Starring Erich von Stroheim and Miss Dupont
April 1922

The long-evolving "million dollar movie" written and directed by Erich von Stroheim, "Foolish Wives," has reached Broadway at last. Its reception was an interesting commentary upon our modes and manners. For von Stroheim, of the Junker physiognomy, was accused of everything from arch treason to studied insolence before all things American. That is, he was accused of all save one thing: demonstrating a superb directorial technique. We feel sure that von Stroheim will forgive us for adding this accusation to the others.

"Foolish Wives" has moments - indeed, whole stretches - of greatness. It is not for the provincial or the prude. Von Stroheim has taken the one real theme of life - sex - and played upon it with Continental discernment and, let us say, abandon. Where the Pollyanna American viewpoint dresses up sex in tinsel and spangles, von Stroheim looks upon it with the worldly and half cynical, half humorous Viennese viewpoint of a Schnitzler. Briefly, where we love to dress our sex illusions in Santa Claus whiskers, von Stroheim sees only the stocking at the fireplace.

We have said that "Foolish Wives" is not for the prude. For instance, we can imagine with what chuckles of unalloyed satisfaction the New York state board of censors dived into it with eyes and shears agleam.

Von Stroheim built his story around a renegade Russian count, Sergius Karamzin, who can most happily be described as living by his wits. Together with two pretty adventuresses, he occupies a cozy palace overlooking Monte Carlo and the Mediterranean. With a quiet little gambling rival to the famous Casino in full swing, Karamzin finds time to devote himself to the chase - with women as the hunted. Karamzin is not the connoisseur, for he takes all comers, from serving maids to half-witted peasant girls.

The wife of an American envoy falls within his wiles, and the Russian almost sweeps her from her feet when fate circumvents in the hands of the aforementioned maddened servant maid. The women sets fire to the castle, with the count and the "foolish wife" locked in a lonely tower-room. Here von Stroheim works to a thrilling climax as the flames lick their way up the winding tower steps and force the prisoners to a tiny balcony high above the ground.

The firemen stretch a net and the count - master egotist first and last - adjusts his monocle and leaps to safety. A second later the foolish wife half falls, half jumps to the rescuing net. Here von Stroheim might have ended his theme, but he went onward to show the ultimate fate of the dissolute Russian.

The end comes when, on the eve of a duel with the American envoy and with an empty evening on his hands, he climbs into the bedroom of a half-witted peasant girl. Awakened by the girl's cries, the father kills Karamzin and - here is a grim touch - drops his body thru a street sewer man-hole. A dead black cat, reposing hard by, is tossed into the darkness after the degenerate. Thus ends the tale.

Von Stroheim both wrote and directed the opus. Badly constructed at best, it is apparent that he lost all grip and perspective as the production progressed. The result is a story which collapses in its last hour, as shown in its original fourteen-reel form at the New York premiere. The theme completely spluttered and fizzled out.

Yet there are - as we have intimated, even in the face of being declared un-American - many marvelous moments. No one in this country has directed scenes to compare with his expansive shots of throbbing Continental life on the Monte Carlo boulevards and terraces. The vitality of actuality is captured, for the handling of the ensembles is touched with genius. And - in the intimate scenes - von Stroheim imbues his action and characters with subtlety and suggestion as keen as a Damascus blade. The flash of intrigue, the flame of passion and the criss-cross shading of thought are all there.

Von Stroheim has apparently never been popular with the "100 per cent Americans" of our photoplay. These folk went to "Foolish Wives" seeking something - and they professed to find it in the way von Stroheim presents Karamzin as shrewdly winning the foolish wife away from her American husband and also (here is the deadly count against the director), in the way he paints the envoy as a sort of good-natured boob. Knowing the caliber of some of our American representatives abroad, we find nothing but realism in this. But the parlor patriots, who recently were weeping over the subtle propaganda of the Pola Negri photoplays, call it "studied insolence."

All of which we dismiss as absurd stuff to frighten naughty children. We know some of the limitations under which von Stroheim worked and we congratulate him upon proving - in an unqualified way - that he is one of the rare cinema elect. At the same time, let us declare ourselves as against the waste of money on huge exra reel spectacles. Also, that we fully realize that von Stroheim lost his story, and in a large measure, failed with "Foolish Wives." Which is but another proof that one cannot do all things well. Von Stroheim should let someone else write his stories. Imagine, for instance, what he could do with the "The Affairs of Anatol." The Cecil DeMille drivel would fade into nothingness. But von Stroheim needs a strong leash. Right here we predict that this man will do more things of fine worth. If he does not, then the photoplay is the loser.

We have stepped away from the narrow path of criticism. To return to "Foolish Wives." Von Stroheim himself gives an almost uncanny performance of Karamzin - dissolute, dapper, monocled, a reckless player with passion, drinker of perfume, base student of feminine psychology, unscrupulous thief, scoundrel guilty of all the sins on the calendar; yet fascinating withal. We guarantee you won't forget his Count Karamzin.

The foolish wife is played by Miss Dupont, and the envoy-husband mostly by Rudolph Christians, altho there are some shots with Robert Edeson doubling for Mr. Christians, who died during the making of "Foolish Wives." The adventuresses are adroitly done by Maude George and Mae Busch, and Dale Fuller, a former Keystone comedienne, contributes a striking bit as the maid who so effectively brings out the Monte Carlo fire department.

Return to reviews page