Category Archives: Erich von Stroheim

Foolish Wives (1922)

“I am writing a love letter to your wife.”

Directed by and starring Erich von Stroheim, the 1922 silent film Foolish Wives centers on the ne’er-do-well Russian, Count Karanzim (von Stroheim) and his two ‘cousins’–Princess Olga (Maude George) and Princess Vera Petchnikoff (Mae Busch). While this trio live high on the hog in a splendid villa overlooking the ocean in Monte Carlo, in reality they’re impoverished. The Count’s story is that his Russian estates are entangled due to the Revolution, and this often leaves him short of cash. But behind a whirl of social events, the Count and his cousins live on the proceeds of counterfeiting and money laundering with the Count fleecing the occasional rich woman as a hobby. The first few scenes establish these three as a nasty bunch. One of the princesses spitefully pinches a servant, and the decadent Count downs his daily dose of Ox-blood as a breakfast aperitif.

The American envoy to Monaco, Andrew Hughes (Rudolph Christians) and his much younger, naive wife Helen (Patty Dupont) arrive, and it doesn’t take long before the Count is whirling his monocle at his latest victim. The Count–a “notorious heartbreaker” exploits Helen’s tendency towards romanticism, and his designs–which ostensibly are towards her wallet–also include compromising her and taking advantage of her vulnerability. He exploits Helen’s loneliness and her husband’s inattention by saying, “Husbands are foolish. With them, a woman won is a woman secure.” Then he proceeds to romance her with flattery and attention.

Erich von Stroheim steals the film with his well-defined role of the ‘noble’ scumbag–he’s incredibly slimy in spite of his immaculate clothing and matching Borzois. The film allows glimpses into his dastardly schemes, and one of the best scenes takes place when he wrests his servant’s life savings from her. He’s already promised to marry the poor deluded girl, and a few well-placed crocodile tears from the vain Count are all it takes to convince her to hand over her meager savings. In another excellent scene, the camera captures the servant Maruschka’s spiral through the mental states of rejection, jealousy, revenge and madness.

The Alpha DVD is acceptable. There are few problematic, overly dark scenes that occur at night inside the home of a haggy procuress, and the print is a little scratchy in places. Fans of silent cinema and/or von Stroheim should enjoy this tale of wickedness and deceit.

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Unnatural (1952)

“Good people are so uninteresting.”

I was curious to see the great director Erich Von Stroheim in Unnatural, but unfortunately, the film is a huge disappointment. Unnatural is an odd film with shades of Bride of Frankenstein meets Edgar Allen Poe. The result is a rather uninteresting film, and the fact that its dubbed makes matters even worse.

Von Stroheim plays the role of scientist Jacob ten Brinken who is responsible for the breeding of a beautiful girl named Alraune (Hildegarde Neff). Alraune is the result of artificial insemination between a prostitute from “the slums of Hamburg” and a murderer, and Alraune is a sort of bizarre experiment investigating the nature vs. nurture theory. Since Alraune is derived from the human dregs of society, will she prove true to her scumbag nature, or will she abandoned her genetic predictions and prove worthy of the decent upbringing she’s received from ten Brinken?

When the film begins, Alraune is kicked out of a convent for stashing obscene literature under her mattress. With this rather interesting beginning, the film slides downhill. Alraune moves like a gazelle through the film as she proceeds to seduce and then ruin a string of men–probably her most interesting qualities are a hint of the supernatural, and her complete moral vacuity. The film’s premise sounds fascinating, but the reality isn’t. The plot is loaded with cheesy cliches–including a very fake looking gorilla locked up in ten Brinken’s cellar. The film isn’t campy enough to appeal, and it takes itself far too seriously. The character of Alraune is rather restricted and contained, so a potentially fascinating character is flat and uninteresting. There’s a 1928 version of the film I’d love to see–surely someone could do something interesting with this plot. Unfortunately, this 1952  version (released in 1958) is one of those forgettable yawnfest-films, and that’s too bad as I expected a bit more.

