These notes accompany Foolish Wives, which screens on January 13, 14, and 15 in Theater 3.
The name Erich von Stroheim (1885–1957) generally provokes one of two reactions: he is considered either a great genius done in by imbecilic studio executives, or a self-immolating martyr to his own inflated ego. Although the truth obviously lies somewhere between these two extremes, I’m not sure exactly where. Von Stroheim’s life and career are wrapped in several overlapping enigmas that further confuse his identity. The first enigma, indeed, is the self-created myth of his identity.
Not content to be descended from Jewish merchants, Erich successfully floated the idea of his descent from Austrian nobility, declaring himself Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim upon disembarking from the Prince Friedrich Wilhelm at Ellis Island in 1909. Certainly, a professional storyteller can be forgiven a certain degree of fabrication, and his “nobility” became an asset when authenticating his celluloid exposés of European nobles—characters he sometimes (as in the case of Foolish Wives) played himself. Chutzpah is, after all, not a four-letter word, even in Yiddish. Yet this pseudo-authenticity became a mania, as when he insisted that the undergarments of his actors should conform to standard-issue Hapsburg attire. What was a standard-issue studio executive to do? Reading Cari Beauchamp’s recent book Joseph P. Kennedy Presents (Knopf, 2009), one marvels at her account of Erich’s antics on the unfinished film Queen Kelly, and one wonders how he ever got any amount of film in the can before the producers could step in and rip it to shreds.
I also find it hard to understand how von Stroheim developed his reputation for realism, when so many of his characterizations are grotesque gargoyles. In Greed, for example, how many of these creatures wouldn’t be more at home in a Star Wars saloon, tossing one down with Han Solo and a Wookie, than they are in pre-earthquake San Francisco? I am also puzzled by the arch-humanist Jean Renoir’s early enthrallment with von Stroheim, and particularly with Foolish Wives. (He made his version of Zola’s Nana to honor Erich, and, of course, made him the star of La Grande Illusion.) Whatever his virtues (and we’ll come to these), von Stroheim seems to be operating in some parallel universe to that in which Renoir lives.
As Richard Koszarski points out in his highly-recommended The Man You Loved to Hate: Erich von Stroheim and Hollywood (Oxford University Press, 1983), the director’s Blind Husbands (1918) burst onto the scene like no other first film before Citizen Kane. (Von Stroheim’s original title was The Pinnacle, and it appears apocryphal that Universal boss Carl Laemmle made the change because “there ain’t no pinochle in it.”) Koszarski cogently suggests that “in the work of no other great director are autobiographical elements so crucial, and such elements are stronger than usual in Blind Husbands.” I might personally hold out for Charles Chaplin, but we’ll come to that in succeeding weeks. I also question whether von Stroheim even tried to be as wicked as the characters he played. My friend Cullen Gallager has suggested that after all the butchering of von Stroheim’s films, “what remains is a coherent work unified by its global immorality and ritualistically debased virtue, all centered around von Stroheim’s strong, nefarious presence that is unmistakable and immutable.”
(We owe the painstaking work of salvaging as much as could be salvaged of Foolish Wives to Arthur Lennig, now a retired professor living in Albany. Art used to visit the Museum on a regular basis. One of his signature stories is of a derelict Bela Lugosi, broke and ravaged by addiction, showing up on Lennig’s doorstep in belated response to fan letters he had written him as a teenager decades earlier. So be careful whom you admire.)
Nothing written above should be interpreted as an outright dismissal of von Stroheim. He may have been the cream of the crop of those who were tutored directly by D. W. Griffith. He was certainly an auteur as we have come to define it. He was innovative; his films betrayed a beauty beneath their frequent squalor and, as Andrew Sarris has suggested, his style anticipated the coming of sound. One wishes he had had a greater opportunity to make more films and to finish and keep intact the films he was able to make. Yet one also wishes he was a little more shrewd and pragmatic. Greater artists than he (Ford, Hitchcock, Hawks, Lubitsch, Lang) were able to play the studio game and emerge in triumph. For whatever reasons, Erich von Stroheim was not.