Foolish Wives (1922)

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  • directed by Erich von Stroheim
  • starring Erich von Stroheim, Miss DuPont, Rudolph Christians, Dale Fuller, Mae Busch
  • A fake count seduces and blackmails the wife of an American ambassador in Monte Carlo.

It’s tempting to try and discuss Foolish Wives without getting into the legendary behind the scenes intrigue and the larger than life figure behind the camera, but unfortunately I’m not going to get many more chances to cover Erich Von Stroheim since his directorial career barely made it out of the 1920s. Additionally I think without being able to see the work as he fully intended, it’s a fool’s errand to dissect films that one could argue are studio-manufactured versions of Von Stroheim stories. The techniques are still intact but perhaps not the fluidity or the power.

All you have to do is Google “The Man You Love to Hate” and this should give you an idea of how producers felt about the notoriously difficult director and conversely how audiences were drawn to his perverse and guileful on-screen presence. Von Stroheim wore that title like one of the many badges on his counterfeit uniform and he meticulously cultivated an image for himself that never put him in with the good guys in his works or those in which he starred for other directors.

Just a few of the director’s 12 films can currently be seen in the condition and full length that he’d crafted. Foolish Wives ran longer than six hours before it was chopped up to a more studio-friendly length of 140 minutes. It also cost Universal around $1.2 million to employ a guy who would stop at nothing to get to the bottom of the perfect story. This meant building an insanely detailed Monte Carlo streetscape on the Universal lot accounting for half the film’s budget and importing authentic dress, furniture, and decorations from around the world. Even the never seen underwear of his actors had to be genuine. Seedy raspberry jam was sometimes subbed in for caviar in black and white films to pinch a penny. Not so with von Stroheim, who insisted that he and his cast chow down on the real stuff.

All of this put him at odds, to say the least, with the rather economical Universal chief Carl Laemmle, who probably spent many of his professional hours trying to figure out how to replace the director and lead actor of a film that was devouring time and money at astonishing rates. None of this bothered The Man You Love to Hate although at some point he had to have stepped outside of his own head to realize that an endgame that he was already familiar with was imminent—that the film would eventually leave his hands and Universal would get the last word. In the short term, Foolish Wives would end up not profiting enough to cover the exorbitant costs but Von Stroheim would eventually put his relationship in the black with Merry Go Round in 1926. Anyway, that’s already way more backstage than I wanted to talk about, because the film is not a freak show and it’s basically the opposite of the catastrophic failure that von Stroheim’s enemies may have been praying that it would be.

In Foolish Wives he plays a similar character to the one seen in Blind Husbands a few years earlier. Dressed in his trademark monocle and military garb, here again there is absolutely nothing that will stop his obsessive pursuit of a married woman. It’s impossible to tell what was missing or edited out of order in the story, but overall it flowed nicely with the exception of what must have been massive cuts to the film’s ending—a scene in which we are taken from the set-up, Karamzin entering the window of Ventucci’s sleeping daughter, to a matter-of-fact-seeming conclusion with Ventucci stuffing Karamzin’s corpse down a sewer drain. It makes me feel like there are many aspects of Karamzin’s journey and von Stroheim’s intention that we will never be able to fill in.

He had endless styles at work throughout the film and the camera at times had the quality of a leering eye, perfectly matching the lurid nature of the story. There were hazy blue tones, stark shadows in traditional black and white, the violent colors of the fire scene, and the ebullient tones of Monte Carlo on a bustling, bright afternoon. The lantern filled riverboat scene was a knockout, capturing nighttime like I haven’t seen yet in the 1920s. I wouldn’t necessarily label von Stroheim a master of artful composition like some of his contemporaries, but through effects, lighting, and performances his scenes were charged with gorgeous and affecting images. Though the length of his scenes, the detail, and the budget were very much apparent on screen, he never flaunted the extravagance of it all. A madman may have made the film and the result should have been over the top, but what ended up onscreen is instead mature, full of life, and at times downright delicate.

The earlier example of his actors’ underwear is a good one and rings true for the film as a whole. He wanted the cast to feel right so they could better do their jobs. Likewise, the opulence and grandeur of his constructed Monte Carlo immediately registers to the viewer as pitch perfect so that he could then go on, at his own pace, to unfold the story of deception, infidelity, and manipulation. It’s a real wonder that this all came from the same one mind and it’s one of the earliest successful marriages between big budget Hollywood and auteur filmmaking that I can think of. I’m certain that Carl Laemmle would disagree with that.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

2 Responses to Foolish Wives (1922)

  1. Pingback: Asphalt (1929) | classixquest

  2. Pingback: Asphalt (1929) | classixquest

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