Upon his entry into America in 1909, Erich Oswald Stroheim (1885 – 1957) crowned himself Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim, embellishing his own legend before it began. Though the Austrian's mythic heritage involved a decorated military past and aristocratic background, von Stroheim's most notorious distinction became his relentlessly catastrophic relationship with Hollywood studios and the tragic fates that befell most of his cinematic output. If his films were not permanently mutilated by studios (Foolish Wives, Greed, The Wedding March) or turned over to other directors and altered forever (The Merry-Go-Round, Queen Kelly, Hello, Sister!), then they were simply lost (The Devil's Pass-key).
His embroidered persona masked relatively humble beginnings and a youthful struggle both personally and professionally. However, once he entered Hollywood as a European and military consultant, set dresser and extra, his meticulous eye for detail quickly attracted attention. Exploiting his unconventional looks, he sported dashing military outfits and paraphernalia, adding odd mannerisms when in front of the camera. After working as an assistant director on several pictures, he employed his eccentric magic on and off screen in D.W. Griffith's Hearts of the World (1918) and obtained a leading role in Allen Holubar's propagandistic The Heart of Humanity (1918), which locked his villainous, monocled Hun persona securely in place. After the war ended, the evil German type that audiences "loved to hate" faded from popularity and von Stroheim needed a new role. This came with his directorial debut, Blind Husbands.
Credited as one of the first directors to portray his heroes and heroines as realistic, flawed characters who often succumb to desire, von Stroheim rejected stars and sentiment. The lights and darks in his cynical view of humanity were always shaded tones, highlighted with symbolic artistry and black humor. Offsetting a richly textured elegance with banality, filth and deviance, von Stroheim exposed aristocrats in their pajamas and mustache bands. He focused on aberrations, idiosyncrasies, and deformities, inserting debauched orgies and sexual fetishes wherever he could while masterfully conveying believable, intricate emotions in the face of the often-overwrought theatrics of silent cinema. The result is a kind of enchanted realism where sincerity, love and goodness are always under threat by greater forces – societal, carnal and spiritual.
Writing elaborate scripts and unfilmed backstories, von Stroheim became known for an exacting, at times totalitarian, directorship with long, rigorous shoots and obsessive attention to detail – down to the type of wristwatch an actor wore. Nevertheless, he accrued a legion of loyal cast and crew who followed him from picture to picture. Not so generous, however, were the Hollywood executives whom he exasperated with his unhappy, complicated and often, peculiar visions which took longer and longer form.
Nevertheless, Abe Lehr, a cohort of Samuel Goldwyn, did agree produce to von Stroheim's magnum opus Greed, the title alone oddly presaging the monumental treachery von Stroheim – and later directors like Orson Welles and Sergei Eisenstein – would encounter at the hands of their financiers. Flabbergasted by the inordinate length of a film that focused on the ugly underbelly of America, MGM cut the print into one-fourth its original length and melted down the rest for its silver content, a dramatically wrathful punishment for all of von Stroheim's past sins. Perhaps even more remarkably, the following year von Stroheim directed The Merry Widow, a crowd-pleasing romantic blockbuster.
Famously quoted as saying "In Hollywood, you're as good as your last picture," he could not escape his difficult reputation or his grandiose visions – both incompatible with the studio system. Von Stroheim was only able to release the first half of what was to be a two-part saga in the form of The Wedding March, while Queen Kelly – a stormy collusion of morbid content and bad timing – knocked von Stroheim out of the director's chair and back to acting. The last nail in his directorial coffin came with the strange and sexually frank Walking Down Broadway which reached audiences severely edited with no director credit as Hello, Sister!.
Beyond starring in mostly low-budget movies as parodies of himself, von Stroheim did enjoy a handful of significant roles. In Jean Renoir's classic Grand Illusion (1937), he plays a German pilot whose flaws and misfortunes are encapsulated by a somewhat comic neck brace which was, of course, von Stroheim's contribution. And his memorable turn in Billy Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo (1943) eventually brought him the role for which he is most widely remembered, Norma Desmond's enigmatic butler in Sunset Boulevard. Incidentally, the film sparked renewed interest in Queen Kelly – scenes of which appear as an example of Desmond's former glory – and poignantly reflect back that extra dimension of veracity which von Stroheim himself deemed so vital to art. In the end, his life and legend could be one of the most fascinating epics he crafted. The HFA is honored to conjure both the myth and the reality with screenings of all that remains of von Stroheim's original creations as well as his grand exit by way of Sunset Boulevard. — Brittany Gravely
Special thanks: Bruce Goldstein – Film Forum; Alexander Horwath, Markus Wessolowski – Austrian Film Museum; Rob Stone – Library of Congress; Caitlin Robertson – Fox.
