von Stroheim, Erich
von STROHEIM, Erich
Nationality: Austrian. Born: Erich Oswald Stroheim in Vienna, 22 September 1885; became U.S. citizen, 1926. Education: According to von Stroheim he attended Mariahilfe Military Academy, though several biographers doubt this. Military Service: Served briefly in the Austro-Hungarian Army. Family: Married 1) Margaret Knox, 1914 (died 1915); 2) May Jones, 1916 (divorced 1918), one son; 3) Valerie Germonprez, 1918 (separated), one son. Career: Moved to America and worked as salesman, railroad worker, short story writer, and travel agent, 1909–14; actor, assistant and military adviser for D.W. Griffith, 1914–15; assistant director, military adviser, and set designer for director John Emerson, 1915–17; became known as "The Man You Love to Hate" after role as Prussian officer in For France, 1917; directed Blind Husbands for Carl Laemmle at Universal, 1918 (terminated contract with Universal, 1922); directed Greed for Goldwyn Co., his version cut to ten reels by studio, 1924; moved to France, 1945. Died: 12 May 1957.
Films as Director:
Blind Husbands (+ sc, art d, role as Lieutenant von Steuben)
The Devil's Passkey (+ sc, art d)
Foolish Wives (+ sc, co-art d, co-costume, role as Count Wladislas Serge Karamazin)
Merry-Go-Round (+ sc, co-art d, co-costume) (completed by Rupert Julian)
Greed (+ sc, co-art d)
The Merry Widow (+ sc, co-art d, co-costume)
The Wedding March (+ sc, co-art d, co-costume, role as Prince Nicki)
Walking down Broadway (+ sc) (mostly reshot by Alfred Werker and Edwin Burke and released as Hello Sister)
Captain McLean (Conway) (role)
Old Heidelberg (Emerson) (asst d, military advisor, role as Lutz); Ghosts (Emerson) (role); The Birth of a Nation (Griffith) (role)
Intolerance (Griffith) (asst d, role as second Pharisee); TheSocial Secretary (Emerson) (asst d, role as a reporter); Macbeth (Emerson) (asst d, role); Less than the Dust (Emerson) (asst d, role); His Picture in the Papers (Emerson) (asst d, role as the traitor)
Panthea (Dwan) (asst d, role as Russian policeman); Sylvia ofthe Secret Service (Fitzmaurice) (asst d, role); In Again—Out Again (Emerson) (asst d, art d, role as Russian officer); For France (Ruggles) (role as Prussian officer)
Hearts of the World (Griffith) (asst d, military advisor, role as German officer); The Unbeliever (Crosland) (role as German officer); The Hun Within (Cabanne) (role as German officer)
The Tempest (sc)
The Great Gabbo (Cruze) (role as Gabbo)
Three Faces East (del Ruth) (role)
Friends and Lovers (Schertzinger) (role)
The Lost Squadron (Archimbaud and Sloane) (role); As YouDesire Me (Fitzmaurice) (role)
Crimson Romance (Howard) (military advisor, role as German pilot); Fugitive Road (sc/co-sc, military advisor)
The Crime of Dr. Crespi (Auer) (role as Dr. Crespi); AnnaKarenina (Brown) (military advisor)
Devil Doll (Browning) (sc/co-sc); San Francisco (Van Dyke) (sc/co-sc); Marthe Richard (Bernard) (role as German officer)
Between Two Women (sc/co-sc); La Grande Illusion (Renoir) (role as von Rauffenstein); Mademoiselle Docteur (Gréville) (role as Col. Mathesius); L'Alibi (Chenal) (role as Winkler)
Les Pirates du rail (Christian-Jaque) (role as Tschou-Kin); L'Affaire Lafarge (Chenal) (role as Denis); Les Disparus deSaint-Agil (Christian-Jaque) (role as German professor); Ultimatum (Wiene and Siodmak) (role as Général Simovic); Gibraltar (role as Marson) (It Happened in Gibraltar); Derrière la façade (Lacombe) (role as Eric)
