Erich von Stroheim, Repost

Erich von Stroheim: A Retrospective

Erich von Stroheim has one of those faces that people tend to recognize from the silent era. Helped in no small part by roles he had in two films by Billy Wilder (Five Graves to Cairo and Sunset Blvd.) as well as Jean Renoir’s Le Grand Illusion, Erich von Stroheim’s look as the stereotypical Teutonic officer was part of the marketing campaigns of even his very first film as a director, Blind Husbands. Born in Vienna in 1885 to a middle class hat maker, he moved to America in 1909 and slowly made his way across the continent to Los Angeles in 1914 where he started working in Hollywood as an actor. It was in 1919 that he convinced Universal under the ownership of noted skinflint Carl Laemmle Sr. and management of boy wonder producer Irving Thalberg to let him direct his first film based on a novel of Stroheim’s own writing titled The Pinnacle.

Successful enough, von Stroheim was able to make two more films at Universal (The Devil’s Pass Key which is lost and Foolish Wives) and it was on the second where the famous head-butting between von Stroheim and Thalberg started. The production was the first of von Stroheim’s that went wildly over budget, over schedule, and ran for several hours. The final result of the studio’s editing when they took the film away from von Stroheim was a two-and-a-half hour long melodrama that, as von Stroheim put it, was nothing more than the bones. Von Stroheim left Universal for The Goldwyn Company to make his next film, Greed, but Thalberg subsequently moved to Metro Pictures which bought Goldwyn while Greed was in post-production, leading to the two to clash again about the edit of that film. (MGM would gain its second M a couple of years later when Louis B. Mayer got powerful enough within the company to get his name added to it.) He made The Merry Widow for MGM as well, but the production, beset with many of the same problems as the production of Foolish Wives, was what convinced Thalberg that he would never fund a Stroheim picture again.

Von Stroheim fled for Paramount where he made The Wedding March and its sequel The Honeymoon (really one film split in two, the second half of which is now considered lost). He burned his bridges at Paramount as well, needing to work with the independent studio United Artists as well as Gloria Swanson as a producer to fund Queen Kelly, the production of which was cut abruptly short when von Stroheim instructed his actor, Tully Marshall, to spit tobacco all over Swanson’s arm during a wedding scene which tickled Stroheim something fierce but angered Swanson so much that she fired Stroheim and hired another director to film a new ending that lost a solid chunk of already shot footage set in Africa (this shortened version ends up offering no explanation for the title).

He had one more directorial effort to try, the production of an unproduced play called Walking Down Broadway that Fox gave him the money for. Actually turning in a film on time and within budget was a miracle for him, but the material he created was too dark and depressing for Fox’s tastes. He was fired once again, replaced by a couple of different directors, and the end result was a mangled mess of tones and ideas that’s hard to watch. With that embarrassment, von Stroheim never directed again.

Okay, so that’s a brief survey of von Stroheim’s directorial career, but I’m not here for a history lesson. I’m here to talk about him as an artist, but I felt the survey was important to get out of the way because it, I think, points to some important things about his work, which I’ll get to.

A Viennese Aristocrat

Von Stroheim was born in Vienna to middle class parents, and when he was making his way up in Hollywood, he presented himself as a European aristocrat. His dress, his accent, and his mannerisms were all about extending the idea that he was of a class and station that he was definitely not born into. He used that persona in his acting, from roles in films like The Unbeliever, and when he gained more control over his image by becoming a director, he put that image front and center. In Blind Husbands he played a German military officer who decides that he’s going to seduce the wife of a famous American surgeon on vacation in the Northern Italian Alps. In Foolish Wives, he plays a supposed Russian aristocrat who makes it his mission to seduce the wife of the new American diplomat to Monte Carlo to con her out of money. In The Wedding March he plays a penniless military son of an aristocrat who is ordered to marry the daughter of a wealthy family but falls in love with a poor common girl.

What’s interesting about this is that it really feels like Stroheim reaching for the kind of life he wanted to have, that he was using his movies to live out his own fantasies and desired realities. That went well beyond his choice of roles for himself and into the actual production of his films. The most famous examples are the sets of Monte Carlo for Foolish Wives and Vienna for The Wedding March which were impressively huge and incredibly detailed to the point where, once the Vienna set was completed to his satisfaction, he stood in the middle of the outdoor street set and declared, “This is the Vienna of my youth!” The dressings of the sets needed to be exact as well, with Stroheim convincing the studio that renting the actual carriage of Emperor Franz Josef I was necessary, which he did on The Wedding March.

