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Directed by Erich von Stroheim Foolish Wives is a silent film also written by him.
Plot

The silent drama is set in and around Monaco where Villa Amorosa is leased out for the season. The three Russians who occupy the villa are frauds and they are there to make a killing and move on before the season ends. Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin (von Stroheim) is a cad of the deepest hue whose forte is in compromising rich heiresses and milking them while his cousins run a private casino to bilk the unwary who are taken in by their pretensions to nobility. Naturally passing around counterfeit notes is part of their trade.
Of these three the role of Stroheim looms larger,- and he is almost in every scene, but his riveting performance as an actor and as an auteur make this film a great experience. The character that he assays here is typical of other roles he has handled, and indeed he is the man you love to hate. But what a character! Before we see him mixing with the high society and holding his own with cold aloofness of a Count we are given a clue to his baseness.

Von Stroheim shows a world that lies to itself, where swindlers and rich people mix, and where the heroine reads a book called Foolish Wives . The writer-director deals with false appearances: the titles of Count Wladislas Sergius Karamzin and his two princess cousins are fake (von Stroheim himself was not an Austrian aristocrat as he would have us believe during his lifetime, but the son of a Jewish hat-maker), the money is counterfeit, and the sentiments are fraudulent; Karamzin playing at love to seduce his maid, the ambassador’s wife, and an idiotic 14-year-old girl are all put on and fake, like impasto on the canvas of high society as the royal pretensions of Grimaldi might strike the House of Windsor or of Hohenzollern. This hypocrisy of the social game is set in the context of World War I, which had just ended: an armless veteran, a nurse pushing a soldier in a wheelchair, a little girl on crutches, a boy playing with a military helmet are all daubs that add to the overall effect.
As the film progresses depth of his villainy is indeed mind-boggling. He shall not spare even the servant maid’s life savings if he could lay hands on it and his comeuppance of course would come from that quarter, and before the film comes to an end we see of what his panache and sense of honor amount to in a critical moment.
The bulk of the film is taken up how the three cousins lay traps to compromise the honor of Helen Hughes (Miss Dupont) the young wife of the American envoy and its unraveling with unexpected consequences to the three.
Production:
Before release there were both censorship and length problems. In the wake of Fatty Arbuckle’s scandal the company decided to delete the most provocative shots; after screening a rough cut of six and half hours, it took the film from von Stroheim’s hands and asked Arthur Ripley to reduce it from 30 reels to 14. Ultimately it ran only ten reels.
The film began director von Stroheim’s reputation as a “manic perfectionist,” a huge money spender, and as a director that needed to be brought under control.
Started on 12 July 1920, the shooting ended almost one year later on 15 June 1921. The costs were soaring as von Stroheim insisted on the veracity of every detail. The main facades of the casino, the Hotel de France, and the Cafe de Paris were built by Richard Day (his first assignment) on the backlot of Universal. During filming, the costs for the film soared. While the budget was slated at $250,000, according to von Stroheim, it ended at $750,000. At the end, Universal Studio, estimated the costs at $1,225,000. During the production, Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal, appointed 20-year-old Irving Thalberg as head of the studio. Right away the new studio chief started clashing with von Stroheim, whom he considered a spendthrift.
Actor Rudolph Christians died on February 7, 1921 from pneumonia during production, and his part was taken over by Robert Edeson. Edeson only showed his back to the camera so as not to clash with shot footage of Christians that was still to be used in the completed film.
Original prints reportedly had hand coloring of certain scenes by artist Gustav Brock.

In Retro:

Even with all the difficulties the film is one of the most stunning of the silent era. It also exercised a major influence on future directors, including Renoir, Buñuel, and Vigo.