Menaces (Gréville) (role as Hoffman); Rappel immédiat (Mathot) (role as Stanley Wells); Pièges (Siodmak) (role as Pears); Tempète sur Paris (Bernard-Deschamps) (role as Kohrlick); La Révolte des vivants (Pottier) (role as Emile Lasser); Macao l'enfer (Delannoy) (role as Knall); Paris—New York (Heymann and Mirande) (role)
I Was an Adventuress (Ratoff) (role); So Ends Our Night (Cromwell) (role)
Five Graves to Cairo (Wilder) (role as Field Marshall Rommel); The North Star (Milestone) (role as German medic)
The Lady and the Monster (Sherman) (role); Storm overLisbon (Sherman) (role)
The Great Flamarion (Mann) (role as Flamarion); ScotlandYard Investigation (Blair) (role); The Mask of Dijon (Landers) (role as Dijon)
On ne meurt pas comme ça (Boyer) (role as Eric von Berg)
La Danse de mort (Cravenne) (co-adapt, co-dialogue, role as Edgar)
Le Signal rouge (Neubach) (role)
Portrait d'un assassin (Bernard-Roland) (role)
Sunset Boulevard (Wilder) (role as Max)
Minuit, quai de Bercy (Stengel) (role); Alraune (LaMandragore) (Rabenalt) (role)
L'Envers du paradis (Gréville) (role as O'Hara); Alerte au sud (Devaivre) (role)
Napoléon (Guitry) (role as Beethoven)
Série noire (Foucaud) (role); La Madone des sleepings (Diamant-Berger) (role)
By von STROHEIM: books—
Paprika, New York, 1935.
Les Feux de la Saint-Jean: Veronica (Part 1), Givors, France, 1951.
Les Feux de la Saint-Jean: Constanzia (Part 2), Givors, France, 1954; reissued 1967.
Poto-Poto, Paris, 1956.
Greed (full screenplay), Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique, Brussels, 1958.
By von STROHEIM: articles—
Interviews, in Motion Picture (New York), August 1920, October 1921, May 1922, September 1923, and April 1927.
"Charges against Him and His Reply," with C. Belfrage, in MotionPicture Classic (Brooklyn), June 1930.
"My Own Story," in Film Weekly (London), April/May 1935.
"Stroheim in London," with Karel Reisz, in Sight and Sound (London), April/June 1954.
"Erich von Stroheim," in Interviews with Film Directors, edited by Andrew Sarris, New York, 1967.
"Citizen Kane," in Positif (Paris), March 1968 (reprinted from 1941).
"Les Rapaces (Greed)," (scenario), in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), September 1968.
On von STROHEIM: books—
Atasceva, P., and V. Korolevitch, Erich von Stroheim, Moscow, 1927.
Drinkwater, John, The Life and Adventures of Carl Laemmle, New York, 1931.
Fronval, Georges, Erich von Stroheim, sa vie, ses films, Paris, 1939.
Noble, Peter, Hollywood Scapegoat: The Biography of Erich vonStroheim, London, 1951.
Bergut, Bob, Erich von Stroheim, Paris, 1960.
Barna, Jan, Erich von Stroheim, Vienna, 1966.
Gobeil, Charlotte, editor, Hommage à Erich vonStroheim, Ottawa, 1966.
Ciment, Michel, Erich von Stroheim, Paris, 1967.
Brownlow, Kevin, The Parade's Gone By . . . , New York, 1968.
Finler, Joel, Stroheim, Berkeley, 1968.
Curtiss, Thomas Quinn, Erich von Stroheim, Paris, 1969.
Buache, Freddy, Erich von Stroheim, Paris, 1972.
Pratt, George C., Spellbound in Darkness, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1973.
Weinberg, Herman G., Stroheim: A Pictorial Record of His NineFilms, New York, 1975.
