Orson Welles is often held up as the most abused child in the history of Hollywood, but Erich von Stroheim was easily his equal as whipping boy: Beginning with “Foolish Wives” — Hollywood’s first “million-dollar movie,” for which von Stroheim recreated Monte Carlo on the back lot of Universal – the former assistant to D.W. Griffith lost one duel after another to the hedge-clippers of Hollywood. On “Greed” alone, he was probably relieved of more footage than Welles ever shot in his life. The loss to cinema history has been mourned since the ‘20s.
The good news: On Tuesday [July30] “Foolish Wives” — mastered in HD from an archival 35mm print of the 1972 AFI Arthur Lennig restoration — comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Classics. It features the original 1922 Sigmund Romberg score, performed by Rodney Sauer, as well as “The Man You Loved to Hate,” Patrick Montgomery’s feature-length documentary profile of von Stroheim, written by his biographer, Richard Koszarski. It may be a bit creaky (the narration by actor Edward Binns seems a tad overwrought) but the doc provides an essential introduction to the triumphs and travails of one of the greatest filmmakers.
The feature presentation, on the other hand, has aged like a 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc. Amid the decadent and reckless post-war atmosphere of Monaco, the arrogantly corrupt Count Karamzin (von Stroheim) lives with his “cousins” (Mae Busch, Maus George) passing counterfeit money and scamming his way to success. His personal habits border on the vampiric – he drinks oxblood for breakfast; his “cereal” is caviar — for which von Stroheim required actual beluga, not the blackberries or whatever other substitute would have been used on a more conventional picture. When a new U.S. envoy arrives in Monte Carlo, Karamzin decides to seduce his unworldly wife (Miss Dupont).
The content was alarmingly sophisticated for American movie executives – and, presumably, their audiences. Von Stroheim’s original cut was epic in length. Not a good combination. Posing as a fraudulent aristocrat was something that came rather naturally to the Austrian-born von Stroheim, and his performance is just as morally poisonous as the European milieu he created in California. So almost immediately troubles arose – with censors, the front office and Irving Thalberg, the alleged wunderkind who would fire von Stroheim from Universal, and later contribute to the butchering of “Greed” at MGM.
What Kino Classics is providing via the new Blu-Ray, though – based on that 1972 AFI restoration that drew on multiple and often fragmentary sources — is the most complete “Foolish Wives” known to exist. It probably still wouldn’t make von Stroheim happy. But very few of us are von Stroheim.