1920s, 3/4, Drama, Erich von Stroheim, Review

Foolish Wives

I do not hold it against the film, but Foolish Wives is almost the same story as Blind Husbands, just with fewer mountain peaks. There’s a man dressed as a European officer who sets out to seduce the wife of an American in a small, European vacation spot that leads to the same lesson about husband’s appreciating their wives more. It’s interesting that Erich von Stroheim felt the need to reapproach this story as his third film (his second, The Devil’s Pass Key, is lost, but also seems to have operated along similar lines) where he stars as an even skuzzier version of the same character. The film is also of note for being one of several examples of von Stroheim’s longer films (reportedly originally 3.5 hours) getting cut down over the following couple of decades to just over 2 hours.

The new ambassador to Monaco Andrew Hughes (Rudolph Christians) and his wife Helen (Miss DuPont) have arrived in country to take up Andrew’s station, and they are the toast of the small country, attracting the attention from everyone from the Prince of Monaco (C.J. Allen) to a trio of matchstick men and women, Count Karamzin (von Stroheim), Her Highness Princess Olga Petchnikoff (Maude George), and Princess Vera Petchnikoff (Mae Busch) who claim to be Russian royalty, exiled from their country after the Bolshevik Revolution. Always on the lookout for the next bit of cash, Olga sets Karamzin on the path to seducing Helen with the object of acquiring large bundles of cash, their source of counterfeit francs made by Cesare (Cesare Gravina) and his daughter Marietta (Malvina Polo) not being quite enough to satisfy their lifestyle.

There’s a certain self-referential quality to the film with Helen reading a book actually titled Foolish Wives written by Stroheim, a book we see clearly and obviously more than once. It even ends up containing the morality lesson at the very end of the film. I bring it up here because Helen is reading it when Karamzin meets her for the first time at a café, the beginning of his seduction of her. It’s less obvious and aggressive than what happens in Blind Husbands, which gives it a different feel. There’s a moment where she drops the book on the other side of her chair when the other man on that side, a military man, doesn’t even move to help, a moment that she obviously finds distasteful that Karamzin takes advantage of to make himself look better, helping to start their friendship. That military man (Harrison Ford, not that one) ends up coming back later to wordlessly reveal something about himself that affects Helen deeply, and it’s evidence of where a lot of the cutting of this film happened: the smaller characters.

I mean, it makes sense. If you are a studio out to take a 3.5-hour film and get it down to two hours and fifteen minutes, you start at characters like the rude soldier. He’s not that important to the actual plot, but he is obviously meant to provide a real texture to what’s going on. Reportedly, von Stroheim complained that the series of cuts left only the bones of the story, and I can see where he was coming from. He was essentially filming novels (his original cut was apparently eight hours long), and he would have been more comfortable in the modern streaming era where studios are throwing tons of cash at auteurs to make long things.

Karamzin and Helen begin to get close, and Karamzin pushes things to the max when he and Olga take Helen to a small community where he takes her on a walk where they get caught in the rain. The sequence is one of those amazingly dangerous silent action sequences where you wonder how people didn’t die. In a torrent, he carries her into a small boat on a river, pushes it down the stream as it nearly flounders and goes under until he pulls her out and drags her to shore. It’s not quite the river sequence in Griffith’s Way Down East or the ship battle in Niblo’s Ben-Hur, but it’s in that same league. Another holdover from Blind Husbands is a mostly silent character who looks out for the honor of the targeted woman. In this, it’s a monk (Nigel de Brulier) who shows up at the remote cabin just as Karamzin is going to take advantage of Helen, Karamzin being shamed into failing to take action.

Another aspect of the film that feels underserved is the character of the maid, Maruschka (Dale Fuller). She’s in the background of a few shots early, but she doesn’t really get a line of dialogue until the halfway point. It’s here where we discover the second of the two titular wives, sort of, since Karamzin promised Maruschka to marry her. He keeps her on as a maid, forever promises but never delivering, and she ends up driving a lot of the action in the finale. I suspect there’s a lot of cut material around her because we get the bones of what she’s about and little else.

The finale is driven around Karamzin and his two “cousins” getting Helen to use their forged banknotes at the casinos, which she turns into a sizeable set of winnings. Helen ends up excusing herself from her husband’s presence with the excuse of not feeling well, but she’s actually going to meet Karamzin at his house. It’s there where Maruschka finally accepts the depths of Karamzin’s awfulness, Karamzin successfully cons her out of 90,000 francs, and a blaze goes up that allows Karamzin to demonstrate his general cowardice, leading to everything about the trio’s livelihoods falling apart.

Much like Blind Husbands, Foolish Wives has a limited emotional impact, mostly being a well-constructed story done in grand style. von Stroheim’s penchant for extravagance in terms of production design gained an early pinnacle here with the recreation of Monaco that stood on the Universal lot for years. Every set, exterior, and costume is intricately designed and feels very real, providing a wonderful visual texture to the whole affair that does lend the film a real credence. The only performance I would want to seriously criticize is Dale Fuller’s as Maruschka, the only person who acts like they’re in a silent movie and needs to exaggerate every movement. Everyone else has a more understated approach to their roles that helps further advance the tactile reality of the action.

I’d be interested in seeing the three-and-a-half-hour cut that was originally released in 1922 to see if any of my concerns would be addressed, but that eight-hour cut is just never going to resurface (probably also the 1922 cut). The movie world will have to settle for this two-hour cut, and it’s a solid piece of filmmaking and storytelling from one of the early mad geniuses of Hollywood.

Rating: 3/4

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