Blind Husbands (1919)

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  • directed by Erich von Stroheim
  • starring Francelia Billington, Erich von Stroheim, Sam de Grasse, Gibson Gowland
  • An Austrian military officer attempts to seduce the wife of a surgeon during the couple’s vacation.

“In the Alps there is no sin.”

One production note left behind with no additional detail I can find says that Blind Husbands was taken from von Stroheim and edited solely by the studio, due to the director’s alleged involvement in the murder of the dog that’s in the film. That’s a huge bomb of a story to read without a complete account and aside from being fascinated by what could possibly have happened on set, it’s also interesting because I found the inter-scene editing to be one of the most successful elements of the film. What ended up getting cut by the studio and how it fashioned the overall narrative, however, is a different story.

Blind Husbands at its core tells a simple love triangle tale set in the shadow of the Austrian Alps. An unhappy married couple stuck in a rut of complacency is vacationing so that husband, Dr. Armstrong, can take on the challenge of climbing the Pinnacle, a harrowing mountain that’s taken many lives before. Also staying at the hotel is Lieutenant Von Stuben, a serial seducer of women, married or otherwise, and something like a wily snake in the clothing and stiff posture of a distinguished military man. Von Stroheim would actually go on to play a few characters with the same monocled appearance and penchant for borderline perverse courtship tactics throughout his career.

The story is told with sparing title cards and is instead carried out mainly by an editing style that rapidly bounced around to show each of the three main characters and the current states they are in at all times. This was really the aspect of the film that sucked me in the most and aside from showing the Armstrongs and Von Stuben the shots are interspersed with check-ups on the mountain guide Sepp, his (poor, poor) dog, and a host of nature and inanimate items and decorations, which went a long way in rounding out the tension-filled atmosphere and geographical context of the film.

There are tons of stories over time about clashes between von Stroheim and stars and executives. He was never economical with the amount of footage shot or the amount of time he put into perfecting every detail. His best-known film, 1924’s Greed, was at first a 10-hour print taken from more than 80 hours of footage. I don’t know how the final result of Blind Husbands matches up to his intentions, but I’d be surprised if a flat and basic narrative told in 90 minutes with only a couple of thought-provoking highlights was what he was after.

I loved the private mourning sessions of Margaret and von Stroheim filmed her in very delicate lighting to offset the desperation as she grows dissatisfied with her husband and even sadder it seems at the avenues presented to move away from him. I also enjoyed the mountain climbing scenes shared between the Dr. and Lieutenant which were unpredictable due to the latter’s deceptions being unveiled in a locale that was advertised as begging for a taste of justice aka violent death. But like the film on the whole, any teasing of darkness was just that, and the ending devolved quickly into a big bunch of surface melodrama. Von Stroheim is a great director and probably one of the most-skilled director-actors in film history. At some point though, Blind Husbands, his first directorial effort, got out of his hands and I’m going to assume the overall piece would have been at least a little different if he were able to see it through. If only he didn’t kill that dog…

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

One Response to Blind Husbands (1919)

  1. Pingback: Foolish Wives (1922) | classixquest

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