VON STROHEIM, Part Two: Toward The Pinnacle

Erich von Stroheim in Photoplay Magazine, January 1920, three months after the release of Blind Husbands, the film he wrote, directed, and in which he also played the lead role for the first time, after convincing Universal’s president Carl Laemmle that he could do it all — for $400 and the rights to  his screenplay, “The Pinnacle,” which the studio renamed shortly before its release, Blind Husbands.

“I thought I was going to be another [Douglas] Fairbanks . . . I imagined myself rescuing fair damsels in distress and running bad men to their sinful lairs.  I thought I was to be a romantic hero.  Instead, I’ve committed every crime in the calendar from murder to arson, I’ve thrown babies out of windows, shot old men in the back.”  Erich Von Stroheim, Picture-Play Magazine, November 1919.

D. W. Griffith, Carl Laemmle, Irving Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer, Joseph Kennedy and Gloria Swanson are names that are frequently associated with the career, the myth and legend of Erich von Stroheim.  Each played a significant role in his life story in its many versions, including his own.  Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Norma Talmadge, Anita Loos and John Emerson are not names that come as readily to mind, but they all figured in the Stroheim saga.  Each one contributed in important ways to the unique figure Stroheim became, and to the cinematic legacy we study nearly a century later.

John Emerson was critical to the early development of Stroheim’s career.  The actor-director was the first to see and utilize Stroheim’s considerable powers of observation of humans and their environs.  Stroheim had a life-long personal fascination — some might say obsession — with human beings in all their banal vulgarity, their unsettling quirks and mannerisms, but especially the freakish and the deformed, physically and morally.

Stroheim began to use this insight in small character roles he played in some of the early films directed by Emerson, such as Old Heidelberg (1915) and His Picture in the Papers (1916), and later in larger supporting roles as the “Hun,” taking advantage of American distaste for all things Teutonic during the peak of the nation’s involvement in the first world war, 1918.  It was a year in which Stroheim played the brutal German officer in four separate films cementing his reputation as the screen embodiment of the “The Man You Love to Hate,” a phrase that became an advertising slogan for a “product” — Stroheim, the man and his films.

However, it was his work as a set designer that gives us the first clear indication of his visual style — a strong hint of what we could expect later from Stroheim as a filmmaker.  Cinematically, it is as important as his insight into the human character.  We can see in the sets he created for the interior scenes of these early films of 1915-1916 the dark, often disturbing, visual elements that would permeate his later films as a director.

The sets Stroheim designed for His Picture in the Papers (1916) are often quite detailed, unusual for their time.  It was an era in which interior sets were mostly plain, unadorned and cheaply made — almost an afterthought in the production of a motion picture.  Stroheim’s sets are not only dark thematically, they are often intentionally busy — nearly to the point of overkill — with creepy, weird and unsettling details, a future Stroheim hallmark.  Keep in mind that Stroheim designed these sets for comedy by Anita Loos (Red-Headed Woman, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) starring Douglas Fairbanks!

An Erich von Stroheim-designed set, the lair of a gypsy card-reader-fortune-teller, for His Picture in the Papers (Fine Arts-Triangle, 1916), directed by John Emerson, written by Anita Loos and starring Douglas Fairbanks.

The jail cell set by Stroheim for His Picture in the Papers (1916), complete with “graffiti” scrawled on the walls by Stroheim himself, in several languages, German, French, Italian and English.  Some can be translated:  “Filthy pig-dog,” “Please do not spit,” “Wine women and song,” and “No smoking,” under which is a head with a military hat, apparently Stroheim, with a cigarette in his mouth, crossed-out with an “X.”  Barely visible on the wall at far left is another cartoon figure, apparently of director John Emerson, with the note, “Thank John Emerson.  Only fools write this nonsense,” crediting Emerson with the content of the “graffiti.”

This interior set of a steakhouse restaurant with deer, elk and moose-heads, trophy fish (and a turtle!), would not be out-of-place in Blind Husbands or Greed.  Note the rope with a sign in Stroheim’s handwriting, a warning to “Keep off the set.”  Also note the electrical cables at the far right.  His Picture in the Papers (1916).

