The conductor, orchestrating his masterpiece. From left to right, Still Photographer Warren Lynch, Cinematographer William Daniels (face hidden behind his camera), Cinematographer Ben Reynolds, Script Supervisor Eve Bessette (seated), and (standing with bullhorn) Director Erich von Stroheim. On the set of “McTeague,” released as “Greed” by Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, 1924.
One of the most remarkable stories in the history of American cinema belongs to a man born in Europe in the late nineteenth century, in the same country and the same year as my paternal grandmother.
Like many film students in the seventies, I was intrigued by the legend of Erich von Stroheim. I was enthralled by the tale of the genius director whose masterpiece was ripped from his arms by Philistines at Metro-Goldwyn Pictures, and handed to a writer named June Mathis who dismembered his McTeague and reassembled the mutilated remains as Greed. I later discovered there were many more chapters to the legend.
In 1919 he told interviewers, “My father was a count, and my mother . . . was a baroness and lady-in-waiting to the late Empress Elizabeth [but] titles are not worth a pfennig in Austria . . . I’ve been an American citizen too long to care for such baubles.” However, he did not actually become an American citizen until 1926, seven years after the interviews.
He claimed he was an officer in the Austrian cavalry. He fought, was wounded and scarred in Bosnian border skirmishes; between battle engagements he made love to gypsy girls mesmerized by a man in a dashing Austrian Imperial uniform. After years of meritorious service to the Emperor Franz Josef, he came to America where he served with the American military and trained soldiers prior to the first world war. Except that none of these stories is true. He served barely four months in the uniform of a corporal in the Austrian supply and transport corps before being drummed out for physical deficiencies, discharged for being incapable of bearing arms. The history of his American military service is similar, and even shorter — two months in the New York National Guard.
As a penniless immigrant in 1909, Erich Stroheim had arrived at Ellis Island and told immigration officers he was “Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim,” an officer and an aristocrat. Biographer Arthur Lennig succinctly observes, “Stroheim spent so many years creating a mythic past for himself that uncovering the truth is perhaps a desecration. . . Fortunately, the truth never came out in his lifetime. . . . but in the perspective of time, the facts now make his achievements even more extraordinary.”
Erich von Stroheim was born Erich Stroheim in Vienna on September 22, 1885 . His parents, Benno Stroheim and Johanna Bondy were Jewish. His father was a haberdasher, or hat-maker, who grew his business to the point where the family, which also included Erich’s younger brother Bruno, lived comfortably among the merchant class of turn-of-the-twentieth century Vienna in the waning years of the Austrian Empire and the Habsburg dynasty.
But the elder Stroheim’s frivolous spending and extramarital affairs eventually resulted in the collapse of his business and marriage, and Erich soon found himself without external financial support. He apparently got himself into serious debt which he could not repay, and that may have motivated his sudden decision to depart Austria for America. With little explanation, he bid a hasty farewell to family members and arrived in New York in late November, 1909.
After his minimal National Guard service, he held a series of dead-end jobs, including salesman for a New York fashion house, that eventually took him to San Francisco where, after a brief marriage to the daughter of a female physician in the city, he found himself again alone and unemployed. But he envisioned himself a writer.
In the summer of 1914, he worked as a lifeguard/boat-tour guide at Lake Tahoe. Having made friends of a few wealthy tourists who were willing to sponsor his production of a one-act play he had written, he produced the play at an Oakland theater. It flopped after a single performance. But this flop may have led to his meeting some actors who worked occasionally as movie extras (sound familiar?). And therein lies his entrance to the rapidly developing world of motion pictures, and Southern California, where he would at some point meet D. W. Griffith. Unfortunately, it is the murkiest part of his career.
Legend, once again, has it that Stroheim worked playing bit parts and as a stuntman for Griffith on Birth of a Nation. Some accounts even place him as an assistant director to Griffith. Not only has no one been able to spot Stroheim in the film, Lennig has pieced together a chronology of Stroheim’s whereabouts in California during the period Griffith was shooting Birth, from July through September, 1914. Taking into account his employment at Tahoe and the production of his play, it would have been virtually impossible for him to have worked on Birth in any capacity.
Lennig also interviewed actor and director Joseph Henabery who had worked as an actor on Birth of a Nation and who is often listed as an assistant director to Griffith on the film. Henabery confirmed to Lennig that neither he nor Stroheim were Griffith’s assistants. He also insisted that Stroheim did not perform any stunts on Birth, especially one in which a soldier falls from a rooftop, which Stroheim later claimed he had performed, resulting in two broken ribs. According to Henabery, this stunt was particularly dangerous, requiring precision timing and rehearsal, and it was performed by an experienced professional stuntman in Griffith’s company, not by the inexperienced actor Stroheim.
Henabery met Stroheim at the earliest point in Stroheim’s career, and offered an amusing account of how Stroheim, looking for extra work, would show up on film lots in a rented black limousine with a rented chauffer, wearing a long black coat and his trademark monocle. After pulling out his wallet and paying the chauffer, he would take his place on a bench with the other extras, waiting for an opportunity. According to Henabery, it certainly made him stand out from the usual pack of hopefuls.
