VON STROHEIM, Part Three: The Devil’s in the Details.

The reflection in a pocket mirror:  Count Sergius Karamzin (Erich von Stroheim), phony Russian aristocrat and genuine psychopath, watches secretly as the wife (Miss Dupont) of the American ambassador disrobes.  Foolish Wives (Universal, 1922), directed by Erich von Stroheim.
The premiere of Foolish Wives at the Shubert’s Central Theatre in New York City, advertisement in The Film Daily, January 7, 1922.

In little more than four years, Erich von Stroheim had risen from the “extra’s bench” at Majestic studios, looking for work at five dollars a day, standing out rather than blending in with the crowd by arriving each morning in a rented limousine, wearing a full-length black trench coat and his trademark monocle.  His larger than life persona got the requisite attention, and would continue to do so, but behind it was something far greater, far more impressive.  It was an instinctive visual sense.  He would develop a similar sense for story and human character that would take him from set designer and character actor to filmmaker.  As a film director he could, he likely reasoned, control the entire creative process.  At least in theory.

He convinced the cagey Carl Laemmle that he could make a superior film, something unique, with minimal financial risk and, with his first effort, Blind Husbands, he did just that.  He proved his worth and his employer correct in taking a chance on this neophyte filmmaker.  Blind Husbands was a critical and box office hit.  As the returns came in, Universal had already assigned him to adapt another title they had purchased in August of 1919, an unpublished story by Mahra de Meyer originally titled, “Clothes and Treachery.”

Blind Husbands was Stroheim’s most biographical work, taking key elements from his personal life before he entered the business of motion pictures.  The film showed dalliances by a seemingly sophisticated foreigner — with the Tyrolean Alps standing in for the high Sierras of Lake Tahoe, and with tourists very much like those vacationing in the California resort who responded positively to this charming, intelligent and persuasive, if not physically handsome young man.   He had convinced some of them to back the production of his play in Oakland that summer of 1914, a period that coincided with his “betrayal” of his first wife, from whom he was soon divorced.

In his 2000 biography, Stroheim, Arthur Lennig speculates that Stroheim punished himself with the death of his Blind Husbands counterpart, Lieutenant von Steuben in the fall from the mountains.  Stroheim didn’t need a censorious production code to hold his Doppelganger accountable for his actions, actions that may not have had a penalty for any similar real-life transgressions.  He would punish his screen counterparts when given the chance to star in his own films, as in Foolish Wives, and later in The Wedding March.

Unlike The Pinnacle/Blind Husbands, Stroheim’s next project for Universal was not his own original work.  Having adapted the original Mahra de Meyer story into a screenplay, now re-titled, The Devil’s Pass Key, Stroheim would produce a film that was his first attempt at a larger social commentary, his first close look at the decadent European aristocracy.  Stroheim completed his screen adaptation of the story in less than two months, and completed shooting in a similar amount of time, finishing not long after the premiere of Blind Husbands.  Such adherence to schedule and budget was not, however, the beginning of a trend by Stroheim!

As in Blind Husbands, the plot hinges on the conflict between the decadent members of society and the relatively crude, but innocent, Americans.  The wife of an American playwright spends herself into heavy debt by frequenting the couturiers of Paris, buying expensive clothing and accessories.  Unable to pay her debts, one couturier suggests she could earn sufficient funds to repay them by working as an escort in what is actually a brothel.  Fearing the disgrace that would fall upon her husband if she does not come up with the money, she agrees.  (Fortunately, the only client she seems to have is a young, upright American military officer, the appropriately named Captain Rex Strong, who decides not to take advantage of her.)  The story reaches the gossip columns of the Parisian press and a minor scandal ensues which everyone seems to know except her unfortunate husband, the playwright.  He reads the nameless gossip in the papers and, not realizing it involves his wife, uses the story as the basis for his next play.

By the time her husband produces the play all of  Paris has heard the story, and at the play’s premiere, the theater audience cannot suppress derisive laughter at the American couple.  But the husband, believing his wife’s story that she did not stray, accepts her contrite apology.  All is forgiven.

Stroheim is believed by some to have completed an initial cut of The Devil’s Pass Key of about 12,000 feet, longer than the first release of Blind Husbands, but considerably shorter than his first cuts of his later films.  However, this was the first film where Stroheim began to experiment with multiple takes (though not to his later extremes) to find the exact results he wanted in each shot.  The Devil’s Pass Key was then re-edited to the point where the cut that was presented at the premiere of the film in New York in August, 1920, seemed to the reviewers a bit disjointed and the ending contrived.  It was not as well-received generally as his debut film, but not a complete disappointment, either.  The New York Times gave both the director and his film a sympathetic review:

Mr. von Stroheim who, throughout the war, was known to the public entirely as the  interpreter of villainous spy parts, was suddenly revealed as a director of marked insight and ability when “The Pinnacle,” renamed “Blind Husbands” over his protest, was presented.  In “The Devil’s Pass Key” he has, in some directions, gone beyond his achievements in “The Pinnacle,” and has given even more promise of future success.

