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