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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Climb Aboard The Mutilation Express!

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 conclude cleaving on schedule. 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.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Great post:

With Stroheim films, in particular, my first recollection about them was the impression I got from documentaries and writings from twenty or more years ago. When I was able to see all of his film, since they are far more accessible outside the United States.

My friend Roberto Di Chiara, who sadly died a few days ago, made available THE WEDDING MARCH online in his web page, embedded on That Italian station also allows you to watch the traditional version of GREED for free. And if you look for certain silent film pages, you can find online the Photoplay Productions versions of the 1928 film, with Carl Davis score.

On FOOLISH WIVES, I myself was able to find a tango written by Victor Pedro Donato for its release in Argentina, which I was not allowed to xerox but at least I did manage to handcopy and eventually reconstruct it with a music notation software. The title is the Argentine release title, "Eposas imprudentes", and here it is that tango:

People who went to see this Stroheim film got the score as a free souvenir.

I'm trying to recover from the news of my friend Roberto Di Chiara. He left behind the fifth largest film archive in the world. Among the lost films that I wish that it is waiting to be unearthed there is probably HONEYMOON, since it was released in Argentina on December 31, 1929.

12:30 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Radiotelefonia, I'm not familiar with Roberto Di Chiara's archive, but it sounds major. Are you saying there might be a print of "The Honeymoon" there? If so, this would be tremendous news for Stroheim followers, as the only other one I was aware of burned at the Cinémathèque Française shortly after Stroheim's death in 1957. Will the films in your friend's archive, including possibly "The Honeymoon", now be preserved? I sure hope so!

4:33 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...


I am saying that Roberto Di Chiara left behind the fifth largest film archive in the world, and the biggest in Latin America.

For more than fifty years he preserved posters, prints in both safety and nitrate and in all of film gauges.

He was a passionate archivist going beyond motion pictures and television, dealing also with recordings, sheet music scores, magazines and newspapers.

But since he had to make a living, he concentrated in the archival material domestic of journalistic use, being a journalist himself.

He did have a lot of silent films that he was able to preserve and tried to identify. At least, I myself managed to watch the opening of a feature film called MIRAGE, with titles in French and Spanish and no more information was available; too many forgotten Sennett and obscure silents comedies, virtually unused. I also managed to see myself what seemed to be the last reel of an Adolphe Menjou comedy that neither one of us were able to identify.

And there were more titles that he was trying to identify throughout the years. Yet he had to make a living and was never able to fully devote the necessary time to see the films he had.

Argentina, during the silent era, was the 7th consumer of films in the world and, as of today, it still represent the 50% of the Latin American entertainment market.

That's why I always say that, instead of looking for lost films in Europe, we should try our continent for a change.

7:40 PM  
Blogger Anna said...


thanks so much for the information on Di Chiara, i am no film archivist myself but i'd be very interested to find out more about him. has he been well credited for his work? although the occasion is sad, perhaps now there will be an increase in interest in his archive and more attention payed to it?

thanks for your information on this

11:08 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Stroheim was a fine director and actor but his own worst enemy. Why go wildly overbudget shooting footage that he must have known would've been cut before release?
I love old movies, but I'd be hard pressed to sit through an eight-hour version of anything, no matter how good condition it was in.

3:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish that Fox would make "Hello Sister available, even if it was a "travesty" of Stroheim's original.Von Stroheim and others claimed it was all due to a power struggle at Fox, but they probably just felt that they had to "fix" it.That dame with the sunken dark eyes in one still looks too "realistic" even for the pre-code era.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Allan Maurer said...

Interesting as always, John.

Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum did book for the BFI Film Classics series on Greed, suggesting, as you do, that the longer versions of Von Stroheim's works were not all we have dreamed them to be since.

In particular, he cites the handful of people who saw the entire original version of Greed, and most found it ponderous. He calls that enormous version a "mythical object," vs. the concrete object we have (which is now a reconstruction based on stills and the script that TCM shows from time to time and is commercially available.

I've always enjoyed Von Stroheim's satiric camera and his penchant for displaying European decadence with such gusto. He creates character visually more powerfully than all but the best directors, then or later.

I do believe we lost of little of that increasingly visual film language when sound came crunching in in the late 1920s. I still see more of it in Independent films than in Hollywood stuff today.

10:45 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Good hearing from you, Allan. I agree that "Greed" might become problematic were it available complete. Its status as ongoing myth and object of ongoing frustration for historians is probably the best thing that could happen to it, although I for one would love to see the missing reels (my Number One lost footage priority, however, would be "The Magnificent Ambersons" uncut).

3:27 PM  

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