His work, in many of its details, is different and new, if compared with that of the great majority of directors, for he has realized that the substance of the photoplay is . . . not the subtitle, nor the spectacular scene, nor the beauty or the tricks of any star, nor the sentiment or surprises of any story but moving pictures that have meaning . . [and are] in themselves some essential incident of the story, exposing suddenly some unexpected but considered or anticipated, but not obvious, side of the character . . . his story is unfolded forcefully and his characters are definite and comprehensible individuals.”  The New York Times, August 9, 1920.

Portentously, The Times reviewer noted that the film’s ending seemed strained — apparently forced to be a happy one:

“[The film] deals ironically with two American innocents abroad in the sophisticated, cynical and altogether physical life of a Parisian group.  The irony is almost, and should be completely, tragic, but at the last-minute, a happy ending is contrived, which weakens, but does not destroy, the force of the story.  One imagines that this ending is simply a concession on the part of Mr. von Stroheim.”  The New York Times, August 9, 1920.

Stroheim seems not to have been fazed by the lack of an equivalent, follow-up success to Blind Husbands — and neither was Universal.  The Devils’s Pass Key was not his original story, and he may not have the same pride of authorship or of ownership of the story or of the final film as he had with his “Pinnacle” and Blind Husbands.  But the reality was that he simply did not have the time to dwell on the previous film.  By the time The Devil’s Pass Key was released, Universal had fully committed themselves to their next Erich von Stroheim project.  In fact, two months before the premiere of The Devil’s Pass Key, Stroheim had already commenced shooting on what would become Foolish Wives.

The Devil’s Pass Key had  been released in the same season as, and greatly overshadowed by, D. W. Griffith’s monumental success, Way Down East.   It is not a stretch to imagine that Stroheim was inspired by his role model (if not mentor), Griffith, and goaded on to both the greater success and the greater excess of his career, beginning with Foolish Wives.

The Devil’s Pass Key is now considered a “lost” film.  It is the one film that Stroheim put firmly behind him.  Not once did he ever mention it with his other works, those that he felt were “ruined” by the intervention of others.  In fact, in interviews during the remainder of his life he mentioned it not a single time.  It was as “lost” to him as it was to history, only without the regret.

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With Foolish Wives, Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, became the first Hollywood mogul to open the bank vaults to Erich von Stroheim.  Knowing full well the extravagant sets planned for the film by Stroheim, Laemmle was, as Arthur Lennig puts it, ” a gambler, like all the early moguls . . . reluctant to break his winning streak.”  He gave Stroheim the green-light.  A million or more dollars later, and after a near-complete reconstruction of the central plaza of Monte Carlo, there were 320 reels of exposed negative waiting to be developed and edited into a coherent film, one that needed to be exhibited within the normal parameters of what was known in the business as “an evening’s entertainment.”

Ad in Film Daily, Jan 7, 1922, for Foolish Wives.

Had it been left solely to Stroheim, Foolish Wives would have been at least two evenings’ entertainment — or else, one very long night.  It was with Foolish Wives that Stroheim first proposed to assemble a film in novel-like complexity and scope.  His later production of the Frank Norris novel, McTeague, that became Greed, was not the first time he suggested that exhibitors should accommodate his whale of a film with multiple parts shown in a single day or on consecutive nights.

Foolish Wives was not a novel.  It was an original story and scenario written by Stroheim.  But Stroheim saw himself a novelist, or an artist in the medium of film working in the grand tradition of great, popular novelists and, beginning with Foolish Wives, his scenarios began to take on Proustian dimensions.  But the leaders of Universal had to find all of this out for themselves.  We have the advantage, of course, of 90 years’ hindsight.

Above and immediately below, the “Monte Carlo” set in various stages of construction, on the Universal back lot, 1920.

Below, the completed set, a partial “replica” of Monte Carlo.  Shooting began in July, 1920.

In addition to recreating at least part of Monte Carlo on Universal’s back lot, Stroheim had an artificial lake constructed, presumably to supplement those scenes using the natural California scenery such as the Pacific coast.  Or maybe Mono Lake or Tahoe was just too far to travel.  This artificial lake was probably the lake used in the boating and storm scenes in the film.

In what was possibly the most bizarre event in the making of the film, and weirdly reminiscent of his arrest in New York four years earlier as a suspected German “saboteur,” Stroheim was arrested and charged with counterfeiting French currency.  Stroheim had hired an engraver to recreate French franc notes to be used in Foolish Wives.  At a hearing in U.S. District Court in July, 1920, studio lawyers convinced the federal government that the phony francs were intended solely as film props.  The true irony in the story is that the props were supposed to  be phony francs made by a counterfeiter in the film!

