Erich Von Stroheim would have called it Universal’s butcher shop on wheels. The Foolish Wives train from LA to NYC was publicity’s relay toward a long awaited January 11, 1922 opening of the studio’s first Million-Dollar Picture. EvS said it cost more like six to seven hundred thousand, though inter-office memos indicate $1,124,498 was needed to complete Foolish Wives. Whatever the expense, Universal got as much in free press and patron anticipation they’d been whipping up over a two-year period. Von Stroheim had started out in the money directing continental exotics. The first two, Blind Husbands and The Devil’s Passkey, looked like beginnings of a profitable and ongoing thing. Foolish Wives would mark his first dive overboard. Universal wanted lavish, but not eight hours of it. Von suggested audiences report over two successive nights at four hours per shift. There’d never been a movie half so long shown in the United States, said the front office. People were still getting used to features in the early twenties. Invited studio previewers sat a one-time marathon beginning at 9:00 PM and letting out at 3:30 AM in early September 1921, little realizing they’d be sole eyewitnesses to the Foolish Wives Stroheim intended. Realist Carl Laemmle (shown below with Von greeting studio visitor Archdule Leopold of Austria) noted excess cargo (if not sore backsides) and delegated shearing duties to Arthur Ripley (seated below on the train), a remarkable biz figure whose lifetime in film would see him writing for Harry Langdon, directing W.C. Fields and later Robert Mitchum in Thunder Road (!), then founding the UCLA Film Center after years of serving on its cinema school faculty. Ripley’s whittling brought Foolish Wives from thirty-two reels down to eighteen, still a four to five hour sit and beyond what Universal was willing to open on a date now set in stone. The rush to January 11 was on. Ripley and his cutting team would get a $40,000 bonus provided they finish cleaving in time. Publicists seized on that urgency and organized a cross-country race against time. Foolish Wives would be shortened in transit on a day-and-night schedule, sleep aboard the juggernaut be damned. Stroheim lamented the rape of his art by all these brainless hacks and Puritans, but as to degrees of that, he’d seen nothing yet. Armed marines (shown here) accompanied the so-called first print, itself insured by varied carriers for $1,078,000 against fire, wreckage, theft, and other loss and mutilation (Universal might yet collect on that last item had it not been their own editors’ handiwork). Coverage premiums for the trip were said to total $12,000. LA officials and hordes of press said Bon Voyage as train left platform with a specially re-equipped baggage car for cutting (lots of that) and screening convenience.
The locomotive was said to have traveled at top speeds. Stops along the way were met by Universal exchange representatives and curious locals. Ripley issued progress reports as editing crew members applied scissors in what must have been a sweltering boxcar. 3000 feet had to go, he said, and a new set of titles would be prepared during transit. Von Stroheim had meanwhile decamped to New York under separate passage, as no invitation was extended for him to join the group dismantling Foolish Wives. Relations between EvS and Universal had soured over cost overruns and the director’s unwillingness to endorse a less than two-part Foolish Wives. Whole sections and subplots were junked. Scenes Stroheim planted in the first half to pay off in the second became meaningless distraction as much of his dramatic equation lost effect. By the time the train reached New York, over half of Foolish Wives was gone. Universal’s reception committee arranged for a ritual trucking of film cans to the company’s home office at 1600 Broadway. Noted composer Sigmund Romberg would arrange a score for the premiere, an august occasion befitting Universal’s biggest opening since the company’s inception. Foolish Wives, at fourteen reels, played to its first paying audience at NYC’s Central Theatre. The program lasted about three and one half hours. Many felt it was too long, and some laughed at wrong places. Stroheim said that wouldn’t have happened had they left alone the version he’d submitted. Universal gremlins worked mischief in the Central’s projection booth by continuing to cut Foolish Wives throughout the theatre’s engagement. What started with fourteen reels was eventually whittled to twelve. Patrons would actually see less at an evening show than counterparts did at the same day’s matinee. The Foolish Wives roadshow was a shrinking affair, but how was anyone to notice with footage disappearing by increments? Vandalism imposed by regional censors and exhibitors anxious to maximize daily screenings denuded Foolish Wives still more. Now there were ten reels. Stroheim called it the skeleton of my dead child. Euro decadence he revealed was so much castor oil to showmen accustomed to rural friendly serials and westerns Universal customarily supplied. Inflated rental terms made exhibs froth at the mouth. Laemmle had little choice but to sell (if he could) Foolish Wives at advanced rates. The picture still lost money. Critical standing it later gained would not be supported by prints even more truncated than what 1922 general release patrons saw. This would appear to be one silent classic we’ll never fully reclaim.