In Foolish Wives von Stroheim also gives the final—and most brilliant—touch to his portrait of the cynical seducer, equally eager for money and sex. His physical appearance is as recognizable as Chaplin’s, with his military cap, his whip, and his monocle.
Even as we look back at the silent era with rose-tinted glass and smile tolerantly at its naïveté, this film stands out as a shocker. Its originality and boldness ran against the grain of films that were to come out of the MGM studios several years later. I cite this studio because the boy genius, who headed the studio was to thwart the artistic independence Stroheim demanded and Stroheim had to pay the price for his artistic integrity.
“If you live in France, for instance, and you have written one good book, or painted one good picture, or directed one outstanding film fifty years ago and nothing else since, you are still recognized and honored accordingly. People take their hats off to you and call you “maître”. They do not forget. In Hollywood—in Hollywood, you’re as good as your last picture. If you didn’t have one in production within the last three months, you’re forgotten, no matter what you have achieved ere this.”
Stroheim’s unwillingness or inability to modify his artistic principles for the commercial cinema, his extreme attention to detail, his insistence on near-total artistic freedom and the resulting costs of his films led to fights with the studios. As time went on he received fewer directing opportunities.
He is perhaps best known as an actor for his role as von Rauffenstein in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937) and as Max von Mayerling in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950).

For the latter film, which co-starred Gloria Swanson, Stroheim was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Excerpts from Queen Kelly were used in the film. The Mayerling character states that he used to be one of the three great directors of the silent era, along with D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille; many film critics agree that Stroheim was indeed one of the great early directors. Stroheim’s character in Sunset Boulevard thus had an autobiographical basis that reflected the humiliations suffered through his career.
‘De Mille as early as 1919 brought to the American screens a mixture of spice and sex but within strict moral limits. Von Stroheim, however, through his unsparing vision of human psychology, his probing of hidden motives, and his harsh realism made the American cinema (particularly with Foolish Wives ) enter the 20th century, away from the Victorian and romantic sensibility of Griffith. Chaplin would soon follow with A Woman of Paris (1923) and Lubitsch with The Marriage Circle (1924). “Lubitsch shows you first the king on the throne, then as he is in the bedroom. I show you the king in the bedroom so you’ll know just what he is when you see him on his throne.”
Foolish Wives anticipates two subversive works that open and close the 1930s: Buñuel’s L’age d’or and Renoir’s La règle du jeu .
In 2008, Foolish Wives was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Ack:michel Ciment/film reference,wikipedia-foolish wives,Stroheim)

(also see cinebuff.wordpress.com)
benny

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The Studio Years by Gerald Mast

(notes taken from the essay as titled above.b)

The System came up along the slow evolution of cinema as an art. In 1916 Adolph Zukor( Famous Players-Lasky company) assumed control over Paramount distributing company. In 1924 Marcus Loew set up MGM studio with Louis B.Mayer as head of Production. By 1925 the Warner Brothers Company,the Columbia Pictures Corporation,Universal Pictures and the Fox company had been set up.

Like the production of Ford motor cars out of Detroit the heads of the Production planned an entertainment factory from which a large number of goods(films) of consistent and dependent quality were to roll out without any snarl. Like any factory, guiding principle of a studio was division of labor, by which each department contributed to the whole. Writers, actors,technicians and mechanics were all part of it. Studio publicity was another that pitched the finished product to the public. Time saving devices were more welcome than inspiration a human quality that made writers or stars at time excel themselves from their usual. There was a front office that planned the year’s production,managed all the budgets and kept the assembly line smoothly running.

Introduction of sound system meant a bigger financial out lay that only big studios could afford. Conversely it made the studio more rigorous with their production costs. The informality of early silent films was gone and in the complicated technically savvy world of dream factory nothing was left to chance or human tantrums. The stars emoted come what may according to detailed shooting scripts that went dead against the intent of the author and script writers who still nursed certain literary integrity. Their principles and feelings had been bought by the studio when they signed the carefully worded contracts prepared by their lawyers. The studios had also battery of legal firms that helped them to control the production all along the line.

From 1930 to 1945 the Studio system reigned supreme.

When films found their feet among masses the need was to produce more while the demand was very strong. With the crash of 1929 and lives of men growing desperate, films as an escape from everyday circumstances were real. Those who produced them knew they had to account for every cent they spent. They knew the commercial need for large quantities could only be justified when these were of good quality and technically competent and also were entertaining. After the World War II the studio system died when television came into vogue. It brought entertainment right into homes of Everyman. There was no more need for such quantity as the studio system planned for a year.

2.

