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Saturday, September 05, 2020

Long Ago Super-Jewel

From Which Stroheim Was Let Go ...

Too much cruelty. And dismissed director Erich von Stroheim was evidently not responsible for filming of it, although the scenario he prepared does seem to have been followed closely by credited helmsman Rupert Julian. Merry-Go-Round was a Universal "Super-Jewel" that Stroheim was taken off of because he spent several hundred thousand shooting just a beginning of it. That footage comes early and is unmistakable. The lead man (Norman Kerry) wears an ungainly mustache guard while his betrothed smokes a big brown cigar. The hero's bath water is breached by his dog, eventual bather Kerry unaware. Who but Stroheim? Whatever his excess, EvS knew from colorful detail. The Julian stuff, probably 80% of Merry-Go-Round, shrinks by comparison. Henry Weinberg says the movie works because Von got so far preparing it. Irving Thalberg was philistine-in-residence that chased Stroheim off-set. You can't blame the Boy Wonder for that because, by most accounts, EvS was most disrespectful of him. I wonder if there was anyone who worked in films who was less tactful than Erich von Stroheim, at least where "suits" (executives) were concerned.

The cruelty is practiced by George Siegmann, master at villainy recalled as Silas Lynch in The Birth Of A Nation. He berates on and on at cringing Mary Philbin and kills her father by dropping a flower pot on him. Siegmann also makes a rape attempt on Mary that I thought would never end. Relief comes when he is offed by an orangutan (surely the product of Stroheim's pen). Merry-Go-Round has recreation of old Vienna to rival Foolish Wives of a previous year. Universal seems to have given Stroheim every chance, which he then muffed. Did Von really imagine theatres in the early 20's would play four and five hour films? Thalberg seems positively saintly for hiring Von to direct The Merry Widow at MGM in 1925 (a big hit), after these debacles and Greed besides. Writer Samuel Marx said that they actually got along OK on a personal level. Maybe Thalberg was amused by Stroheim's flamboyance. Merry-Go-Round has long been out on an Image DVD, which looks pretty good and duplicates the original score cues. By back-of-box account, the negative was scorched by Universal in the late 40's, so all that's left are a few "Show-At-Home" prints that were sold to the public on 16mm, these with tints the public saw in 1923. Merry-Go-Round is a curiosity, if not a relentless downer. EvS disciples will want to see it.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff has more on the Stroheim-Thalberg tiltings:


Rocky Lang and Barbara Hall's recent Abrams tome "Letters from Hollywood: Inside the Private World of Classic American Moviemaking" reproduces in full Universal general manager Thalberg's 1922 formal (and long) MERRY-GO-ROUND letter of dismissal to Stroheim.

In the letter, Thalberg -- barely twenty-three? -- sternly advises the director, "The fact that more productions have not been completed is due largely to your totally inexcusable and repeated acts of insubordination, your extravagant ideas which you have been unwilling to sacrifice in the slightest particular, repeated and unnecessary delays occasioned by your attitude in arguing against practically every instruction that has been given to you in good faith, and by your apparent idea that you are greater and more powerful than the organization that employs you."

G'bye, von -- pack up your office, and don't scuff the door when it hits you on the way out.

It would be interesting to know more about Thalberg's combination of inner frustration, dismay and bemusement a few years later when he and Mayer took over Metro Pictures and the Goldwyn company and wound up again dealing (harshly) with Stroheim on the troubled (an inadequate word, here) post-production of GREED.

But -- as you note -- Thalberg must have understood and to an extent greatly admired Stroheim's immense talent. Incredibly, despite the general tone of that '22 letter and many hard contretemps surrounding the drastic shortening of GREED, he hired Stroheim to direct the studio's THE MERRY WIDOW (1925). Yes, they had numerous disagreements during the picture's production. I think it was Bob Thomas' book about Thalberg that discussed the production chief's concern regarding the unhealthy obsession that Tully Marshall's pretty perverse baron character seemed to have regarding women's feet; Stroheim had apparently shot miles of film establishing this detail (at least some of which remains in the final version of the movie). Stroheim explained to the executive that the character had a foot-fetish. Thalberg's immediate response entered Hollywood history: "And, you, sir, have a footage-fetish!"

WIDOW turned out very well and proved one of MGM's big hits of the silent era, but Stroheim never directed another movie for the studio. He did return to the lot as an actor in 1932's AS YOU DESIRE ME, a Garbo vehicle supervised by Thalberg; some sources suggest that Garbo insisted that Stroheim be cast in a key supporting role. In the mid-'thirties, Stroheim worked as a screenwriter at MGM on Browning's THE DEVIL-DOLL and on BETWEEN TWO WOMEN and THE EMPEROR'S CANDLESTICKS.