What if, by some miracle, we did find Foolish Wives in its entirety, or Greed, or The Wedding March? Would the legend of Erich Von Stroheim survive our modern scrutiny of running times extended to forty-two reels (as with Greed)? His reputation was actually enhanced from having been broken on the wheel of crass industry, being the directing surrogate of critics who flattered themselves for never bowing to philistine tastes. Stroheim had looks and manner of a tyrant and big spender (as witness an amazing full scale Monte Carlo set shown here), but that only conferred greater majesty when he fell. Much of his reputation was folderol cooked up by studio publicists. The intractable director studio bosses loved to hate was an arresting figure always good for colorful anecdotage. Like Orson Welles, Stroheim seems never to have had a picture turn out his way. Pygmy hordes were forever seizing Von's negative and locking him out of editing rooms. Arthur Ripley and east-bound minions have the look of functionaries no more qualified to assess Von’s work than janitors clipping studio hedges, thus absolving Stroheim of responsibility when films they cut didn’t work. What’s left of Foolish Wives makes sense enough. You'd not think a feature at less than half its intended length would emerge so coherent. Indeed, some advocated trimming it still further. I watched the Kino DVD release. This was a reconstruction supervised by writer and historian Arthur Lennig in the early seventies, and a large improvement on the seven-reel travesty in circulation since Universal again shortened Foolish Wives for an aborted music and effects reissue in 1930 (all US versions previous to this are lost). Stroheim’s martyrdom was such as to secure a place for Foolish Wives on all-time best lists despite its sole survival as the truncated edition he saw and renounced at a Museum Of Modern Art showing during the forties. Critics had to proceed on faith and plenty of imagination when lauding any Stroheim beside silent favorites surviving intact. The Foolish Wives of Lennig’s heroic effort runs to 143 minutes (he combined the leavings of US footage with materials from an Italian archive). The end result was said to approximate what audiences saw in the film’s 1922 general (and shortened from its roadshow) release. Like a lot of silents dragged from the abyss, it requires faith on our part to divine the impact glistening 35mm nitrate would have had eighty-six years ago. You couldn’t reasonably expect to win new converts to the Stroheim cause with such a battered specimen as what remains of Foolish Wives, but for those willing to make considerable allowance, there is still much reward to be had.
There were once coffee table books devoted to Von Stroheim. I don’t think there will be again. Something about EvS must have appealed to that pioneering generation of film historians. Four of them took up the subject in a number of works, all outstanding. Herman G. Weinberg contributed three. Richard Koszarski wrote The Man You Loved To Hate (published 1983). Thomas Quinn Curtiss was a friend of Stroheim’s and his 1971 book was result of collaboration with the director. Arthur Lennig’s comes latest of the bios, having arrived in 2000. Successors to these are few. Who's caring much about Von these days? Is it fact so much more is available to look at now, or just that Stroheim is out of fashion? Weinberg was a champion for EvS since Foolish Wives first ran. He’d known the director and took receipt of fanciful Stroheim accounts as to what became of his approved version. There was a super-complete Foolish Wives shown in South America, according to Von, with a twenty-four reel running time (he also spoke of an uncut Greed having been in the private collection of Benito Mussolini!). Weinberg would chronicle Stroheim struggles to the end (EvS died in 1957), paying further tribute with picture books on Greed and The Wedding March. Both were deluxe editions. Greed carried a fifty dollar cover price in 1971, surely a record for any film book published to that time. A 1974 photo presentation dedicated to The Wedding March, nearly as hefty a tome, cost twenty. It’s unlikely we’ll see a similar photo reconstruction of the complete Foolish Wives, as original images from that title are challenging to come by. These classics illustrated were as close as fans will get to otherwise elusive Greed and The Wedding March (would any publisher front such lavish volumes in today’s market?). One could rent Greed from Films, Inc., but The Wedding March was something you had to travel to see (and still is, other than an out-of-print VHS tape). Both features were renewed by their copyright owners, unlike Foolish Wives, which went into the public domain early on and was available to collectors in 8 and 16mm for years before Kino and Image released the Lennig restoration on DVD.