Erich von Stroheim’s directing career lasted little more than a decade from the middle period of the silent era right through the beginning of the sound era, though his first full sound film can hardly be called his at this point, reshot by two other directors and mangled by the studio. Several of his films are lost, leaving only six that really count as his that he made, though almost all of those were massively re-edited by studios, usually to do two things: reduce the gargantuan running times and remove a lot of sexual content.
Erich von Stroheim would have been far more at home working for a company like Netflix today than he was working for MGM or Paramount in the 1920s. Instead, he stopped directing and started exclusively acting, getting cast twice by Billy Wilder in Five Graves to Cairo and, most famously, Sunset Blvd.
I think he was trying to push the boundaries of the feature film, a new creation in 1919 when he directed Blind Husbands, and create the cinematic novel. Greed, the film he’s best known for, is the most successful at this, especially in the reconstruction that lasts about four hours. It’s really his greatest work, and I think it’s hard to argue against it.
The rest of his work is surprisingly different, though. Greed is within the bounds of social realism, but the other five films are lighter fare about rich people looking for love in all the wrong places, usually starring Stroheim himself as a cad who either learns his lesson on true love or dies.
It was a short run, but it was also a quality run. His own extravagance and cruelty towards his actors might have undone him professionally, and his films may all be compromised (The Wedding March may be the closest to untouched remaining), but there was real talent, both cinematic and dramatic, in the hands of that son of a hat maker who invented a persona of the exiled aristocrat when he came to America from Vienna in 1909.
Below are his films, ranked definitively. I did watch and review Hello, Sister!, though I do not include it in the rankings because its compromised nature is so much more of a problem than across the rest of his filmography. And do check out the rest of the definitive rankings to bask in the definitiveness.
6. Queen Kelly
“Queen Kelly is easily von Stroheim’s least successful film, but there’s still a lot to admire and even enjoy across the bulk of its running time. That’s largely a testament to von Stroheim’s strengths as a filmmaker. I just wish he was less antagonistic and extravagant so that, maybe, he could have actually finished a movie once.”
“Erich von Stroheim blew up his budget, the first time of many, and got kicked out of the editing bay by his producer, but the end result is a solid, well-told little cautionary romance.”
“It’s a largely nice look at Vienna in 1914, at ill-fated romance, and with a not entirely expected ending that sends our loving characters in vastly different directions. I wish The Honeymoon still existed in order to see how the story resolved (I imagine it’s pretty standard romantic stuff and Nicki and Mitzi end up together), but this does feel like half of a story instead of something entirely completely.”
“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.”
“The ambition he showed in terms of physical productions was really incredible while he could manage very good performances from actors and tell convincing stories. The Merry Widow might now be one of the great silent films, but it is a very nice one nonetheless.”
“Greed is a dense novel of a film, but it’s expertly constructed and wonderfully filmed by Stroheim who proves himself to be the kind of filmmaker who should be allowed to do whatever he wants…as long as his movies could make their money back. That’s a tall order for a long melodrama that Stroheim wanted to release in two parts, so I also completely understand the studio’s reticence around the whole enterprise once they got it. I’m glad we at least have the reconstruction, though. It gets us quite close to the full power of Greed.”
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