Roger Ebert Home

Create the Legend: Erich von Stroheim's Foolish Wives

In a few days a movie called “Foolish Wives” by Erich von Stroheim is going to play a centennial celebration screening at MoMA in a brand new and frankly miraculous restoration by Dave Kehr, James Layton, Kathy Rose O’Regan, Peter Williamson, and Robert Byrne, produced by MoMA and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. It is not so easy to sum up the movie. When it was new, Variety's Kenneth Macgowan described it thusly: “... an almost endless and wholly formless record of a roué's adventures on the road to death.” 

When you put it like that ... Of course back then, the news of a new movie by Erich von Stroheim was a major event, not least because the public loved reading about the antics of this beleaguered upstart genius. Sixty years before "Heaven’s Gate," Stroheim built Monte Carlo in California for “Foolish Wives,” bought his actors expensive couture so they’d feel wealthy, insisted he be allowed to eat caviar and drink real champagne on screen, and in the best touch of all, invented a book out of thin air and insisted the movie was adapted from it. Better still, his character, charlatan Count Karamzin sees a diplomat's wife played by Miss DuPont (birth name Patricia Hannon) reading the novel, takes it out of her hands, inspects it, and says “Very good.” And he’s right to say it. Even the intertitles—“Again Morning ... Sapphire sea ... Brutality of man ... and still the sun”—are pure poetry. There was quite simply no one else like him, and even now, 100 years later, no movie quite like “Foolish Wives.” 

In 1974, Jonathan Rosenbaum complained that most writing about the legendary Austrian film director and actor Erich von Stroheim got caught up in legends, in the fiction surrounding the teutonic magpie. No one seemed capable of writing about his movies as works of visual art. Of course, and Rosenbaum concedes as much, this is tough because Stroheim was bigger than life, and he made sure everyone knew it. 

Young Erich Oswald Stroheim got off a boat to America after fleeing from a dispiriting stint in German military service, changed his name to Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim und Nordenwall, and introduced himself as a Count, a son of the aristocracy. Nevertheless he worked menial labor jobs in the heartland before making his way to Hollywood, where he worked his way up from stuntman and assistant to the biggest director and star in the world. It all came crashing down because he tortured everyone while directing, wasted millions of studio money, and refused to make movies less than a full night long. He lied to every reporter he ever talked to, and there were many, to the point that most of his obituaries were running on old half-truths and got crucial details about his life wrong. He spoke with a variety of accents by which everyone who heard it was confused, each believing it betrayed a different region, class, and history. 

Stroheim was like the negative image of Charlie Chaplin, a count with no court, and the image of him that survives is as much of the depressive butler hiding behind history with Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” or the iron jawed idealist running the POW camp in Jean Renoir’s “Grand Illusion.” Just as he used association with D.W. Griffith to his advantage, he was one of the first totems of cinephilia collected by eager young directors desperate to bask in the glow of the image of his twisted genius, a precursor to Peter Bogdanovich’s relationship to Orson Welles, Wim Wenders to Nicholas Ray, and Bogdanovich’s own relationship to Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. 

For awhile, in very different times, Erich von Stroheim was a household name in America. I learned about him in an episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," in which a shot of dozens of cans of pornography in Ed Wood’s “The Sinister Urge” is met with the remark “Ah, it’s Erich von Stroheim’s 'Greed.'" I looked it up and discovered the fabled lost masterpiece of American cinema, a ten-hour western melodrama only ever watched by the director and his friend Rex Ingram before they cut it down to the four-and-a-half-hour cut studios rejected. He was barred from the editing room and the two-and-a-half-hour cut they came out with is the only version that survives. Stroheim’s career never recovered. And just a few short years before he was on top of the world. He worked as an actor in propaganda films, playing stark raving German maniacs to help sway public opinion during the First World War, which placed him in the good graces of Universal head Carl Laemmle. Laemmle agreed to let him direct his first feature, which also happened to star a rising young actor named Erich von Stroheim, based on a book no one seemed able to track down by a brilliant author named Erich von Stroheim. It was a hit. The Kanye West of the 1920s had arrived. 

His next film, “The Devil’s Pass Key,” now unfortunately lost, was an even bigger smash and the extravagant eccentric set out to change history. He spent a million dollars of Universal’s money making it (prompting wunderkind Irving Thalberg to physically have his cameras confiscated so he couldn’t shoot anymore) and was then locked out of the editing room. After the “Greed” fiasco he was fired from several more movies for his antisocial behavior, and then Hollywood cried uncle. No one would ever hire him to direct again after 1931. The trouble may have been that the movies the public were seeing had very little to do with the movies he made. 

