version of this masterpiece will premiere at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL
Erich von Stroheim and Miss DuPont in Foolish Wives (1922). A restored version of this masterpiece will premiere at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
A new restoration of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives reveals the extravagance of his imagination.

Editor’s note: When Alta went to print, a restored Foolish Wives was scheduled to be premiere at San Francisco’s Silent Film Festival, usually held in the Spring. The event has been moved to November 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

California has always been the land of personal reinvention. Few, however, have taken that notion as seriously as Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim. After emigrating from Europe in 1909, he rose to become a fabled Hollywood director and actor while claiming to be a scion of Austrian nobility and a decorated war hero, among other trifles.

Submitting to mere “Erich von Stroheim” for simplicity’s sake, he was, in fact, the son of a Jewish haberdasher, rejected by the Austrian army as unfit, an émigré precisely because his chances of advancement in class-conscious Vienna were nil. (Even his “von” was fictitious.) Like many other immigrants, Stroheim initially scrambled in America, before drifting into the then-still-newish motion picture industry. There, his being a “fibber incarnate,” as biographer Arthur Lennig put it, found ideal berth.

This fall (rescheduled from spring), in its 25th-anniversary program at the Castro Theatre, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will premiere a restoration of Foolish Wives (1922), the first full flowering of Stroheim’s meticulous, often scandalous artistry. The film’s extremes of expense, labor, publicity, and provocation were unprecedented. Like many Stroheim pictures, this one survives only in a compromised form, having been slashed from its impractical original scale to viable commercial length. Still, the movie demonstrates why Stroheim was considered a virtuoso by many, pushing the medium toward more nuanced and adult terrain.

Amid the frenzy of Hollywood’s early “flickers” activity, Stroheim’s attention to detail had made him a valued art director and assistant to talents including early cinema giant D.W. Griffith. He also put his continental airs to use before the camera, happily playing a series of “dirty Huns” for audiences very much riled by World War I.

So vivid in this persona—a monocled, chrome-domed dandy in fancy military dress, forever leering at virtuous womanhood—that he got dubbed the Man You Love to Hate, Stroheim scored big as the Prussian villain in 1918’s The Heart of Humanity. That hit won him approval to write, direct, and star in Blind Husbands (1919), a popular and critical smash. Now lost, the next year’s follow-up, The Devil’s Passkey, proved less successful. However, Universal Studios, where he was under contract, was prepared to be indulgent with his next project.

Foolish Wives was, much like Husbands, a portrait of wholesome Yankee femininity imperiled in the decadent Old World, with Stroheim again a devious seducer. This time, his Russian aristocrat sought to sully an American diplomat’s wife (the actor known as Miss DuPont). The setting was no humble alpine lodge as before but glittering Monte Carlo, which Stroheim replicated at huge expense in Monterey. Local newspapers eagerly reported on the film company’s doings, and socialites from as far afield as San Francisco signed on as extras (to benefit children’s charities).

Despite 20-hour workdays, the 1920 shoot dragged on for nearly a year, held hostage by Stroheim’s perfectionism. Budget overruns grew so large that when one principal actor died of pneumonia, the studio refused to recast; his many remaining scenes would be completed by a double. To cap things off, the auteur then spent six months in the editing room—emerging with an impossible eight-hour behemoth.

Universal decided to exploit the movie’s obscene cost, more than twice that of Griffith’s monumental Intolerance (1916), by promoting Foolish Wives as the first million-dollar picture. The studio also forced drastic edits—the cut that premiered in early 1922 was three and a half hours long. But that was just the beginning of the film’s shrinkage. In general release, it was reduced to two hours, then still further for a sound-era rerelease that ultimately didn’t happen yet wound up being the sole version available for decades. The new, restored version will come as close as possible to the two-hour original, complete with hand-colored elements during the fiery climax.

Though too expensive to turn a profit, Foolish Wives was indeed a big event. Audiences were titillated, moralists appalled by its lewdness. The San Francisco Chronicle noted, “Rev. W.K. Guthrie will preach at the First Presbyterian Church…on ‘Foolish Wives and other Foolishness.’ ” San Francisco police ordered three scenes excised as “too risque.”

Even now, Stroheim’s vision is shocking at times, not just for its sexual suggestiveness but also for the sophistication of its complex, cynical, yet finally redemptive worldview. There’s no forgiveness for his own character, however; that scoundrel ends up literally getting thrown down a sewer hole.

Incapable of reining in his artistic ambitions, Stroheim never again directed a film that wasn’t severely meddled with in one way or another—most infamously, Greed (1924). Based on Frank Norris’s novel McTeague and shot almost entirely at San Francisco locations, the film was trimmed from an eight-hour-long director’s cut to under three hours. By the early 1930s, Stroheim was back to playing villains in other people’s movies, even if his two most famous roles (in La Grande Illusion and Sunset Boulevard) were comparatively sympathetic.

To the end, which arrived in 1957, when he was 71, Stroheim continued to groom his personal mythology, even while pretending to clear up lingering falsehoods. Had he really once made extras wear period-accurate silk underwear that viewers would never see? Did it matter? This self-invented “von” would always be synonymous with unfettered, money-burning silver screen excesses.

Dennis Harvey wrote about film adaptations of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and Martin Eden for Alta, Winter 2020.

FOOLISH WIVES

• Directed by Erich von Stroheim
• Starring Erich von Stroheim, Miss DuPont
• Newly restored print premieres Nov. 11; original release: Jan. 11, 1922
• Approximately 140 minutes

SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL

• Nov. 11–15
silentfilm.org

RECOMMENDATIONS

Three masterworks that showcase Erich von Stroheim’s artistry

Greed, directed by Erich von Stroheim (1924): Based on McTeague, the 1899 novel by Frank Norris, this downbeat tale of lower-class San Francisco life is considered Stroheim the auteur’s masterpiece.

La Grande Illusion, directed by Jean Renoir (1937): Stroheim had probably his greatest sound-era role as a World War I German aviator who’s both friend and foe to the French flyboy heroes in this classic drama.

Sunset Boulevard, directed by Billy Wilder (1950): Stroheim’s extravagance sank the 1928 Gloria Swanson vehicle Queen Kelly midshoot. Yet years later, both had triumphant comebacks as actors in this corrosive Hollywood fiction about fame and madness.