The HFA will also be showing the recently restored Grand Illusion from August 10 to August 19.
Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely and David Pendleton
Directed by Erich von Stroheim. With Gibson Gowland, ZaSu Pitts,
US 1925, 35mm, b/w, silent, 140 min
That von Stroheim's most famous film exists as a mere sliver of its original length of over eight hours perversely befits a director whose own characters are often victims of cruel, ironic twists of fate. Despite his infamously meticulous perfectionism, his penchant for shooting over schedule and budget, and testing the censors with transgressive content, fate somehow allowed von Stroheim to direct a Hollywood feature depicting squalor, vice and grim realism with no stars, no glamour and an epic length. Shooting on-location in urban slums, von Stroheim's passion for authenticity and exposing the seamy side of life found an ideal outlet in the adaptation of Frank Norris' naturalistic novel McTeague. Complex characterizations within an elaborately realized atmosphere relate the tale of a slow-witted, sensitive hulk of a man whose nervous fiancée wins the lottery, thus triggering a series of repressed resentments and dark, uncontrollable drives that lead to betrayal, murder and a searingly nihilistic ending. All of the subplots and secondary characters were excised with MGM's relentless scissors, yet his urgent vision – a harrowing amalgam of the magical and the real – still shatters the silent screen. Just as his characters could not escape their inherited destinies, the willful von Stroheim tempted fate with a radical labor of love and paid for it dearly. Print courtesy Warner Brothers
Directed by Erich von Stroheim, Alfred Werker, Edwin Burke
With Boots Mallory, James Dunn, ZaSu Pitts
US 1933, 35mm, b/w, 63 min
Hello, Sister! occupies an ambiguous place in von Stroheim’s canon. Although invaluable as Stroheim’s only sound film, it was also cut by the studio (Fox this time) before its release, with some scenes re-shot, particularly at the beginning and end of the film. For this adaptation of a play, von Stroheim once again employed the tragic comedy of ZaSu Pitts whose character’s own disappointments in love prompt her to thwart the budding romance between an attractive roommate and her suitor. With a plot featuring prostitution, unplanned pregnancy, attempted suicide and lesbian overtones, the film is recognizably pre-Code and, for much of its central section, recognizably von Stroheim, particularly the fistfight between a courting couple that serves as sadomasochistic foreplay. Print courtesy 21st Century Fox
Directed by Erich von Stroheim. With Erich von Stroheim, Sam de Grasse, Francelia Billington
US 1919, 35mm, b/w, silent, 93 min
Already well known for his “Man You Love to Hate” acting persona, von Stroheim made his directorial debut with Blind Husbands. In this box-office success lauded for its “adult” treatment of sexuality, the director steals his own scenes as the debonair villain who upon meeting an American couple at an Austrian mountain resort, immediately and outrageously directs his desire toward the neglected wife. Seducing her amid lavishly realistic sets steeped in sexual and religious symbolism, the increasingly lecherous von Steuben is portrayed with as much condemnation as the righteous husband whose blindness and blandness are perhaps greater sins in the eyes of Hollywood’s precocious new visionary. Print courtesy Universal Studios
Directed by Billy Wilder. With Gloria Swanson, William Holden,
Erich von Stroheim
US 1950, 35mm, b/w, 110 min
In a not-so-distant depiction of his actual descent, von Stroheim plays Max von Mayerling, a once-esteemed silent film director who is now the butler of the actress he used to direct. An iconic exposé of the dark dementia lurking just beneath Hollywood’s silver screen, Sunset Boulevard is an endless hall of ironic mirrors, obscuring the lines between onscreen and offscreen, fiction and fantasy. Playing the aging silent movie star with famously bizarre delusion, Gloria Swanson is the woman von Stroheim directed in Queen Kelly and was responsible for the brutal amputation of that film. In Sunset Boulevard, von Stroheim’s dour-yet-empathetic character is in charge of preserving Norma Desmond’s dream that she is still a much-loved, sought-after star while coolly observing her psychological entrapment of the young, hack writer who stumbles unwittingly into her macabre lair. When Von Stroheim’s Max tenderly “directs” the final scene, it is an act all the more poignant because, for von Stroheim it was never to be. Print courtesy Paramount Pictures