Stroheim described the release print of "Foolish Wives" as being little but the skeletal remains of what he was attempting. The MoMA restoration has returned the film to a form as close to the director’s wishes as was possible with the surviving elements, and you can see why an incomplete version of the movie wouldn’t feel nearly so profound. Stroheim achieves a kind of tonal tightrope walk most directors never come close to trying let alone achieving. Part of the success of the gambit is his inhuman confidence, of course, but there’s something very human about what he aims to do in his portrayal of the authentically moneyed and the pretenders who want to use them to break open a back door to privilege. "Foolish Wives" is ultimately about not being able to hide who you really are, and it’s both tragic and comic when the efforts come to nothing.

Count Karamzin (in a role that presages every great con artist character in film, from Ryan O’Neal in “Paper Moon” to Michael Caine’s urbane sociopath in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” to Gene Hackman’s deposed princeling in “The Royal Tenenbaums”) lives in borrowed splendor in a great seaside villa with his “cousins” Princess Olga (Maude George) and Princess Vera Petchnikoff (Mae Busch). The plot proper kicks in when he sets his sights on Mrs. Hughes (DuPont) and tries to swindle his way into her heart so he can continue to afford his lavish lifestyle, but it’s a better film when observing the derangement of wealth. The earliest passage of “Foolish Wives” in the villa brims with uncomfortable luster. Every splendid angle reveals housekeepers, marble appurtenances, parrots sitting lazily on perches, grand staircases, and finally Stroheim’s Count Karamzin shooting targets by the surf in a bathrobe and monocle. The film could have never left the villa and still been a classic; you can feel Joseph Losey’s worldview forming around the depraved frauds in their borrowed palace. Indeed a movie like "Monsieur Klein," in which Alain Delon plays a counterfeiter sucked into high society as the world ends, seems unthinkable without “Foolish Wives.” 

The film is chiefly concerned with Stroheim’s efforts to manage three women: the diplomat’s wife, a hotel maid (Dale Fuller) who he promised to marry, and a criminal’s mentally enfeebled daughter (Malvina Polo). But it’s a collection of what Jeanine Basinger calls “corruption, sensuality, decay—all the good movie stuff.” Karamzin has timeworn strategies to get out of every imaginable bind, including a recipe for quick fake tears, lies for every occasion, and acquaintance with the locals he knows he can use to his benefit. He seems to make things weirder and worse wherever he goes. When he and Mrs. Hughes are caught in a storm and seek shelter in a cottage, he keeps trying to seduce her but the braying grotesque who lives there and an interloping monk with sex-struck eyes keep interrupting him, as if sent by God to protect the poor woman. 

The film frequently flirts with what appear to be comic beats but one of the more enigmatic qualities of the movie is that Stroheim keeps a totally straight face about his own character. He commits with verve to the part of the grinning psychopath, but is also earnestly interested in the pathologies he attracts and projects. He pulls a con early on where he makes a fellow soldier look impudent by retrieving something Mrs. Hughes has dropped and returning it to her all while the other man looks on. She repeats the scene with him later in an elevator, almost to satisfy a burgeoning prejudice against the man. Later she’ll discover he didn’t pick up anything she dropped because he lost both arms in combat, and she erupts in a flurry of emotion like Grace Kelly in “Mogambo” saying “goodnight” to Clark Gable after he saved her from a leopard attack. She touches the amputee’s sleeves like she means to tell him she loves him, her eyes well up, she suddenly sees that her world has been thoroughly cracked open by the count. 

To return to Rosenbaum’s point about Stroheim’s “print the legend” coverage over the years is to realize that “Foolish Wives” becomes about ten times as interesting when you realize he’s playing himself. You must ask yourself how consciously he was trying to out himself. Stroheim lied about everything from his religion to his war record to his previous marriages, and here he is, rich as he’d ever be, playing a man who also lives by fantasy. Except of course he’s the villain, and he and his cousins suffer dire consequences for their underhandedness. 

Stroheim biographer Arthur Lenning closes his first chapter on the director’s life with this telling passage: “Not only had the young Stroheim failed at marriage; he had also failed at life. In the six years since his rebirth in America, he had accomplished nothing—not happiness, not vocational success, and not monetary security. His experience in America consisted of boarding houses, occasional daily wages, and grinding penury…” And so when he finally got to make his first epic, “A tale of crime through the life of someone who knows it,” per the opening title card, he invents himself again in front of our eyes and destroys himself just as quickly. Was this self flagellation, a mea culpa for years of perjury and abandoned families? Or did the director view his alter-ego’s fate as a cautionary tale: if you’re going to lie, lie well. Stroheim made storytelling not merely his profession but his entire life. He created his own legend every time he spoke, whether at Ellis Island or with the salacious, glittering lowborn fantasy of “Foolish Wives.”

Scout Tafoya

Scout Tafoya is a critic and filmmaker who writes for and edits the arts blog Apocalypse Now and directs both feature length and short films.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

The Teachers’ Lounge
All of Us Strangers
Occupied City


comments powered by Disqus