Stroheim spent twelve months shooting Foolish Wives and Universal spent roughly a million dollars, probably wishing they had shot their director sometime before they took the cameras from his crew in July of 1921.  Universal and Laemmle, to their credit, put a positive spin on the project as it was bleeding green by erecting a sign on Broadway that kept a tally, updated weekly, of the amount they were spending on this stupendous production.  It was a sort of “fun” precursor of the electronic national debt counter, except that in this case, the public was supposed to be impressed enough to reimburse the debtor, Universal, by paying to see the finished product.

Exactly what the “finished product” was is not easily determined.  Faced with the 320 reels of negative he had shot for Foolish Wives, Stroheim spent the entire second half of 1921 editing it into a final form that he alone knew in his own mind.  That version ran thirty-two reels, or about eight hours in length, completely unacceptable to Universal.  The studio supervised another edit, down to eighteen reels, nearly five hours, a version that premiered at Universal City, California, in December, 1921.  By the time the film premiered in New York, a final cut brought it down to fourteen reels, and it was this cut, running three and a half hours, that was shown at the Central Theatre on Broadway at 47th Street, January 11, 1922.  That version was never shown again.  Further editing, both by Universal and censors, shrank the film to ten reels, the version of Foolish Wives that went into national release in the U. S. in March.

With the coming of sound, notable silent films were often given soundtracks with music and effects and rereleased.  Universal prepared a re-edited, re-titled eight reel version of Foolish Wives with a sound track, but dropped the project after studio executives viewed it and gave it a thumbs down.  This, according to Arthur Lennig is the version that was given to the Museum of Modern Art in the late 1930s, and was the one made available for rental on 16mm for the next forty years.  Lennig himself prepared a new version, re-edited with as much remaining footage previously cut as could be found in various archives and vaults world-wide.  This was released on DVD in 2000.  It is the equivalent of about eleven reels, and runs two hours and twenty minutes.

Above:  The Russian Count Sergius Karamzin (Erich von Stroheim) at his morning target practice at his beach-front, rented “Villa Amorosa” near Monte Carlo.  Foolish Wives (Universal, 1922), directed by Erich von Stroheim.  Below:  Karamzin is interrupted by a call to breakfast . . . by one of his “cousins” (Mae Busch).

In the years following the first world war Monte Carlo became a destination for the wealthy elite, and a safe haven for those with something to hide or something from which to hide.  In Foolish Wives, it is a playground for a trio of con-artists masquerading as European nobility, the phony Russian Count Sergius Karamzin (Erich von Stroheim) and his able-bodied assistants, his supposed “cousins,” the equally fake Princesses, Olga (Maude George) and Vera (Mae Busch).

The Count breakfasts with his extended “family,” his cousins: the Princesses Vera (left) and Olga (right); and their maid (center) Maruschka (Dale Fuller) attends them.  It appears also that she and the “cousins” attend to the more primal needs of their Count, as well as assisting him in the extortion of unsuspecting travelers on the Riviera.  At right, Karamzin has his morning “eye-opener,” a shot of ox-blood.

Ventucci, a counterfeiter (Cesar Gravina), arrives to discuss business with the “family.”  With him, Marietta (Malvina Polo), his “half-witted daughter,” as she is described in the original titles.  She also has a deformed foot.  Stroheim’s fascination with physical and mental “deformities” is a hallmark of his work, as is the perverse morality of some of his main characters, none more so than the Count Sergius Karamzin, of Foolish Wives.

Karamzin is struck by the beauty, the innocence and, presumably, the ease of conquest of the unfortunate Marietta.

Left: Arriving in Monte Carlo from America are Ambassador Hughes (Rudolph Christians) and his wife, Helen (Miss Dupont).  Right:  Olga, who appears to be the brains of their group of cons, sees notice of the ambassador’s arrival and suggests to Karamzin that if they could befriend and be seen with the Ambassador and his wife in public, it would aid them in running their gambling operation without suspicion by the authorities — an operation in which they pay out winnings in counterfeit currency.

A sampling of views of the set of Monte Carlo built on Universal’s back lot, in the film.

Karamzin stakes out his target, the ambassador’s wife Helen.

He manages an introduction as she sits on the veranda reading a book.  (It is titled, “Foolish Wives, by Erich von Stroheim” !)

Working quickly, he arranges for his cousins Olga and Vera to meet the ambassador and his wife, and they later go on an excursion to a hotel in the countryside.