Directed by Erich von Stroheim. With Erich von Stroheim, Miss Dupont, Maude George
US 1922, 35mm, b/w, silent, 143 min
At the time of its release, von Stroheim’s second feature – cut by the studio to about half of its original length – was the most costly film ever made. He certainly spared no expense detailing the excesses of the faux aristocratic trio whose perverse pomposity he introduces with hilarious, non-verbal clarity. Once again, von Stroheim pits pragmatic, dull American men against their mysterious, chivalrous European counterparts, who may or may not be what they seem. At stake is the honor of their beautiful, naïve wives – in this case, a wealthy American woman who von Stroheim’s Count Karamzin stalks with psychotic fervor. He and his mistress-like “cousins” prove that the foolish want to be fooled and that the difference between the classes may consist of no more than a monocle. More resonant in light of the director’s own specious heritage and self-styled type-casting, their counterfeit games drift off into strangely beautiful excursions. Poetic, stream-of-conscious inter-titles accentuate the alluring ambiance of a dark, dangerous romanticism that – despite the deep scars of heavy censoring – startles with a strikingly moving dénouement. Print courtesy the Library of Congress
Directed by Erich von Stroheim. With John Gilbert, Mae Murray,
US 1925, 35mm, b/w, silent, 137 min
In his first picture post-Greed, von Stroheim litters the screen with pathetic, greedy men who were no doubt stand-ins for the producers, exhibitors and censors he held responsible for mutilating his masterworks. In the film, their prey is the beautiful dancer Sally O’Hara played by starlet Mae Murray, one of many concessions von Stroheim made to appease the Hollywood movie machine. He succeeds in crafting a thoroughly engrossing melodrama with wit, whimsy and plenty of sardonic von Stroheim details, like the diabolical baron with a foot fetish and a crown prince with a speech affect in the intertitles. Straying wildly from the Franz Lehar operetta, von Stroheim was applauded for wringing a complex performance out of Murray whose turbulent, on-screen romance with the rakish Prince played by John Gilbert proved box office gold. Print from the collection of the Austrian Film Museum
Directed by Erich von Stroheim. With Gloria Swanson, Walter Byron, Tully Marshall
US 1929, 35mm, b/w, 101 min
Financed by Joseph Kennedy and independently produced by Gloria Swanson who wanted to focus on serious roles, Queen Kelly balances a comedic charm with eccentric, dark flourishes, as in the opening scene featuring a hysterical, drunken Queen surrounded by wildly decadent décor and wearing nothing but the cat she clutches to her chest. Her fiancé Prince Wolfram falls in love with Swanson’s sweet Catholic girl Kitty Kelly and risqué antics ensue, ranging from the delightfully playful to the deliriously sadistic. Miraculously, the plot leads to Kitty succumbing to a nightmarishly arduous, unforgettable wedding ceremony with an old brothel owner in Africa. At this point in the production, Swanson’s misgivings about von Stroheim unfortunately coincided with the advent of the talkie, and Kennedy pulled all funding. The remains of von Stroheim’s original vision were reconstructed from fragments of the African footage that resurfaced in 1963, replacing a tacked-on Romeo and Juliet ending Swanson had released abroad without von Stroheim’s approval. Print courtesy Kino Lorber
Directed by Erich von Stroheim. With Erich von Stroheim, Fay Wray, Matthew Betz
US 1928, 35mm, b/w and color, silent, 115 min
"Dedicated to the true lovers of the world," The Wedding March resumes von Stroheim's cruel and comic debates over love, money, class and marriage – escapades that were perhaps partly a mirror of his own sacrifices and quandaries over the pragmatic Hollywood box office versus unrestrained, perfectionistic artistry. Von Stroheim plays the Austrian Prince Nicki with a nuanced portrayal of a practical playboy who experiences love yet cannot proceed with a marriage outside of his station. The object of his affections is the fair daughter of an innkeeper and his fiancée – a delicate introvert with a limp – is the daughter of a wealthy corn-plaster magnate. Plumbing the depths of tragedy with a complex smile, von Stroheim tempers an idyllic, supernatural fantasy realm with the unsentimental, grotesque follies of both the aristocrat and the commoner, and tops it off with a Corpus Christi parade in surprising two-strip Technicolor. Print courtesy the Library of Congress