Above:  Another Stroheim set from the comedy His Picture in the Papers that would be suitable for a dark drama such as Stroheim’s version of The Merry Widow (1925) or the lost “Part Two” of The Wedding March (1928), “The Honeymoon.”  Note the twin lions in the fireplace, the dark, elaborate wood carvings, and the weird Masonic-like symbol in the painting above it.

Above left, Fairbanks clowns with the cast on the set of His Picture in the Papers.  Above right Fairbanks’ college dorm room set.

As Director John Emerson’s assistant and technical advisor on Old Heidelberg, Stroheim promised to give Emerson’s version of the Viennese operetta “authenticity,” especially in military matters, of which Stroheim had personal, if limited experience in real life :

ABOVE:  In addition to the soldiers in mid-frame, this set test photo shows at far right a partial figure of someone, presumably a member of the film crew, possibly Stroheim himself.  Old Heidelberg (1916).

ABOVE:  Stroheim performed a significant supporting role in Old Heidelberg.  As Lutz (at far right), the valet to the prince, Stroheim’s character resembles a slightly warmer version of Max Schreck in Fritz Lang’s later Nosferatu.  (All of the above set photos from Old Heidelberg and His Picture in the Papers are from the New York Public Library, Billy Rose Theater Collection at http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/index.cfm.)

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Fortunately for the career of young Stroheim (he was now 31), he had attached himself to a rising star in director John Emerson.  It would give him experience working for and with some of the most important people in the industry on both sides of the camera.  Emerson’s next major project was a version of Macbeth, produced by Griffith, screenplay by Anita Loos with assistance from Shakespeare, starring theater legend Herbert Beerbohm Trees, with Stroheim as assistant director and set designer.  Macbeth was followed by The Social Secretary a light comedy-drama with Norma Talmadge.  Stroheim had a small  but important supporting role as a nosey newsman in the film, and Talmadge was impressed by Stroheim’s work, in particular his set designs, and said so in interviews during production of the film.

One of the most prestigious film projects of Emerson’s and Stroheim’s careers to date followed when Emerson was hired by Mary Pickford’s production company to direct Pickford in Less Than the Dust.  Shot on the East Coast on Long Island and in New Jersey, the story takes place in India and England, requiring Stroheim to design authentic, appropriate interiors, and even to procure camels for exterior scenes.  It would be among Pickford’s least favorite films (she would later recall how a fan “walked up to me in the street and said, ‘Oh, Miss Pickford, I loved you in the picture Cheaper Than the Dirt.‘”).  Less than the Dust was nevertheless a critical if not financial success.

But Stroheim would later refer to the film and its star obliquely as an example of how a “major international star” could, through “self-centeredness” ruin “a work of art” by “cutting out scenes in which she did not appear.”  One imagines that some of these cut scenes involved elaborate sets, and that Stroheim’s hard work on them was for naught.  The completed film, according to Stroheim, “was mediocre stuff.”  It would hardly be the last time Stroheim would describe his art being mutilated by those beyond his control.  It could also be seen as the first manifestation of Stroheim’s career-long distaste for working with “movie stars” (though one could explain this distaste as being the result of conflict between huge egos).

It was another star on the rise, Norma Talmadge, pleased with Stroheim’s set work on The Social Secretary, who recommended him as assistant director on her next film, Panthea, to be directed by Allan Dwan.  It seemed that with or without Emerson, he was attracting notice for his varied talents.  He would soon attract attention for very different reasons.

In Panthea (1917), for the first time, Stroheim would play a German military officer, in this case actually a German police lieutenant.  Several months later, Stroheim would rejoin Emerson and Douglas Fairbanks in the production of In Again, Out Again, as Emerson’s assistant director once again.  However, at some point in the production, Stroheim attracted negative attention when he was scouting locations for the film in which Fairbanks plays a man attempting to blow up a munitions factory.  By mid-1917 with America on the brink of sending troops to Europe, a “German” asking questions about American munitions factories was bound to arouse suspicion, and at least one later account has him being detained by police until the studio came to his assistance and convinced the authorities that Stroheim was not a saboteur.  According to Stroheim, Fairbanks fired him at the end of the film “on account of Doug’s apprehension about having a man with a German name in his employ, when even German-fried-potatoes had to be re-baptized as ‘Liberty’ potatoes.”  (Where have we heard that before?)