None of what he was trying to create was possible anywhere in America except in Hollywood, and he seemed to be using Hollywood as his own personal dream factory. The whole thing about having relationships across classes is a fairly regular American thing, but coming from a Central European who grew up under literal monarchy, especially when he grew up middle class, unable to touch the finer things of his own country except in passing, the cross-class relationships gain a sense of the taboo. His films are also dealing with a lot of affairs (I assumed that the story of The Wedding March that would have continued into The Honeymoon would have entailed a good amount of infidelity, and looking up a plot summary, it would have contained a bit more murder than infidelity), demonstrating that he liked to live on some kind of cultural edge (that Billy Wilder would want to hire him for Sunset Blvd. is really no surprise).

Movies weren’t just a gateway for other people’s fantasies for Stroheim, they seemed to be a gateway to his own, and he was happy to use Universal’s, MGM’s, and Paramount’s money to make it happen.

It should be noted that all of these movies are decidedly entertaining, so while he seemed to be getting into this stuff for weird reasons, he actually had the talent to support it.


It seems trite, but there is a clean split in von Stroheim’s work. There is Greed, and then…there is everything else. Greed was filmed on location, based on a naturalist novel, was centered on members of the lower classes, and was set entirely in America. The rest of his films were mostly shot on the backlots of the studios, but von Stroheim went to San Francisco and the surrounds to film Greed, most famously going all the way out to Death Valley to film the final sequence (cameras melted). The source novel, McTeague by Frank Norris, is about a lower class man who marries the daughter of a German immigrant who wins a small lottery and that win turns everyone’s life upside down (hence the title).

All of von Stroheim’s films are heavily compromised by cutting from studios, but Greed is the only one with a major restoration to bring it more in line with what he wanted. It is a four hour cut where half of it is composed of still images found amongst von Stroheim’s personal collection and given context with more intertitles. If the still images were replaced with actual footage, I imagine the cut would end up at about 5 hours.

Comparing it to the rest of his films and you can see how completely different it is. All of the rest (except Hello, Sister!, the final title of Walking Down Broadway, which was completely mangled and even released without a director credit) are set in Europe. Half of them include von Stroheim as an actor, playing well-dressed militaristic aristocrats, often poverty stricken, who were obsessed with attaining women he shouldn’t have. (Thulberg refused to allow von Stroheim to star in Merry-Go Round which he was also directing so Thulberg could fire Stroheim if necessary, which he did.) They are tales more concerned with sex than money (though money is definitely part of it), and they tend to be lighter in tone. If there’s one thing that really sets Greed apart from the rest, it’s the use of real locations. There was some real location footage in other films of Stroheim’s, like the mountains in Blind Husbands that were filmed in Italy, but the large bulk of everyone was built on the backlot of the assorted studios and on their sets on the studio lots. Stroheim filmed in apartments in the San Francisco area (including an interesting shot from inside with a wedding in the foreground lit perfectly so that we can also see a funeral parade through the window on the street in the background), there’s a cut sequence that was a big parade on the street, and, of course, the extended Death Valley sequence where the literary titular McTeague meets his violent end.

This may be a remnant of the film’s more complete status in the form of the reconstructed cut, but it’s also the one that goes the deepest into tragedy. People die in his other films (Stroheim’s own character in Blind Husbands plummets to his death from the mountains at the end, for instance), but most are happy endings where love, usually matrimonial love between husbands and wives, is reaffirmed and allowed some glory. In Greed, the marriage falls apart because of the eponymous emotion that drives everyone essentially mad, and everyone dies alone. It is one of the great, early cinematic American tragedies. I don’t think you could call any of his other films tragedies, unless you intimately identify with the scummy characters that Stroheim usually played. Considering Stroheim’s ability to tell a story, he might have identified with such characters, but he knew that they were the antagonists in his narratives and treated them as such.

An All Too Brief Career

Greed will always be Erich von Stroheim’s masterpiece and the film that he will be remembered for directorially. Even though it was at least eight hours long in the first edit (he wanted to cut it down to between five and six hours and release it in two parts, but MGM and Irving Thalberg got it down to two hours for release) it showed how far one man with extreme ambition could take the art form in its earliest years. If he could have found ways to work more amenably with his actors and producers, he could have kept on for decades, finding new ways to push cinema within the bounds of melodrama and tragedy.

I blame no one for the briefness of his directorial career than von Stroheim himself. His main actors hated him and his dictatorial, tyrannical style created massive tensions on set. He was directing a fight between two of his actors and he yelled, “Hate each other like you hate me!” He refused to bend for the concerns of the market regarding length of his films. He massively overspent studio money for questionable effects. He simply was not made for being in charge of a collaborative medium. I would have liked to see what else he could have made, especially in the sound era. Oh well. What he left behind was worthwhile.

He was one of the early actor/directors, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and he blazed a trail in his short time making movies in the early days of the studio system.


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