“I believe it was showmanship. I’m sure he had a reason for attracting attention, and he did just that. You can bet that anyone who arrived at a movie lot in such style, spending dollars for fancy transportation, would be noticed and talked about by everyone.” Joseph Henabery, interviewed by Arthur Lennig in 1975, quoted in Stroheim (Kentucky, 2000).
What is certain is that beginning in February of 1915, Majestic Studios employed Stroheim in various capacities on several films: as an extra, an actor, set decorator, technical advisor, production assistant and assistant director on five different films, under the general supervision of, but not directed by, Griffith.
His first significant work in film was in Majestic’s adaptation of the Henrik Ibsen drama, Ghosts, directed by former Griffith and Biograph actor George Nicholls. Stroheim served as set decorator and had a bit part in the film. It was his set work that actually garnered notice in The Moving Picture World which praised the film for its finely detailed set interiors, even as the reviewer was ambivalent to the film as a whole. It was his attention to details that would become a trademark of Stroheim as a director, and eventually form part of the legend of his downfall as well. But for the time being, this experience would only further his career.
Having met actor John Emerson on the set of Ghosts, Emerson was impressed with Stroheim’s visual acuity. On Emerson’s first film as a director, a dramatic adaptation of the operetta Old Heidelberg, he hired Stroheim as his assistant after the Vienna native told him he had seen the play many times in his home town, and could add authenticity to the production. The film starred two actors on the rise, just a few years short of peak popularity, Wallace Reid and Dorothy Gish. Stroheim also convinced Emerson to let him play a key supporting role in the film. From this point forward, it does not require a great leap of faith to convince us of Stroheim’s desire to be in the director’s chair himself, starring in his own film, obsessing over set designs, carefully crafting every visual detail — to be in total control.
One of the more interesting questions of Stroheim’s early career is his involvement in Griffith’s Intolerance. Griffith had completed a film titled, The Mother and the Law, with Mae Marsh and Robert Harron, in early 1915. Griffith was then occupied until June coordinating the nationwide exhibition of Birth of A Nation. Dissatisfied with “Mother” as a followup to Birth of a Nation after witnessing the impact “Birth” had on the conscience of an entire nation, Griffith began work on the additional stories that, together with “Mother,” would make up the four stories of Intolerance. But again, as with “Birth,” the schedules of Griffith and Stroheim during this period cast doubt on whether Stroheim could have contributed much to Intolerance.
Following his work on Old Heidelberg, Stroheim had obtained a role in Farewell to Thee for Reliance in June, 1915, which occupied him during much of that summer. The film was released in late August. In early September, Stroheim received an offer from John Emerson to work as his assistant on a film he was directing in New York for Douglas Fairbanks beginning in late September. That film, His Picture in the Papers, included a bit part for Stroheim, was shot in New York that fall, and was released the following February, 1916.
Though Stroheim received an assistant’s credit for Intolerance, Joseph Henabery stated to Stroheim biographer Lennig that Raoul Walsh, Christy Cabanne, George Siegmann, Tod Browning and Henabery, but not Stroheim, were Griffith’s chief “aides” on Intolerance. At times, the entire studio lot was involved in crowd scenes and Stroheim seems to have taken part in obtaining extras to play “Jews” for the Jerusalem story and the crucifixion scene in particular. It is also possible he worked on redesigns of sets for the “modern” story of the film, parts of which were re-shot in 1916, but his overall involvement, and even his presence on the Intolerance set, would have been minimal, certainly less than would be expected of an “assistant director.”
While shooting His Picture in the Papers in New York, Stroheim met Mae Jones and soon married, in November, 1915. The couple returned to California in January where she worked as a seamstress for the Griffith studio, and their son, Erich von Stroheim, Jr., was born the following August. This marriage lasted only until 1919.
His soon to be infamous public persona, however, was formed largely by his early acting roles. He played German officers in supporting roles of varying importance in four films, all released in 1918: The Unbeliever (Edison, directed by Alan Crosland), The Hun Within (Famous Players-Laskey, dir. Chester Withy), Hearts of the World (Griffith, Famous Players-Laskey, dir. D. W. Griffith) and The Heart of Humanity (Universal, dir. Allen Holubar) in which he tosses an infant out a window and attempts to rape the mother. In these roles we find the origin of the slogan used in studio advertising to promote Stroheim’s work — “The Man You Love to Hate.” It was a label that followed him in varying degrees throughout his acting career — even in ads for his first two directorial efforts, Blind Husbands (1919) and Foolish Wives (1922).
At this point in his career in motion pictures, the question one is compelled to ask is how could a man with very modest experience as a film actor, set decorator and a director’s personal assistant persuade a savvy businessman, Carl Laemmle — the man who bucked the Edison/Biograph MPPC “trust,” who signed Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford away from Griffith and Biograph, who founded Universal Film Company — to allow him to write, direct and star in a major production for his studio?
The answer can be found in Part Two, the next installment on the early career of Erich von Stroheim.
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“A significant aspect of Stroheim’s life was that he was always in some way the outsider. In Catholic Vienna, he was a Jew; in melting pot America, he was the aristocratic European; and in France in his later life, he was a curious mixture of Austrian and American. Thus, he was always the Auslander [outlander].” Arthur Lennig, Stroheim, Kentucky University Press, 2000.