Bazin, André, The Cinema of Cruelty: From Buñuel to Hitchcock, New York, 1982.
Koszarski, Richard, The Man You Loved to Hate: Erich von Stroheimand Hollywood, New York, 1983.
Bessy, Maurice, Erich von Stroheim, Paris, 1984.
Lignon, Fanny, Erich von Stroheim: Du ghetto au Gotha, Paris, 1998.
Lennig, Arthur, Stroheim, Lexington, 2000.
On von STROHEIM: articles—
Yost, Robert, "Gosh, How They Hate Him!," in Photoplay (New York), December 1919.
Weinberg, Herman G., "Erich von Stroheim," in Film Art (London), Spring 1937.
"Tribute to Stroheim," in Film Quarterly (London), Spring 1947.
"Von Stroheim Issue" of Ciné-club (Paris), April 1949.
Schwerin, Jules, "The Resurgence of von Stroheim," in Films inReview (New York), April 1950.
Lambert, Gavin, "Stroheim Revisited: The Missing Third in American Cinema," in Sight and Sound (London), April/June 1955.
Eisner, Lotte, "Notes sur le style de Stroheim," in Cahiers duCinéma (Paris), January 1957.
"Von Stroheim Issue" of Cinéma (Paris), February 1957.
Everson, William K., "The Career of Erich von Stroheim," in Filmsin Review (New York), August/September 1957.
"Von Stroheim Issue" of Film Culture (New York), April 1958.
Marion, Denis, "Stroheim, the Legend and the Fact," in Sight andSound (London), Winter 1961/62.
Weinberg, Herman G., "The Legion of Lost Films," in Sight andSound (London), Autumn 1962.
Weinberg, Herman G., "Sternberg and Stroheim," in Sight andSound (London), Winter 1965/66.
"Von Stroheim Issue" of Etudes Cinématographiques (Paris), no. 48/50, 1966.
Gilliatt, Penelope, "The Scabrous Poet from the Estate Belonging to No One," in the New Yorker, 3 June 1972.
"Von Stroheim Issue" of Cinema (Zurich), December 1973.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, "Second Thoughts on Stroheim," in FilmComment (New York), May/June 1974.
Koszarski, Richard, and William K. Everson, "Stroheim's Last 'Lost' Film: The Making and Remaking of Walking down Broadway," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1975.
Cappabianca, Alessandro, in Castoro Cinema (Milan), special issue, no. 63, 1979.
Brownlow, Kevin, "The Merry Widow Affair," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), July/August 1981.
Wilder, Billy, "Stroheim, l'homme que vous aimerez," in Positif (Paris), July/August 1983.
Adrejkov, T., "Erih fon Strohajm—sto godini sled rozdenieto mu," in Kinoizkustvo, July and August 1986.
Grindon, Leger, "From Word to Image: Displacement and Meaning in Greed," in Journal of Film and Video (Boston), vol. 41, no. 4, 1989.
Bourget, J.-L., "Erich von Stroheim," in Positif (Paris), January 1991.
Gauteur, C., "Stroheim, acteur français (1937–1939). L'inquiétant étranger," in Revue du Cinema (Paris), no. 468, February 1991.
Brun, D., "Cinémathèque française: Les documents de travail d'Erich von Stroheim," in Cinémathèque (Paris), no. 1, May 1992.
Amengual, B., and others, in Positif (Paris), special section, no. 385, March 1993.
Habel, F.-B., "Der Mann, den man gernt hasst. Zur Erich von Stroheim Retrospektive," in Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), vol. 22, no. 2, 1994.
Wecker, C., in Filmfaust, vol. 18, no. 91–92, March-June 1994.
Kothenschulte, D., "Geliebter haustyrann," in Film-Dienst (Cologne), vol. 47, no. 8, 12 April 1994.
EPD Film (Frankfurt), special section, vol. 11, no. 8, August 1994.
Narboni, J., "Pendant que l'herbe pousse," in Cinémathèque (Paris), no. 6, Autumn 1994.