-- Griff

10:34 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers Erich von Stroheim v. Thalberg over MERRY-GO-ROUND (Part One):

Erich von Stroheim was one of the great fabulists of his time, especially with regards his own life. The Jewish hatter’s son from Vienna boarded an ocean liner in Bremen and emerged in New York, ennobled, as Oswald Hans Carl Stroheim von Nordenwald and, not least, a practicing Roman Catholic. The biography by Thomas Quinn Curtis, “Von Stroheim,” tells his story just as though his fabrications had some relationship to reality. No doubt its “Merry-Go-Round” episode is just as credible.

The film, Curtis says, grew out of an idea by Irving Thalberg for a circus picture with a Continental setting, a follow-up to “Foolish Wives,” von Stroheim’s latest success. Von Stroheim remembered the Vienna Prater, a pleasure park where he spent many happy days as a child, and as he worked on the concept, it grew in the writing to an allegory of Vienna around the time of the Great War. When he recited the story to Thalberg, with its thwarted love and cruelty, clandestine affairs, and details bizarre and grotesque, the young executive responded enthusiastically.

“’It’s sold!’ [he cried], jumping up from his desk when the author had described the final scene. ‘Congratulations, Von! It’s great!’”

After von Stroheim’s usual meticulous preparation, filming began, more or less in sequence, to allow the players to grow into their parts. Mary Philbin, in particular, was responding beautifully to von Stroheim’s direction. Five weeks into the production, however, with the picture three quarters complete, he was summoned to Thalberg’s office, where the pale, trembling executive announced, “Von, you’re off the picture!”

7:18 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Dan Mercer:

Von Stroheim glared at him for a moment, then turned on his heel and walked out. Silly stories had been spread of his extravagance and autocratic ways, such as the soldiers in the film wearing underwear embroidered with the Imperial coat-of-arms, or wasting hours drilling troops in the goosestep, or taking every shot fifteen times or more. With Universal studio head Carl Laemmle in Europe, the ambitious Thalberg took advantage of the situation and seized control of the production.

The apparent docility of von Stroheim in accepting his dismissal masked a plan to organize his followers on the lot, who numbered in the hundreds, into an underground group who would seize control of the studio and keep Thalberg from entering its gates. A wire would then be sent to Laemmle, informing him of the coup. Besides returning von Stroheim to control of the picture, it would be a great publicity stunt. However, Mrs. von Stroheim, whose advice he always accepted, said that such things simply were not done in America.

Arthur Lennig’s biography, “Stroheim,” is necessarily more prosaic since he had to stay within the facts of what had actually happened. Von Stroheim’s five weeks of filming had not covered even a quarter of the story, he had not kept his promise to Thalberg to be reasonable in what he did, and brief scenes in the scenario, which had allowed an estimate of the cost of production and the running time of the picture to be made, had been greatly expanded.

Thalberg was watching an out of control production that, at best, might result in a four or five hour picture, which was a commercial impossibility, with cost of more than one million dollars, even more than “Foolish Wives,” which would have been a terrific gamble for Universal. It was at this point he stepped in and relieved von Stroheim.

I have not seen “Merry-Go-Round,” but it was apparently one of those stories in which von Stroheim depicts the most tender of romances within the context of the most caustic observations of Viennese society, like a lily in urine. Undoubtedly, it would have been much superior to what was released, had he been able to make it his own way. Lennig notes that Rupert Julian’s direction is fine, when he is working from von Stroheim’s detailed shooting script, but that it falls flat when he is on his own. Most of the unpleasant insights von Stroheim had wanted to impart had been sidestepped. It remains difficult, however, to justify the destruction of a studio for the sake of one picture, however good it might be, which is what leaving von Stroheim in charge would have amounted to.

7:19 PM  
Blogger Ed Watz said...

Richard Koszarski's book VON: THE LIFE & FILMS OF ERICH VON STROHEIM includes lengthy quotes from MERRY GO ROUND's unit production manager, James Winnard Hum, whom Thalberg gave full authority over all expenses and details of production. Hum's report for September 8, 1922 is worth revisiting:

"Told him (Von) I had been standing around for a week and that he probably imagined I was a G.D. fool, but from now on I was going to crack the whip. Von raved, said that neither Thalberg nor me could bluff him - told him I was not bluffing - just telling him - he said to tell Thalberg to kiss his prat and why in hell didn't Thalberg come down and tell him things. Ran around like a crazy man...

His gang are with him heart and soul - so many chances to put things over - they are all working for Von...The last night he said he didn't give a shit about getting fired or anybody. When this boy gets going he is good!"

7:37 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Someone killed by a flowerpot, another by a monkey. This sounds pretty funny, at least the way you describe it.

Talented guy that he was, I wish EvS had toned down his extravagances. He might have gotten more work. It's shocking he was hired as much as he was.

9:47 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Stroheim made movies for grown-ups in a medium whose main audience is 13 year olds.

That was true then and is true now.

3:55 PM  

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