The Hollywood Studio system was uneven. Take two giants as MGM and Paramount studios. In the former Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg had much more control than the other . Paramount was a studio of directors and writers-Ernest Lubitsch, Joseph von Sternberg,Cecil B. DeMille and Billy Wilder. This also had such names as WC Fields and Mae West. MGM was the studio of stars- Greta Garbo Jean Harlow Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. MGM inherited the Marx brothers and made their zany chaotic routine fit with their intricate production numbers and trite plot and the result was lacklustre. Similarly Buster Keaton was flattened out when MGM took control. In the 1930s the MGM policy seemed wiser of the two. Audiences treated MGM films as the most impressive and artistic of their day and Paramount’s chaotic individuality ran the studio into severe financial difficulties and imposed restructuring of the studio in 1935 . Paramount lost in the process WC Fields Marx Brothers to name a few. Today the MGM films look flat and dead besides the exuberant vitality of Paramount’s.

The studios also differed in the genres they handled. RKO was remarkable for the smooth comedies with Cary Grant,and both the adventure films and comedies directed by Howard Hawks.Warner Brothers was most remarkable for its gangster,musicals and biographies. 20th Century Fox excelled in historical and adventure films directed by John Ford,Tyrone Power,Henryhathaway,Henry King. Universal excelled in the horror films-Frankenstein,Dracula,WolfMan, and the comedies of WC Fields.

Most directors were staff directors-competent,proficient and unimaginative technicians who took every script the received ,shot it and then passed the footage along to the editing department for shaping into its final form. There were exceptions to these those who were to individualistic that they like great stars could do films for other studios other than the ones thy had signed their contract. Walt Disney and Charley Chaplin worked for themselves. Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir and Clair made films for the studios and were imported from abroad. Maurice Stiller, Orson Welles( destroyed by the studio) couldn’t work within the system. Then there are directors like Lubitsch, von Sternberg, Hawks,Ford,and Capra who were products of the system and could work within it. In order to do their own Ford and Hawks had to make a number of mediocre films. These great directors avoided the Hollywood clichés and infused so much life about them to give the cliches a fresh cast and color.

Ernest Lubitsch for example could avoid formulas of what to say and how to say it. He even enjoyed playing with them. Central Lubitsch subject was sex, something that the studio system accepted as a necessary evil. In 1933 the formal code was to eliminate sex from the movies. In the studio years a woman was pure or fallen and a gentleman either faithful or a rake. Lubitsch could show that even faithful husbands have their rakish streak and women were not statues but women with powerful drives of their own. In an era of plaster-cast idealism of American male his cynicism was not as grotesque or bitter as of Erich von Stroheim.

On the whole studio system helped great many directors hone their skills and learn the craft. It was a liberating experience for them to make some good films if not the films that we treat as classic films. Mervyn LeRoy din’t direct a film as The Graduate of Mike Nichols. LeRoy made more films between 1930 and 1933 than Mike Nichols will make in a lifetime.

About the system there are two opposite critical opinions. The system created a very clear tension between art and commerce. Art defies mass production and assembly lines.The system bred popular entertainment, a myth as people who lapped up everything that flashed in front of their eyes. They were in awe of the stars, the glamor and the glossy perfection of a system that made the problems of life go away at least for a short while. The system played upon the wishes and dreams of the masses : the poetic justice worked too well and the crime paid in the end. Optimism of the good despite of every bad thing that visited them and reward of suffering the greed of crooked bankers, politicians gave them a false sense of American idealism as distinct from the way things worked in Europe. In a sense the system played too safe to displease public opinion and the powerful lobbies.(in the way the Motion Picture industry handled the Hollywood Ten during the Red Scare of 1947 one cannot miss fear of commerce than morals among the studio heads. They created a blacklist of their own.) The system stoked the gullibility of the masses and made them participants of a communal experience and a religious affirmation of the society. Such optimism which we see now by hindsight was based on misplaced naivete. Most films produced under the system are more interesting sociologically than aesthetically. The system ironed out what it considered as

too individualistic and no wonder MGM could not stomach WC Fields who,ripped up the sentimental cliches of propriety,Protestant ethics, or Marx Brothers who ridiculed high finance,higher education democracies and everything that the studio bosses held in mortal awe.

benny

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