Karamzin “makes love” to Helen, seeing her as an easy target, a naive, neglected “foolish” wife.  While on the lake (one of the lakes “constructed” on the lot for the film), a terrible, but convenient, thunderstorm separates them from the others.  But, BELOW, they find refuge in a cabin with an old woman and her goat, where they dry out and spend the night.

Karamzin politely looks away as Helen removes her soaked garments, but immediately pulls out a pocket mirror with which he studies her every move while she disrobes . . .

The ass-end of the smelly goat interrupts Karamzin’s voyeurism.  Unfortunately for the Count Sergius Karamzin, he cannot conclude his conquest of Helen tonight.

Knowing the answer by seeing Karamzin’s downcast expression, Olga asks Helen, “And did Sergius behave himself?”

Helen sees that the Ambassador does not seem particularly upset about the night she spent with the Count.  But Maruschka, the maid, with whom Karamzin has had an affair, is upset by the lack of attention he has paid her recently, and reminds him of his promise to marry her.

Karamzin goes to see the counterfeiter, Ventucci.  One suspects that his main interest is in Ventucci’s daughter.   And one would be right.

In this amazing shot, the image of the light filtering through the window slats is reflected in Karamzin’s monocle, as he ogles the young girl in her bed.

Ventucci describes his daughter as the light of his life and that he would kill with a single thrust of his knife any man who would take advantage of her.

On the way back from Ventucci’s apartments, Karamzin passes by a stinking street sewer.

“Monte Carlo” at night.

Karamzin rubs the deformed hump of a “hunchback” for good luck.  Everyone, including the man and the Ambassador’s wife is amused.

Vera and Olga (who resembles the great-grandmother of Kelly Ripa) are enjoying themselves at the tables, placing huge bets with phony francs to entice the gamblers into increasing bets with their own real money.

Karamzin has sent for Helen to ask her for a loan (he is broke, and living on the largess of his “cousins” he claims).  They are watched by a distraught Maruschka, who realizes finally, after she has given him 2,000 francs, her life’s savings, that he does not want her.

Helen agrees to give him money.  The Ambassador, finally, is concerned about his wife and the Count.

Maruschka decides to torch the building and kill Karamzin and Helen.

As the flames burst through the entire building, firemen attempt to save the two.  But Helen is hesitant.

Karamzin is not.  He will not wait to see that Helen goes safely first, and jumps to save himself.

Maruschka commits suicide, leaping into the sea.

The Ambassador finds the crumpled note that Karamzin had given his wife asking for her financial assistance.

He confronts Karamzin for his overtures to his wife and for his cowardly behavior during the fire.  He strikes the Count.  Karamzin responds, “As an officer and a gentleman, I demand an apology!”  The Ambassador tells him, “Officer and gentleman, hell.  You’re not even a man!”

Humiliated, Karamzin needs a pleasant diversion: a cigarette . . . and the counterfeiter’s daughter.

Ventucci hears a noise, and gets up from his bed to investigate.

The authorities, alerted by the Ambassador, have caught up with the cousins and have exposed their dark roots, literally.

Ventucci drags a heavy object across the floor of his apartment, out into the darkened street.  We realize that it is the corpse of Count Karamzin . . .

. . . which he stuffs into the stinking sewer . . .

. . . as dawn breaks.

In a conventional coda to an unconventional film, the Ambassador reminds his wife of an especially pertinent passage from the book she has been reading.

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Foolish Wives generated strong reactions, both positive and (mostly) negative from the American press.  Not surprising considering the subject matter, its unflinching treatment by Stroheim, and the unrepentant awfulness of its main character, portrayed by the man they supposedly loved to hate.  Even the ultimate punishment of Karamzin, though well-deserved, was so brutal, so swift and surprising, that it still shocks to this day.  Had the mainstream media of the time seen the earlier cut in which Karamzin’s body, washed by the sewer into the sea, is devoured by an octopus, who knows what kind of blistering criticism might have been visited upon Stroheim and Foolish Wives.

But there were some in the media who understood and appreciated his uncompromising honesty.  Stroheim himself was quoted in describing the cinematic fare consumed by America in 1922: “You Americans are living on baby food! . . . My ears have rung with the cry, ‘It is not fit for children!'”  Stroheim said that he had “not one thought for children,” for whom his art was never intended.

Although more than a few critics would agree with Stroheim’s assessment of American cinema, his alienation of the mainstream press and the film industry had begun and, with one exception, general audiences in the U. S. would be ambivalent toward his future films as director.  For Stroheim the artist, the die was cast, the future was ready to be written, rarely in his favor.

[In the next installment, “Part Four” I’ll take a further look at critical reaction to Foolish Wives, and Stroheim’s deteriorating relationship with Universal — Carl Laemmle and his young production supervisor with whom Stroheim would clash more than once, Irving Thalberg. ]

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