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The Great Flamarion (1945)

  “You are a bad habit I can’t cure.”

great flamarionThe Great Flamarion is a decent, odd little film with a good story that suffers from clumsy stylistics, but the fact that the film is directed by Anthony Mann is enough to make film buffs want to watch it. The Great Flamarion (Erich von Stroheim) is a sharpshooter who has a stylish act with married couple Al (Dan Duryea) and Connie Wallace (Mary Beth Hughes). As a frame story, the film begins in Mexico in 1936 with Flamarion telling his tale of past passion and jealousy to an interested bystander.

Al is a drunk, and this makes him a liability in the sharpshooter act–especially as he’s supposed to move across the stage with precision timing while Flamarion takes potshots with live rounds. Beautiful Connie is the faithless wife who manages to juggle three men at a time–Flamarion, Al, and the burly bicyclist Eddie Wheeler (Steve Barclay). While Connie keeps her romantic entanglement with Eddie quiet, she plays Flamarion for a fool–pumping him with stories of Al beating her. Flamarion (played stoically by director von Stroheim) at first rejects Connie’s transparent advances, but she’s so persistent, he eventually succumbs to her flattery. In retrospect, Flamarion realizes that “one look in the mirror would have told me I was not for her.”

Flamarion is a believable character, and Dan Duryea is suitably sleazy, but it’s the role of Connie that steals the film and gives the story a noirish feel–her unscrupulous behaviour comes full circle by the film’s conclusion. The main problem with the film is its clumsy beginning and its frame story structure–with Flamarion recounting his tale through flashbacks.

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Queen Kelly (1929)

“Unmistakably a lady of the horizontal profession.”

Queen Kelly–written and directed by Erich von Stroheim–was never completed, so all that we have is about half a film and a handful of fragments, but even so this is marvelous stuff for silent film fans. It’s a fairly simple story: Decadent Queen Regina V (Seena Owen)–the last of her line–rules her kingdom with an iron fist. She intends to marry playboy Prince Wolfram (Walter Byron), and he’s trying his best to avoid the final commitment of marriage, but that’s a little difficult as he’s both her ‘subject’ and an occupant of her opulent palace.

The film quickly establishes that both Regina and Wolfram are a dissipated pair. She’s drunk when she wakes up in the morning, and he races until dawn with a group of madcap acquaintances. Regina’s displeasure at Wolfram’s antics results in her demand that he marry her the next day and that he spend his last day of bachelorhood marching around with his men. So Wolfram and his men take to their steeds, and begin maneuvers on a road outside of a convent. Here, Wolfram meets and falls for convent orphan Patricia Kelly (Gloria Swanson)….

When the film went massively over budget, and star Gloria Swanson halted production after objecting to the African brothel scenes, von Stroheim was fired by the film’s financier Joseph Kennedy (Swanson’s lover). Too bad–because the film really is great fun, and I loved the African bordello–including the drooling Jan Vryheid and the prostitute Coughdrops. Everything about this film is over-the top–there’s Regina who’s fond of the whip, and she’s also not averse to tossing her cats around at the appropriate moment. And then there’s Wolfram who will go to whatever lengths are necessary to meet with Patricia Kelly–the girl with the droopy bloomers.

This wonderful Kino edition includes loads of extras, and this at least allows the viewer to piece together the story as it was intended (and we can also see Swanson’s vastly more respectable and comparatively dull ending). DVD extras include: audio commentary by biographer Richard Koszarski, outtake footage, The Kino International restored ending, the “Swanson Ending,” videotaped introduction by Gloria Swanson, excerpt of the original screenplay, production documents, photo gallery, “Man of Many Skins”–a 1952 TV performance, audio clips of cinematographer Paul Ivano, assistant William Marguiles Allan Dwan and Billy Wilder, dossier on Merry-Go-Round with excerpts of scenes directed by von Stroheim, and a note on the film from von Stroheim. Personally, I preferred the von Stroheim naughty version of the story.

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