Fisher, L., "Enemies, a Love Story: Von Stroheim, Women and World War I," in Film History (London), vol. 6, no. 4, Winter 1994.
Tournès, André, "Éric von Stroheim. Personne et personnage: Les vases communicants," in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), no. 230, January-February 1995.
Reisz, Karel, "Stroheim revu par Karel Reisz," in Positif (Paris), no. 411, May 1995.
* * *
Erich von Stroheim had two complementary careers in cinema, that of actor-director, primarily during the silent period, and that of distinguished character actor when his career as a director was frustrated as a result of his inability to bring his genius to terms with the American film industry.
After edging his way into the industry in the humblest capacities, von Stroheim's lengthy experience as bit player and assistant to Griffith paid off. His acceptance during the pioneer period of American cinema as Prussian "military adviser," and his bullet-headed physical resemblance to the traditional monocled image of the tight-uniformed Hun officer, enabled him to create a more established acting career and star in his own films. With his first personal film, Blind Husbands, he became the prime creator in Hollywood of witty, risqué, European-like sex-triangle comedy-dramas. His initial successes in the early 1920s were characterized by subtle acting touches and a marked sophistication of subject that impressed American audiences of the period as essentially European and fascinatingly decadent. Blind Husbands was followed by other films in the same genre, the 12-reel The Devil's Pass Key and the critically successful Foolish Wives. In all three works, women spectators could easily identify with the common character of the lonely wife, whose seduction by attractively wicked Germanic officers and gentlemen (usually played by von Stroheim, now publicized as "the man you love to hate") provided the essential thrill. Von Stroheim also cunningly included beautiful but excitingly unprincipled women characters in both The Devil's Pass Key and Foolish Wives, played by Maude George and Mae Busch. Details of bathing, dressing, and the ministration of servants in the preparation of masters or mistresses in boudoir or dressing room were recurrent, and the von Stroheim scene always included elaborate banquets, receptions, and social ceremonies.
Von Stroheim's losing battle with the film industry began in his clashes with Irving Thalberg at Universal. His obsessive perfectionism over points of detail in setting and costume had pushed the budget for Foolish Wives to the million-dollar mark. Though the publicists boasted of von Stroheim's extravagance, the front office preferred hard profits to such self-indulgent expenditures. Thalberg also refused von Stroheim's demands that his films should be of any length he determined, and Foolish Wives (intended to be in two parts) was finally taken out of his hands and cut from 18–20 to some 12–14 reels. Although a critical success, the film lost money.
Foolish Wives was von Stroheim's most discussed film before Greed. In it he played a bogus aristocratic officer, in reality a swindler and multi-seducer. His brilliant, sardonic acting "touches" brought a similar psychological verisimilitude to this grimly satiric comedy of manners as Lubitsch was to establish in his Kammerspielfilme (intimate films). He also specialized in decor, photographic composition, and lighting. The latticed light and shadow in one sequence, when the seducer in full uniform visits the counterfeiter's underworld den with hope of ravishing the old man's mentally defective daughter, is unforgettable.
