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FOOLISH WIVES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Erich von Stroheim, Mae Busch, Rudolph Christians, Miss Dupont
Director:  Erich von Stroheim
Audio:  Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Image Entertainment
Features:  None
Length:  141 Minutes
Release Date:  September 19, 2000

Film ***

Erich von Stroheim is a name as often associated with Hollywood iconoclasts as Orson Welles.  His passion for authenticity and detail often exceeded both budget and common sense, and his pictures stand as a landmark of egocentric excess taken to extremes.  One might consider that men like him helped bring about the tightly controlled studio system, where projects were strictly budgeted and controlled by producers who answered to the front office, which essentially removed a lot of the creative freedoms enjoyed by filmmakers in the earlier silent era.

Von Stroheim began his career as an assistant to D. W. Griffith, and was no doubt impressed by the legendary pioneer’s willingness to spend lavish amounts of money on a huge gamble like The Birth of a Nation…a gamble which paid off many times over.  He was no doubt equally impressed by Griffith’s audacity in building the most expensive and detailed set ever for a motion picture up to that time, the looming excesses of the ancient city of Babylon for his follow-up epic, Intolerance.  If von Stroheim had only studied a little closer, he might have foreseen his own future in Griffith’s masterful but problematic film.  Griffith had envisioned and created a film that was meant to be about 8 hours in length, and possibly shown in two parts over separate nights.  It was a version that never saw the light of day, as distributors mercilessly cut the film down to a little over two hours to make for a more palatable (and hopefully profitable) showing.  The film’s failure to earn back its production costs also spelled the beginning of the end for the oft-called “father of film”.  Griffith was on his way to becoming a relic in the industry he helped establish.  These were important lessons, but they turned out to be mostly lost on the young pupil von Stroheim.

After his first two films, Blind Husbands and The Devil’s Passkey made money for Universal, von Stroheim was ready to try his hand at something more ambitious.  And he didn’t go small when he did.  Foolish Wives’ elaborate Monte Carlo sets not only topped Griffith’s Babylon ones as the most expensive ever built at the time, the movie also became the first movie to cost more than $1 million to make.

How did von Stroheim manage this feat?  By beginning with a more modest budget, he shot most of the key scenes casting himself in the lead of the rouge Count.  By the time he requested more money, it was at a point where it would have cost the studio quite a bit to either nix the project or can his involvement in it.  Carl Laemmle decided to take the risk.

I mentioned the Monte Carlo sets, and they are magnificent.  “I can’t cheat,” von Stroheim has been quoted as saying, “my mind doesn’t work that way.”  Whereas many filmmakers might have been happy with large painted cutouts or matte shots to create their illusions, von Stroheim knew of only one way to go:  recreate Monte Carlo on the Universal lot right down to the last fathomable detail.  When looking at the results, you can readily agree that they are spectacular and effective…but you can’t help but question if it was all necessary.

Von Stroheim’s story involves an aristocratic con man, played by himself, and two of his many mistresses.  They are posing as Russian royalty, and after securing a villa at Monte Carlo, the Count, who is actually quite broke, begins stalking his prey.  The perfect couple appears on the scene:  two wealthy vacationing Americans.  The wife seems starved for some excitement, and the Count is all too willing to provide it, seducing her while she reads (notice the title of the book is Foolish Wives by Erich von Stroheim…a nice in-gag).  While he goes to work on her, we also learn that for some reason, he’s made a promise of marriage to his housekeeper.  When he returns to the villa with the American wife in tow, and retires upstairs to the bedroom with her, we get the feeling the sympathetic maid has seen this scenario once too often.  While the Count relates his sob story about needing 90,000 francs to his victim, the maid sets fire to the villa.  Both escape the flames, but the Count does not escape his final comeuppance, and ends up with his murderer stuffing his dead body into a sewage drain.

Von Stroheim certainly defied conventional movie thinking in creating a protagonist that is completely hateful.  We watch waiting for his moment of redemption, and it never comes.  Even when given the opportunity, in moments of crisis, he proves that he thinks of himself before others.  To observe his worldly exit into the sewers of a great, rich playground of a city is to see poetic justice done, but it doesn’t exactly make us feel any cleaner for having witnessed it.

This film marked the beginning of von Stroheim’s struggle to be a cinematic iconoclast.  His initial cut was turned in to the studio at a staggering eight hours in length, and like Griffith, his mentor, suffered with Intolerance, Foolish Wives would suffer the knife, being trimmed down to three and half hours for the premiere, but eventually going all the way down to about an hour forty-five.  This DVD version represents a partial length restoration to two hours and 21 minutes. 

These changes incensed von Stroheim, but it would only be the first of many similar experiences.  He would later turn out his singular masterpiece Greed, which Irving Thalberg and MGM would cut down to slightly more than two hours from hundreds of hours of footage.  But though truncated, the final picture is still one of the greatest films ever made, begging the question, do we really mourn the loss of the extra footage the way we do the cuts to The Magnificent Ambersons, or are they more or less simply a historical curiosity?

Von Stroheim would leave an important legacy behind with his films, which serve as both testaments to an artist’s struggle to maintain the purity of his vision and as cautionary tales.  There was a long way to fall from the rising, egotistical talent that boldly crafted Foolish Wives to the badly reputed Hollywood castaway who would be fired by star Gloria Swanson during the making of Queen Kelly.  To look at a movie like Foolish Wives is to be impressed by the audacity of an auteur, and to begin seriously rethinking the ideal of preserving a singular vision at all costs.

Video **1/2

Usually when judging the video quality of silent films, I try to keep in mind the sad, staggering statistic that some 80 percent of all films from the pre-sound era are considered lost.  Early film stock was nitrate based; highly flammable and conducive to decomposition, and not much was known about preservation.  In other words, each time a title like Foolish Wives survives and is able to be presented on home video today, I’m grateful.  This film is about what you’d expect for one that’s 78 years old.  It suffers from a fair amount of dirt, spots, scratches and other miscellaneous debris associated with aging.  Still, Image has done about as good a job as can be asked for this DVD offering.  They created a dual-layer disc, which prevents the lengthy running time from adding compression issues into the mix.  I’m also pleased at the color tinting, which, according to the liner notes was subjective, but indicative of movie projection standards of the time.  The colors work beautifully to enhance the mood and image of each scene.  I noticed fairly good detail and sharpness throughout (again, taking the age into consideration).  Overall, an above average presentation of a silent era picture on disc.

Audio **

The audio track is simply a stereo recording of a piano accompaniment by Philip Carli.  It’s clean and clear, and makes for a pleasant listen.  It sounds as good as any piano instrumental CD you might have in your collection.  No complaints, but nothing to get excited about either.

Features (zero stars) 

Nothing.  How I would have loved a historian’s commentary track on this one…I’m sure he or she would have had a great time talking about von Stroheim!

Summary:

Foolish Wives is an important landmark in the history of Erich von Stroheim.  Though not as good a film as either Greed or The Wedding March, it nevertheless fascinates as it stands as a testament to the excesses of a singular vision.  It also clearly illustrates the two aspects von Stroheim would be forever remembered for:  his skill at capturing the dark and unpleasant side of basic human nature, and his obsession with detail that often made his visions too expensive for studios to stomach.