Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The NFR Project: 'Foolish Wives'


Foolish Wives

Dir: Erich von Stroheim

Scr: Erich von Stroheim, Marian Ainslee, Walter Anthony

Phot: William H. Daniels, Ben F. Reynolds

Ed: Arthur Ripley

Premiere: January 11, 1922

140 min.

The stereotype of the early American film director is that of a harsh egomaniac equipped with a monocle, riding crop, and megaphone. Erich von Stroheim invented it.

Von Stroheim started off simply as Erich Stroheim, born in Vienna in 1885. He added the “von” and a fabricated noble background when he immigrated to America in 1909. By 1914, he was in Hollywood, working as one of D.W. Griffith’s many assistant directors on the epic Intolerance. During World War I, he began taking up the many villainous roles that cemented him in the public consciousness as “the Hun you love to hate.”

Finally established as a writer/director, Stroheim produced turgid and costly melodramas such as Blind Husbands and The Devil’s Passkey. He hit the jackpot with Universal, getting them to fork over more than a million dollars to make his Foolish Wives.

Stroheim as a filmmaker was doubly frustrating for producers that tried to rein in in. He wanted to create on an epic scale, but he was also obsessed with detail, spending recklessly to recreate the gilded pleasure spot of Monte Carlo in the studio confines of California. Fighting with the studio, the director managed to record hours of footage from which to make his final edit — which ran for six hours. The studio cut ruthlessly to get it down to normal feature length.

In Foolish Wives, Stroheim stars himself as the bogus Count Karamzin, a spendthrift grifter who seduces wealthy women and extorts money from them. His portrayal is perfectly despicable. The film illustrates his attempts to claim another victim, the wife of a U.S. ambassador. He is ultimately unsuccessful and brings on his own comeuppance.

It is difficult to see now where the money went, as we are used to films sporting large casts of extras and elaborate sets. At the time, however, such extravagant and detailed settings were unheard of. Stroheim would continue in the same vein until the studios finally got wise to his shenanigans and removed him from directorial duties. Meanwhile, Foolish Wives stood as a monument to what unlimited resources could create in Tinseltown.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: ‘Miss Lulu Bett’.


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