Greed, von Stroheim's most important film, was based meticulously on Norris's Zolaesque novel, McTeague. Von Stroheim's masterpiece, it was eventually mutilated by the studio because of its unwieldy length; it was reduced over its director's protests from 42 reels to 24 (between 5 and 6 hours), and then finally cut to 10 reels by the studio. Von Stroheim's emphasis on the ugly and bizarre in human nature emerged in this psychologically naturalistic study of avarice and degradation seen in a mismatched couple—McTeague, the impulsive, primitive (but bird-loving) lower-class dentist, and Trina, the pathologically avaricious spinster member of a German-Swiss immigrant family and winner of a $5,000 lottery. After their marriage, Trina hoards her money as their circumstances decline to the point where the husband becomes drunk and brutal, and the wife mad. After he murders her and becomes a fugitive, McTeague ends up in the isolated wastes of Death Valley, handcuffed to Marcus, his former friend whom he has killed. Using the streets of San Francisco and the house where the actual murder that had inspired Norris had taken place, von Stroheim anticipated Rossellini in his use of such locations. But his insistence on achieving an incongruous and stylized realism, which starts with McTeague's courtship of Trina sitting on a sewerpipe and culminates in the macabre sequence in Death Valley, goes beyond that straight neorealism of the future. Joel W. Finler, in his book Stroheim, analyzes the wholesale cutting in the 10-reel version, exposing the grave losses that render the action and motivation of the film unclear. But the superb performances of Zasu Pitts and Gibson Gowland compensate, and the grotesque Sieppe family provide a macabre background, enhanced by von Stroheim's constant reminder of San Francisco's "mean streets." The film was held to be his masterpiece by many, but also condemned as a "vile epic of the sewer."
Von Stroheim was to work as director on only five more films: the Ruritanian Merry Widow (adapted from the operetta), The Wedding March (in two parts, and again severely cut), the erotic Queen Kelly (directed for Gloria Swanson, but never completed by von Stroheim, though released by Swanson with her own additions), and the sound films Walking Down Broadway (released as Hello, Sister; it was never released in von Stroheim's original version) and The Emperor's Candlesticks, on which it appears he collaborated only in direction. The silent films portray the same degenerate Imperial Viennese society von Stroheim favored. Half-romantic and half-grotesque fantasy, the films once again presented von Stroheim's meticulous attention to detail in decor and characterization. The Wedding March (in spite of studio intervention) is the high point in von Stroheim's career as a director after Greed. Subsequently he remained content to star or appear in films made by others, making some 50 appearances between 1929 and 1955. His most notable acting performances during this period were in Renoir's La Grande Illusion and Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo and Sunset Boulevard, in which his past as a director is almost ghoulishly recalled.
Erich von Stroheim
Erich von Stroheim
Erich von Stroheim (1885-1957) is best known to the filmgoing public for his acting roles as monocle-wearing Nazi officers and other villains, which earned him the nickname "the man you love to hate." However, during the 1920s and early 1930s von Stroheim also directed and wrote screenplays for films in Hollywood, most notably the silent film Greed. After World War II, he left the United States and worked in Europe until his death in 1957. He returned to Hollywood only once, to portray Gloria Swanson's butler/ex-husband in Billy Wilder's 1950 film classic Sunset Boulevard.
Von Stroheim enjoyed telling elaborate tales about his youth in Vienna as Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim, the son of a noble Austrian family; however, the truth was far different. He was born Erich Oswald Stroheim, on September 22, 1885, in Vienna, Austria. However, rather than being a wealthy member of the Austrian aristocracy, his father, Benno Stroheim, sold straw hats for a living. Although von Stroheim claimed that he had served several years in the Austrian military, he actually had worked as a supervisor in his father's hat factory. In 1909 he decided to start a new life in the United States. When he landed at Ellis Island, he was penniless but listed himself as "von Stroheim," so people would think he was an Austrian aristocrat.
By 1912 von Stroheim had moved to San Francisco and had begun to write short plays. He also met and married Margaret Knox, a young woman from a wealthy California family. The marriage was stormy, and Knox filed for divorce after only a year. Von Stroheim then turned to acting; unverifiable Hollywood legend says that he acted in D. W. Griffith's classic silent film, The Birth of a Nation, breaking two ribs in a stunt fall. During World War I his Austrian background came in handy. He played assorted villains in films such as Sylvia of the Secret Service, Hearts of the World, The Hun Within, and The Heart of Humanity, in which his loathsome character tosses a baby out of a window.
Von Stroheim remarried in 1915, this time to Mae Jones, a New York seamstress. This marriage also was stormy and, although it produced a son (Erich von Stroheim, Jr.), the couple soon separated and divorced in 1919. He had become involved with another woman, Valerie Germonprez, and she became his third wife; they later had a son, Josef.
