Foolish Wives (1922) Director: Erich von Stroheim
I recently attempted to finish watching Foolish Wives (1922), and it is a monumental task, even for a silent film. It lasts nearly 2.5 hours long, and the plot is vague, slow, and wandering. Originally director Erich von Stroheim intended for the film to be 6-10 hours long! It tells the story of a man who dubs himself a Count in order to seduce and rob wealthy women. The plot unfolds like an erotic tragedy, and von Stroheim, himself, plays the Count. Indeed the Count seems to be von Stroheim’s own alter-ego, and this film is something of a personal vanity project for him. Thankfully, the studio drastically cut down this film’s run-time (a rare moment of praise from me for a studio doing such a thing).
Foolish Wives is, in some ways, a sinister and salacious film, but the sets are marvelous. It is certainly not von Stroheim’s best film but it is an important piece of cinematic history. I am glad I got through it, but I cannot in good faith recommend this film.
Erich von Stroheim tried to sell the movie as the first “million dollar movie” ever made, and the studio obliged, though exact costs are hazy. At the time, Erich von Stroheim was the top man at Carl Laemmle’s Universal. A former apprentice to D.W. Griffith, von Stroheim made two prior films (Blind Husbands in 1919 and The Devil’s Pass Key in 1920) but this film launched his odd persona into film-making –he was known as an intense “perfectionist.” Reviews tended to focus on the extravagant production costs, as well as the elaborate set constructed to represent the Monte Carlo, a huge coastal set which was destroyed at one point and had to be rebuilt. Much of the cast was apparently pumped full of caviar and champagne to accurately portray the lavish world of opulence. In truth, the true heights of von Stroheim’s directorial capacities would be exercised in his next directorial effort —Greed (1924). I will always remember von Stroheim best for his acting performance in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937). I tend to prefer his eccentric performances to his directing.