Stroheim may have been incorrect about when he was “fired.”  He worked on two more films for Emerson and Fairbanks in the next few months, but after that found his career languishing.  He was able to take advantage of the plethora of patriotic, anti-German films being released by 1918, and found work as an actor and occasionally as technical advisor on German military matters.  This led to his most significant screen roles to date in The Unbeliever (1918, dir. Alan Crosland) for the Edison company, followed by several others, including Griffith’s Hearts of the World in which he also served as an uncredited military advisor, and notoriously, as the “Hun” who tosses a baby out of a window in Universal’s The Heart of Humanity (1918).  Stroheim claimed to have come up with the idea for that atrocity himself and, for once, no one seems eager to dispute him.

While these roles did not make a major star of Stroheim, his ability to create a series of Germanic villains, convincing yet fascinating in their heartless brutality, had made a considerable impression on movie audiences and critics.  But the war ended in November, 1918, and the desire of audiences to experience vicariously the vicious “Hun” quickly evaporated.  Stroheim’s power of persuasion, a power that took him from penniless immigrant to a movie career working with some of the most recognizable faces on the planet in just over half a decade, would soon be put to its greatest test.

While at Universal, Stroheim attempted to interest studio head Carl Laemmle in purchasing his screenplay, something he called “The Pinnacle.”  A story of morality, mountains and murder, it had all the elements of a prototypical Stroheim movie.  Not surprisingly, Stroheim was reluctant to have it  pass into another’s hands without retaining control over the story.  Most accounts agree that after weeks of trying to see Laemmle about “The Pinnacle,” he finally received a ten minute appointment that wound up lasting most of an evening.  Arthur Lennig imagines both men lapsing into their native tongue to negotiate a mutually agreeable transaction.

Carl Laemmle had engineered the first publicity stunt in movie history, creating the film industry’s first ad campaign for a movie star with Florence Lawrence ten years earlier.  As an early independent film producer, he bucked the Motion Picture Patents Company “trust” for years before he received vindication from the U. S. Supreme Court.  In short, he was not afraid to make a bold business decision.  Stroheim, though never more than a supporting player, set designer or director’s assistant, appeared to have the ability, as Lennig notes, to make any film, no matter how cheap or tawdry, better than it would have been without him.  And even if it were not the case, he could persuade you it was.

Stroheim made Laemmle an offer with such minimal risk he could hardly refuse.  Stroheim would direct the film, act in the leading role, and in return would receive $400 for the rights to “The Pinnacle,” and presumably a minimal salary (although this is unclear).  Undoubtedly it was assumed by all parties that Stroheim would adhere to a budget — after all, he had yet to establish a track record of profligacy in filmmaking.

Blind Husbands (Universal, 1919). Stroheim, as Lt. von Steuben, with the mountain guide, Sepp Innerkofler, a name Stroheim borrowed from a real turn-of-the-century Tyrolean mountain-climber.  Sepp was played by British-born actor Gibson Gowland, who Stroheim had met on the set of Macbeth in 1916, who would later make cinema history as “McTeague,” in Stroheim’s adaptation of the Frank Norris classic, released as Greed in 1924.

Stroheim considered himself a disciple of D.W. Griffith, and said so repeatedly throughout his career (and claimed to have been an assistant director with Griffith on several films).  Realism, in the sense of truth and its depiction on-screen, was something both Griffith and Stroheim shared as a goal of their art.  Each man’s perception of it, however, could be quite different.

