There is something about Erich von Stroheim’s films which are akin to a latter-day hip-hop video. Hip-hop vids are aspirational in nature. They most often show their stars enjoying a life their audience can only dream about. The MCs are surrounded by the finest women and brand names. They’re flying in private jets and anchored off St. Tropez in their yachts. They’re given the VIP treatment at the most exclusive nightclubs. They’re living out the whole Great Gatsby thing. The music video is both proof of status–your average rapper’s rise from the projects to the penthouse—and a hyper-stylized fantasy of that ascent.
When it came to making his third feature, Von Stroheim was in a similar position to Jay-Z when it came time to record “Big Pimpin’.” He had risen from an Austro-Jewish background to reinvent himself as a Prussian aristocrat in America. He had thrown a “von” in his name and dropped the “Oswald.” This was pre-Internet, so no one was checking up on him. A born hustler, he took to the nascent film industry like a prince to the polo grounds. He went from working as an advisor to D.W. Griffith to playing a Pharisee in Intolerance to directing his own films for Universal. He had scored a pair of hits–Blind Husbands and The Devil’s Passkey–both set in a Europe built on a Hollywood back-lot and both starring von Stroheim. Where Griffith was an actor who discovered he was happiest behind the camera, Von Stroheim used his films to fashion himself into—as the promotional material for Foolish Wives had it—“the man you will love to hate.”
But something went wrong. Von Stroheim exhausted his budget erecting a replica on Monte Carlo in California. The set rivaled Intolerance’s Babylon. He insisted on importing foreign cars with the steering wheel on the right-hand side and using real plate glass in the windows, a detail which would have been lost on the spectator. The question is why? It may have been that, in the absence of brand names like Courvoisier and Manohlo that Von Stroheim strove for an authenticity of the upper crust that would appear to be transparent to his working class audiences. Like the maker of a Faberge egg, he assured his clients that nothing but the finest materials would be used. Universal conspired with him in the deception. They erected an electronic sign over Broadway reading “Universal Pictures and Erich von Stroheim will spend $XXX,XXX to entertain you with Foolish Wives.”
Von Stroheim also wanted to build a second Monte Carlo because Foolish Wives was going to be as much about California as it was going to be about post-War Europe. Like a former dope-dealer turned chart-topper, both Von Stroheim and his character Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin are men who have achieved success through the back door. Karamzin resides with a pair of “cousins” (the very sexy Maude George and Mae Busch) in an Oceanside castle, living off counterfeit banknotes provided for them by the grubby forger Ventucci (Cesare Gravina). This trio is dependent upon the costumes which von Stroheim the director lavished so much attention on. Karamzin’s chest glitters with decorations he presumably won while serving with the Russian Imperial Army. His breakfast is decadent to the point of eccentricity. The titles describe his glass of oxblood as an “eye-opener” and a heaping bowl of caviar as his “cereal.” The count spends his days seducing women, although the threat of destitution is near enough for his companions to direct his efforts towards Mrs. Hughes, the wife of an American diplomat. He shows her the glittering sights of Monte Carlo. Von Stroheim, however, knows that there can only be a sordid end to this procession of gondola rides and café rendezvous. Karamzin’s campaign of conquest culminates in a stormy boat row to a peasant hut straight out of a Russian fairytale. Dream is as important to Von Stroheim’s methods as realism.
Both are inextricably linked. Von Stroheim told a story about the counterfeit bank notes. The props he had made for the film were so realistic that he was arrested for forging them. The point of the story is that even the fake things in a film could somehow seem more real that what was purportedly real. Only in a film could the mise en scene assume a quality that seemed even more lifelike than the lives of the people watching it. Only in Hollywood could art be made that was simultaneously artificial and yet honest. For all their realist trappings, Von Stroheim’s films never claim to be anything but fantasy.
