Director: Erich von Stroheim
Production: Universal Super Jewel; black and white; originally shot in 35mm, original length: 14,210 feet; released in a version of 2,765 feet (at 24 f.p.s), running time: 77 minutes.
Producer: Carl Laemmle; screenplay: Erich von Stroheim; titles: Erich von Stroheim, Marian Ainslee; assistant directors: Edward Sowders, Jack R. Proctor, Louis Germonprez; special assistant to von Stroheim: Gustav Machaty; photography: Ben Reynolds, William Daniels; illumination and lighting effects: Harry J. Brown; editor: Erich von Stroheim; editor for release version: Arthur D. Ripley; art directors: E. E. Sheeley, Richard Day; scenic artist: Van Alstein; technical directors: William Meyers, James Sullivan, George Williams; music: Sigmund Romberg.
Cast: Rudolph Christians/Robert Edenson (Andrew J. Hughes); Miss Du Pont/Patsy Hannen (Helen Hughes); Maude George ("Princess" Olga Petschnikoff); Mae Busch ("Princess" Vera Petschnikoff); Erich von Stroheim ("Count" Sergius Karamzin); Dale Fuller (Maruschka); Al Edmundsen (Pavel Pavlich, the Butler); Cesare Gravina (Signor Gaston); Malvina Polo (Marietta, Gaston's Daughter); Louis K. Webb (Dr. Judd); Mrs. Kent (Mrs. Judd); C. J. Allen (Albert I, Prince of Monaco); Edward Reinach (Secretary of State of Monaco).
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* * *
Foolish Wives, von Stroheim's third feature as a director, presents close analogies with his first two as the last part of a triptych on the "innocent abroad," a new triangle comedy with the blind husband (this time an American ambassador), his foolish wife, and the devil with his passkey (von Stroheim himself playing a pseudo-Russian Count). Far superior to Blind Husbands (1919), and probably to The Devil's Passkey (a lost film, 1920), its action is again set in Europe, Monte Carlo succeeding the Austrian Dolomites of the first film and the Paris of the second.
To measure up its originality and boldness it has to be compared to the sophisticated comedies of the time whose greatest exponent was Cecil B. De Mille with films like Why Change Your Wife? or The Affairs of Anatol. De Mille as early as 1919 brought to the American screens a mixture of spice and sex but within strict moral limits. Von Stroheim, however, through his unsparing vision of human psychology, his probing of hidden motives, and his harsh realism made the American cinema (particularly with Foolish Wives) enter the 20th century, away from the Victorian and romantic sensibility of Griffith and Tourneur. Chaplin would soon follow with A Woman of Paris (1923) and Lubitsch with The Marriage Circle (1924).
While confirming his image of "the man you love to hate," established in the war years when he played the role of the wicked German in several films, Foolish Wives, his third feature for Carl Laemmle's Universal, created his reputation as a money-spender and an intractable director. Started on 12 July 1920, the shooting ended almost one year later on 15 June 1921. The costs were soaring as von Stroheim with his manic perfectionism insisted on the veracity of every detail. The main facades of the casino, the Hotel de France, and the Cafe de Paris were built by Richard Day (his first assignment) on the backlot of Universal. The initial budget of $250,000 ended up at $750,000 according to von Stroheim and $1,225,000 in the studio's estimate. In the middle of production Laemmle had appointed his 20-year-old secretary Irving Thalberg as the head of Universal, and he started to oppose von Stroheim as he would do on his next films, Merry Go Round and Greed.
Before release there were both censorship and length problems. In the wake of Fatty Arbuckle's scandal the company decided to delete the most provocative shots; after screening a rough cut of six and half hours, it took the film from von Stroheim's hands and asked Arthur Ripley to reduce it from 30 reels to 14. Ultimately it ran only ten reels.
Even in its present shape, however, the film is one of the most stunning of the silent era. It also exercised a major influence on future directors, including Renoir, Buñuel, and Vigo. Von Stroheim shows a world that lies to itself, where swindlers and rich people mix, and where the heroine reads a book called Foolish Wives. The writer-director deals with false appearances: the titles of Count Wladislas Sergius Karamzin and his two princess cousins are fake (von Stroheim himself was not an Austrian aristocrat as he would have us believe during his lifetime, but the son of a Jewish hat-maker), the money is counterfeit, and the sentiments are fraudulent; Karamzin playing at love to seduce his maid, the ambassador's wife, and an idiotic 14-year-old girl. This hypocrisy of the social game is set in the context of World War I, which had just ended: an armless veteran, a nurse pushing a soldier in a wheelchair, a little girl on crutches, a boy playing with a military helmet.
In Foolish Wives von Stroheim also gives the final—and most brilliant—touch to his portrait of the cynical seducer, equally eager for money and sex. His physical appearance is as recognisable as Chaplin's, with his military cap, his whip, and his monocle. Unlike Don Juan who seeks his own downfall or Casanova who is constantly in love and taken in by his own illusions, von Stroheim embodies here an energy and sensuality in their purest form and seeks to destroy the world around him until his final death, not unlike a de Sade character.
But one should not forget the comic side of the film, its scathing irony, even its farcical moments. In many respects, Foolish Wives anticipates two subversive works that open and close the 1930s: Buñuel's L'age d'or and Renoir's La règle du jeu.