Studio Conflicts Plagued Directing Career
After the war, von Stroheim needed to move in a new direction, since there was less of a market for Germanic villains. He decided to try directing silent films, basing his first effort, Blind Husbands (1919), on his own short story. The film tells the story of an American couple vacationing in Austria, who meet a flirtatious Austrian officer (played by von Stroheim). The husband falsely suspects that his wife has been unfaithful and confronts the officer while the two men are mountain climbing. When the husband says he will not harm the officer if he confesses to the affair, the officer does so out of fear. However, the husband then cuts their connecting rope, and the officer dies. Blind Husbands introduced new levels of realism and sexual explicitness into film, themes that would be repeated in von Stroheim's later films and that would him cause frequent problems with film censors.
Von Stroheim followed up by directing two films that focused on marital infidelity and other scandalous behavior, The Devil's Passkey (1920) and Foolish Wives (1922). These films established his reputation in Hollywood as both a gifted actor and director. However, they also gave hints of the problems that would follow with studio executives. Publicists for Universal first decided to promote Foolish Wives by billing it as "the first million dollar film ever made." Despite the fact that the film was a great success with the public, it ran far over budget and barely made a profit; and it was originally so long that the studio had to cut its length by a third. When the same problems surfaced on von Stroheim's next film, Merry-Go-Round, and he refused to cooperate, Universal fired him midway through the shooting.
After his ties to Universal were severed, von Stroheim moved to Goldwyn Studios. There he began work on what critics consider his masterpiece, Greed (1924). Based on Frank Norris's 1899 novel McTeague, Greed does not have any of the decadent aristocrats of von Stroheim's earlier films. Instead, it focuses on poor settlers in turn-of-the-century California. McTeague is a kindhearted but unlicensed dentist who marries Trina, the daughter of German immigrants. His lack of credentials is exposed by Marcus Schooler, one of Trina's former suitors, and the couple plunges into poverty. Trina begins to hoard gold, and, when she will not give McTeague any of it to buy food, they struggle and she is killed. Schooler is part of a posse that chases McTeague into Death Valley; handcuffed together and lost in the desert, McTeague and Schooler die. Greed is summarized by biographer Peter Noble as abounding with "squalor, poverty, misery, lust, revenge, fear-and greed."
Despite its rather sordid subject matter, von Stroheim's greatest struggle to bring this film to the public was not with film censors. Instead, he once again went head to head with studio executives. Goldwyn originally had agreed to fund a film eight reels long, but agreed to twelve reels after von Stroheim completed his shooting script. This would have been a film over two hours long, definitely the upper limit for silent films. Von Stroheim proceeded to shoot hundreds of hours of film on location in San Francisco and Death Valley, eventually far exceeding his budget and creating a finished product of at least forty reels (somewhere between seven and nine hours long). When the studio insisted on drastic cuts, von Stroheim invited journalists to private viewings of the complete film. Although those who saw the film praised it in news articles, von Stroheim and then studio editors proceeded to cut it down drastically. Meanwhile, Goldwyn had been part of a merger that produced Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM), and the new studio's managers chopped still more film. Finally, a two-hour version was finally released to the public.
Despite the problems with Greed, the following year MGM asked von Stroheim to direct a silent version of the Lehar operetta, The Merry Widow. He totally revised the operetta's libretto and inserted sexually explicit scenes, and the studio decided that it no longer could work with him. Next he directed, cowrote, and starred in The Wedding March for Paramount Studios. Once again a von Stroheim film ran to excessive length. As a result, only its first half was shown in the United States; the second was released in Europe as The Honeymoon. In 1928 von Stroheim was hired to direct another silent film, Queen Kelly. Actress Gloria Swanson starred in and produced this film. She fired von Stroheim midway through the shooting; a final version was pieced together but quickly withdrawn from theaters. In 1932 von Stroheim started work on Fox's "talkie," Walking Down Broadway. Not surprisingly, he went over budget and could not meet the production schedule, and the studio shut down the filming.
