Foolish Wives (1922) Review

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.

Greed (1924) Review

Greed (1924) Director: Erich von Stroheim

★★☆☆☆

Greed is often celebrated as one of the great films of the silent era. It was directed by eccentric Austrian-American director, Erich von Stroheim, and based on the 1899 novel called McTeague by Frank Norris. Von Stroheim, upon emigrating to America, began claiming he was of distinguished European royalty –a Count no less– though much of this alter ego persona seems to have been fabricated. For starters, he apparently spoke only a feeble form of German, but some of his acting performances are the stuff of legend, memorably in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion and later in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Von Stroheim started his career working under D.W. Griffith, most notably as an uncredited role in Intolerance. He is sometimes ranked among the three great early epic film directors, along with Cecile B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith. Von Stroheim died in 1957 at his chateau near Paris, France.

Although Greed is popularly considered a masterpiece of early cinema, I hesitate to admit that I found this film too painfully difficult film to stomach, both for its length as well as the poor quality of its surviving footage. I recommend this film only to those true devotees of the classics.

Greed tells the story of a miner posing as a San Francisco dentist named McTeague who marries his best friend, Schouler’s girlfriend. Her name Trina. Suddenly Trina wins the lottery, a handsome sum of $5,000 but they refuse to spend any of it. An angry Schouler reports to the authorities that McTeague does not have his license to practice dentistry and he and Trina soon fall into poverty. Eventually, McTeague murders Trina, by beating her to death, and he takes the money and runs away to Placer county and Death Valley with the remaining money that hasn’t been spent.  Soon, Schouler confronts him and they fight as McTeague’s horse takes off running and Schouler shoots the horse blasting open the only water jug he had. McTeague beats Schouler to death but Schouler has handcuffed himself to McTeague and the film ends with McTeague handcuffed to a corpse, with no water, and out of reach of the last of the lottery money.

This film was originally much longer, it was 42 reels in total, but was severely edited by the studio and others, much to the chagrin of von Stroheim, so that the heavily truncated version we see today is only 10 reels long. The film was a box office flop, receiving mostly poor reviews, and it took at least 9 months to 2 years to film. Many of the original scenes were hand drawn and gold-tinted by von Stroheim himself, however the original has been lost forever. It received mostly negative reviews and even caused a riot upon its release in Berlin. The riot was believed to have been caused by the Nazi party.