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Foolish wives

93' 1922 USA + +

A mundane farce to critic the fastuous lives of aritocrats in the european golden 20ies, with an immoral cynism. A comedy of manners extravagganza. The truncated version I saw, hardly representative of Stroheim's work, still shows screenwriting brilliance and subversion, as well as a charismatic presence on set of his character.

The First Million Dollar Picture !


The 3rd picture of Erich von Stroheim as a director, who used to be Griffith's actor and director assistant. After the success of The Blind Husbands, he was trusted a colossal budget for this incredible reconstruction of the Monte Carlo Casino (in Monaco on the french riviera) to the last detail. Not only the set is huge but he wanted the most realist environment for his cast, with actual glass on windows, working light switch and bellring, firearms with live ammo, real champagne and caviar served! Von Stroheim tried to escape from the studio executive's watch by shooting everything outside Hollywood on an island in south California (Point Lobos State Reserve), which was unfortunately subject to dreadful weather conditions, like rain and heavy wind. The set kept busy the entire Universal staff during 2 monthes to build it! Meanwhile none were available on sets in Hollywood and all the other directors were complaining...
At some point a hurrican detroyed part of the set which had to be rebuilt. The studio worried about the expenses but Stroheim who happened to play the title role had already shot many scenes thus he could not be fired as a director or the lead actor would go as well. Universal got over it and decided to use it as a publicity arguement. Universal president, Carl Laemmle, was shown handing out a blank check to Von Stroheim and the unprecedented Million Dollar budget was featured on Time Square, updated day to day following the new expenditures, eventually reaching a full $ 1,1 Million.
The film only made $ 800,000, which was a big hit, but not enough to pay back.


Introduced by a french film scholar, Fanny Lignon, author of a book on Erich Von Stroheim, I watched this monumental production recently that was butchered by Studio cut and censorship. The original 384 min (over 6 hours runtime edited from 65 hours of rushes) director's cut, only shown once to studio executives, was literaly stolen by studio executives and edited in a rush onboard of a train to a mere 3 1/2 hours for its public premiere. The director was in the next train trying to catch his master print but it was too late. The ambitious director wanted to show his film in 2 parts like most of his projects. Later edited some more to only 2 1/2 hours and again to 73 min. Imagine the outrage to the plot integrity and the castration of the original atmosphere intended by the auteur.
2 truncated versions remains available today :
The american restaured version based on the assemblage of the surviving european print and the last existing american print. Because the censorship cut different scenes in either part of the world, it was possible to form a longer film up to 2h from all the reels.
And the french version, running only 90 min, which is the one I saw. Fanny Lignon pretends it would be the version the most faithful to the auteur's intentions because it is flowing better in a coherent way. The american version, if trying to be the most possibly extensive, adding up all existing footage, suffers by the discontinuous pace partly as slow as the director's cut, partly stuttering because of the censorship holes and lost footage.



Erich von Stroheim, in a splendid white military uniform, is the sophisticated Count Sergius Wladislaw Karamzin, a russian expatriate living in Monte Carlo with his 2 alledged cousins, who are actually his escort-partners in crime, and his faithful maid. He's a womanizer who hunts and seduce every woman from all social class to manipulate them into giving him all their savings, by promising marriage and love in a mastered con-artist routine.
The peculiar opening scene shows Karamzin range training on a rocky shore facing the sea, shooting on a target strangely looking like the austrian monarch (Von Stroheim being an austrian expatriate, and we know the critical role of austria in the start of WW1) with a silencer-mounted gun! (note the irony of using a silencer in a silent film, while he's alone in the open near the sea)
Karamzin reads in the paper the american ambassador and his wife arrive in Monte Carlo, and figure the neglected wifewill be the perfect victim of his game. She is seen reading a book titled "Foolish Wives" written by Erich Von Stroheim ! several times in the film, and Stroheim goes as far as quoting himself through the count Karamin who reads a sentence in the book and approve with the implicit moral it conveys. At the end of the film, her husband quotes another phrase and spins the original message.
He introduces himself cunningly and befriends with the couple until he becomes close to the wife and drags her attention enough to compromise her reputation. Episodes featuring an hilarious apocalyptic storm in the country side with a flood and a bridge collapse... leading Karamzin to save the woman on a small row boat (reminiscent of Sunrise / 1927) and taking her for the night into the derelict cabin of an old witch living with goat, toads, crows and a big dog.
Apparently the subplot suffered most from the butchery, as we don't see much of Karamzin seducing his maid, and a sick woman he visits during the night by climbing the facade, although her protective father chase him with a shotgun.
The climax with a spectacular fire burning down a bulding makes a both funny and tragic conclusion.


1921 - Erich von Stroheim - USA

Directing : Erich von Stroheim
Scenario : Erich von Stroheim
Photo : William Daniels / Ben Reynolds

Cast : Erich von Stroheim, Miss DuPont, Maude George, Mae Busch



Content : +
Playwright : + +
Mise en scene : + +
Craft : + +
Inspiration : +



Opening Sequence

A ship enters the harbor of Monaco on the mediterranean cost of France, an american ambassador and his wife board out and check in at the Palace.
The Petchnikoff cousins learn about it in the papers and plot around gossips.
Standing on a rocky shore, facing the sea, the count Karamzin is target practicing with a silencer equipped handgun on a cardboad caricature stranely ressemblant to the real-life archiduke of Austria (von Stroheim's country of origin)


2004 © SCREENVILLE * HarryTuttle