Combustible Celluloid Review - Foolish Wives (1922), Erich von Stroheim, Marian Ainslee, Walter Anthony, Erich von Stroheim, Erich von Stroheim, Rudolph Christians, Miss DuPont, Maude George, Mae Busch, Dale Fuller, Al Edmundsen, Cesare Gravina, Malvina Polo, C.J. Allen
Combustible Celluloid
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With: Erich von Stroheim, Rudolph Christians, Miss DuPont, Maude George, Mae Busch, Dale Fuller, Al Edmundsen, Cesare Gravina, Malvina Polo, C.J. Allen
Written by: Erich von Stroheim, Marian Ainslee, Walter Anthony
Directed by: Erich von Stroheim
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 146
Date: 01/10/1922

Foolish Wives (1922)

4 Stars (out of 4)

'Von' Songs

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the greatest films ever made has, when it unspools at the Castro Theater on May 5, 2022 as part of the SF Silent Film Festival, just become even greater, thanks to a new restoration, and the addition of a few minutes of previously lost footage.

Erich von Stroheim (1885-1957) pushed the cinematic envelope early and found the glass ceiling that all film directors must duck under to this day.

He had a wildly epic vision of gigantic proportions, propelled by his own personal fetishes and desires. But film was and ever is a business as much as an art. And, as a result, nearly every one of his films was truncated or dismantled or diluted in some way.

Born in Vienna, and raised middle-class, Stroheim added the "Von" to his name (his friends called him "Von") to make him sound more like royalty. He apparently served briefly in the military, but likely deserted, although that never stopped him from serving as a "military advisor" on several pictures.

Arriving in Hollywood, he worked for D.W. Griffith before getting his first shot at directing in 1919. (He even lived in San Francisco for a time.)

Stroheim directed nine films during his career. One, The Devil's Pass Key, no longer exists, four (Foolish Wives, Greed, The Wedding March and Queen Kelly) were cut down to a fraction of their intended lengths and two (Merry-Go-Round and Walking Down Broadway) were taken away and finished by other directors. The final two (Blind Husbands and The Merry Widow) were released more or less as intended, though Stroheim complained about those as well.

His third film as director, Foolish Wives (1922), may be Stroheim's greatest achievement -- at least the equivalent of Greed -- though it's also one of his most truncated. Originally envisioned at about 6-1/2 hours, the complete film today runs only about 146 minutes, three minutes longer than on Kino Lorber's 2013 Blu-ray. It suffers from lost plot threads and the death of one of the leading men halfway through filming, but it's still Von Stroheim's most elaborate and spectacular film.

He also stars, adding another level to the cult of personality, playing Count Sergius Karamzin, a dastardly rogue involved with a counterfeit scheme. He lives in a mansion atop a high hill with two female "cousins," both of whom, it is subtly suggested, he is engaged with sexually. He's also involved with the developmentally disabled daughter of his counterfeiter connection and drinks ox blood for breakfast. He spies an American woman (credited simply as Miss DuPont), the wife of a diplomat, whom he hopes to seduce and bilk for a considerable sum of money.

Von Stroheim always goes for the biggest, most bizarre setups and constantly indulges in all his most personal and twisted whims -- such as his fetishes for amputees and uniforms. These kinds of films usually frighten producers and distributors and rarely get made. Foolish Wives is enormous in scale, with no expense spared for spectacle.

And yet, Von Stroheim was considered a realist, and the film features some surprisingly naturalistic performances, subtler than the kind of hysterical acting we might see in a more typical film. Even his own performance is carefully modulated, as well as designed to be prickly and deceptive. The Count is an awful human being (he's first seen firing a gun directly at the audience) who deals entirely in lies, including the counterfeit money. Even stranger, the whole construction of the film makes it easy to assume that the onscreen persona and the real-life Von Stroheim are one in the same.

Which begs the question: who are we rooting for here? Is it satisfying to see the Count and his cousins pay their dues at the end, or did we secretly want them to succeed? Is there a little Count Karamzin in all of us?

Kino's 2003 DVD release includes the excellent feature documentary, The Man You Loved to Hate (1980) -- which tells the story of Von Stroheim's roller coaster life and career -- and a commentary track by biographer Richard Koszarski.

In 2013, Kino Lorber released a Blu-ray version, with most of the same extras as on the 2003 DVD. The original source material is pretty scratched up, and the quality is not all it might have been, but it's probably about the best we can expect; it looks like a projected film print, without any video pixelation.

In 2023, Flicker Alley released a beautifully restored Blu-ray edition, with bonus DVD, with help from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. For a 100-year-old film, it looks amazing, with rich film grain apparent. Subtitles are offered in Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Galician. The many bonuses include a brief, 2-minute "behind-the-scenes" featurette from the time, a 38-minute short about the film's locations, a 15-minute documentary on the making of the film hosted by MOMA curator and former film critic Dave Kehr, a look at the restoration of the film (13 minutes), a comparison of the source prints, a restoration demo, photo galleries, publicity stills, and images from a French novelization of the film, from 1923. There's also a 24-page liner notes booklet to top things off. This is Highly Recommended.

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