The plot of “The Pinnacle” is, in a nutshell:  A physician, his wife of more than a few years, and a military officer arrive in an Alpine mountain resort for extended vacations.  The wife is bored and neglected by her husband.  The officer is out to seduce every woman who strikes his fancy, regardless of age, class or marital status — a maid, a waitress, a flower girl, and the physician’s wife.  He takes advantage of the physician/husband’s repeated acts of indifference to his wife by attempting to seduce her.  Ultimately, she refuses him, but not before both her husband and the Lieutenant find themselves together high in the mountains — a confrontation ensues in which only one will survive.

Blind Husbands, the name eventually chosen (over Stroheim’s objections) for “The Pinnacle” just preceding its release, was ultimately an appropriate title for a film about the unfulfilled sexual needs of women who were “good” and “normal,” not voracious or evil.  For once, it was the husband, unable to see (or feel) her needs, who drove this otherwise faithful woman to seek — or at least contemplate — satisfaction elsewhere.  Naturally, both Griffith and Stroheim had nineteenth century views of human sexuality.  But unlike Griffith, Stroheim’s view was European, and not the Victorian variety.  It was not an idealized concept of sexuality, particularly women’s sexuality, but one that accepted physical desire as normal  and the repression of it as abnormal.  It was Griffith’s treatment of the subject, that is to say his lack of treatment, that was the norm in American filmmaking up to the end of the first world war.

Stroheim’s film may have been an anomaly among American films at the dawn of the roaring 1920s, but it did not arouse significant objections from audiences or critics.  Why?  The answer seems to be that the film told a story that could have been handled sensationally in a calm, deliberate (though not boring) manner.  Stroheim made his point not through the overtly lewd, lascivious behavior of his characters (Lt. von Steuben exhibits these characteristics, but not beyond believability).  Instead, the actions depicted were not far outside the realm of the emotional experience or understanding of his audience, even an American audience used to the absence of the honest depiction of human female sexuality on film.

The film has two flaws, but neither one is fatal.  The manner in which Lt. Steuben meets his fate in the mountains high above the resort is less than satisfying.  It is an ending that Griffith might have handled through deft editing and the insertion of close-up cuts, rather than medium-long and long shots of von Steuben’s fall after tussling with a vulture (or actually a shadow of a vulture) and having a vision of “The Grim Reaper” on the mountain top.  More problematic is that, with the exception of von Steuben, none of the characters are particularly interesting.   The husband, the doctor, is a thoughtless boob, but we expect him to be.  However, we never truly care for the Dr.’s wife as we should.  In fact, we would almost prefer to see the Lt. seduce her, have her deal with the psychological effects and self-loathing that might follow, and then take them out on her “blind” husband.  It was Stroheim’s first screenplay, his first film, in which he took on the leading role.  It may have been asking too much to expect more.  Such disappointments would not be repeated, at least not through any actions by Stroheim, in his subsequent works.


Only weeks before the premiere of Blind Husbands, Stroheim began shooting his second film for Universal, The Devil’s Pass Key, from an unpublished story by Mahra de Meyer originally titled, “Clothes and Treachery.”  Universal purchased the rights to the story earlier in 1919 and Stroheim adapted it into a screenplay during post-production for Blind Husbands.  It was with this second film that Stroheim, already quoted in the press as being unhappy with Universal’s renaming of “The Pinnacle,” began his obsession with multiple takes and miles of footage that would create friction with his employers.

Universal knew they had a major hit film in Blind Husbands, and had discovered an important new talent in Erich von Stroheim.  They were only too happy to have him working on his second project and, as the favorable reviews and box office receipts rolled in, Universal and Stroheim surely had great expectations for the future.

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For Further Reading:

Lennig, Arthur, Stroheim (Kentucky University Press, 2000).  Factually, I relied heavily on Arthur Lennig’s biography of Erich von Stroheim, particularly his early films as set designer.  His book steered me to the fascinating photo collection of the NYPL Billy Rose Theater Collection for the early film set photos.  If having read this article you want to learn more about Erich von Stroheim, and I hope you will, then Mr.Lennig’s book is essential reading for you.  More than any other writer/researcher/historian, he debunks the many myths, yet Stroheim emerges a vivid figure, and even more fascinating than before.