So Foolish Wives is itself a kind of seduction, tricked out in the finest trapping and perfumed with a whiff of Old World corruption. The world is inextricably tied up with the cinema. Karamzin observes his victim undressing in the cottage using a mirror. And, just as Von Stroheim went begging to Universal boss Carl Laemmle for more money to finish his film, Karamzin hits up all his women for hand-outs. He even bilks the maid Maruschka (Dale Fuller) for her life savings. Monte Carlo and Hollywood are both in the same business, pimping dreams. The same talents are required to thrive there. To get the maid to hand over her purse, Karamzin feigns weeping with the help of a saucer of water. In other instances, he has to rely on his gift of gab, improvising explanations for his unchivalrous behavior—as when he leaps from a burning tower without making sure Mrs. Hughes is safe. In his portrayal of the Americans, von Stroheim shows an understanding of how easily they’re starstruck by the pomp of minor aristocracy. Even the Hughes’ arrival in Monte Carlo is accompanied by an absurd amount of flag raising and lowering and cannonades. The couple eats up every moment of it.
While von Stroheim understood his audience, he misjudged his backers. The director, using two cameras operated by William Daniels and Ben Reynolds, shot enough footage for a six-hour film. Did he want to create an event in which the audience could immerse themselves? There are numerous devices in the print that survived cuts from Universal and the New York censors that suggest von Stroheim considered himself an avant-gardist. There are shots of lower class characters which have been superimposed on burlap to cloth to suggest their common edges. Conversations are relayed using full-on facial shots where characters look straight into the camera. This contrasts with the standard Hollywood practice of shooting conversations at an angle to the axis of action. When Karamzin visits Ventucci’s tenement, von Stroheim lights the dark interiors with harsh exterior lighting and uses silver filings to create a noir effect before its time. There are hints of what the much longer film would have been like in a dolly and close-up of Maruschka as she contemplates burning Karamzin and his latest paramour to death. Did Stroheim intend a longer film whose stately pace might present deeper psychological portraits of its characters? What he ended up with is a more impressionistic film, one with staccato subtitles that create their own sense of montage through lines like “Murmurs of water—whispers—sighs—and kisses.”
If Monte Carlo is a dreamland, von Stroheim still has an urge to wake his audience up from their slumber. Mrs. Hughes is found reading a book called Foolish Wives … by Erich von Stroheim. (Karamzin approves of her selection.) When he is first introduced, von Stroheim’s character aims his gun straight into the camera and fires it, shattering the illusion of drama. There are also perennial reminders of the war which had just ended: a young boy wearing a German army helmet, for instance. Mrs. Hughes gets her greatest lesson in false appearances when the man who refuses to pick up her handkerchief turns out to be a French officer who has lost his hands in combat.
Finally, von Stroheim might have insisted on a daylong version of his film because he preferred the act of filming most of all. He’s like a junkie who, while warning of the evils of dope, can’t resist getting his daily fix. There’s no doubt von Stroheim was a fetishist. He massages the unconscious Mrs. Hughes’s feet while in the hag’s cottage. His nemesis, boy producer Irving Thalberg, preferred to call it a “footage fetish.” (Von Stroheim was accused of many things, including holding after-hours orgies on his sets. Squally suspects that for von Stroheim, fashioning his off-screen legend was as important as building his on-screen one.) His pathological need to film manifests itself in Karamzin’s kinkiest twist. In the end, having survived arson and his reputation torn to shreds, Karamzin can’t stop seducing. One he has ruined Mrs.Hughes, driven the maid to suicide and seen his “cousins” arrested, Karamzin heads to Ventucci’s hovel to seduce the counterfeiter’s simpleton daughter. What happens there ended up on the cutting room floor. The film ends with Ventucci dumping von Stroheim’s corpse into the sewer. Unlike his hip-hop descendents, von Stroheim understood that all that caviar eventually wound up in the same place, whether it was eaten by the prince of Monaco or the key grip.
Tags: Ben Reynolds, Carl Laemmle, Cesare Gravina, D.W. Griffith, Dale Fuller, Erich von Stroheim, Foolish Wives, Intolerance, Irving Thalberg, Jay-Z, Mae Busch, Maude George, The Devil’s Passkey, William Daniels