Returned to Europe as Actor
Walking Down Broadway would be von Stroheim's final attempt at directing. He returned to character acting and appeared in several films during the early 1930s, including Three Faces East, Friends and Lovers, The LostSquadron, Crimson Romance, and The Crime of Dr. Crespi. Von Stroheim's personal life took several disastrous turns during these years. His wife Valerie was horribly burned when a shampoo solution caught fire at a beauty parlor. Although she eventually recovered, she was badly scarred, and the marriage disintegrated. Von Stroheim's second son, Josef, became seriously ill with what was mistakenly diagnosed as polio. In the midst of these crises, his ex-wife Mae Jones sued him for child support.
Given these awful events and von Stroheim's increasing difficulties in working with Hollywood studios, it is no surprise that, in 1936, he returned to Europe and remained there until the outbreak of war was imminent. While in Europe he acted in several films, most notably Jean Renoir's classic La Grande Illusion (1937). In this film he played the commandant of a German prisoner of war camp during World War I. Von Stroheim often clicked his heels together as a greeting, instead of shaking hands, because he detested contact with men. At his first meeting with Renoir, he was firmly kissed on both cheeks by the Frenchman, who idolized von Stroheim. However, in this case von Stroheim actually returned the gesture. The two men shared tears and hugs, as well as arguments about the plot, throughout the filming. In 1939 von Stroheim returned to the United States, along with his new companion, French actress Denise Vernac. He and his third wife Valerie never divorced, but he remained with Vernac for the rest of his life. During World War II von Stroheim appeared in numerous American films, such as I Was an Adventuress, The North Star, Five Graves to Cairo, The Lady and the Monster, and The Mask of Dijon.
Sunset Boulevard Crowned Career
When World War II ended, von Stroheim and Vernac went back to Europe and settled at a chateau outside of Paris. In 1949 director Billy Wilder asked him to return to the United States and appear in his upcoming film, Sunset Boulevard. The film would tell the story of aging film star Norma Desmond (played by aging film star Gloria Swanson), who becomes involved with and then kills a young screenwriter played by William Holden. Von Stroheim, although initially reluctant, finally agreed to play the part of Desmond's butler, who is revealed to be her ex-husband as well. Sunset Boulevard received numerous Academy Award nominations and awards in 1951, including von Stroheim's only Academy Award nomination during his career, as Best Supporting Actor.
In Europe von Stroheim acted in a few films and co-wrote several screenplays, but never again returned to directing films. In 1956 he began to suffer severe back pain that was diagnosed as cancer. He eventually became paralyzed and was carried to his drawing room to receive France's Legion of Honor award from an official delegation. Von Stroheim died at his chateau on May 12, 1957, accompanied by his longtime lover, Denise Vernac.
More than 30 years after von Stroheim's death, Ric Schmidlin and Glenn Morgan of Turner Classic Movies embarked on the huge project of restoring his silent film Greed. Since MGM executive Irving Thalberg had ordered the uncut film to be burned long ago, Schmidlin and Morgan had to use hundreds of still photographs to assemble a four-hour-long film, which was released in 1999. Variety praised this attempt to restore one of the "most celebrated and mourned mutilated masterpieces in cinema history."
Curtiss, Thomas Quinn, Von Stroheim, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1971.
Koszarski, Richard, The Man You Loved to Hate, Oxford University Press, 1983.
Lennig, Arthur, Stroheim, University Press of Kentucky, 2000.
Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia, Penguin/Dutton, 1994.
Noble, Peter, Hollywood Scapegoat: The Biography of Erich von Stroheim, Arno Press, 1972.
Atlantic, September 1987, p. 73.
Film Comment, November 1999, p. 10.
Variety, September 13, 1999, p. 44.
"Biography for Erich von Stroheim," Internet Movie Database,http://www.imdb.com (December 6, 2000). □