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With: Erich von Stroheim, Fay Wray, Matthew Betz, Zasu Pitts, George Fawcett, Maude George, George Nichols, Dale Fuller, Hughie Mack, Cesare Gravina, Sidney Bracey, Anton Vaverka
Written by: Harry Carr, Erich von Stroheim
Directed by: Erich von Stroheim
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 113
Date: 10/06/1928

The Wedding March (1928)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Here Comes the Bribe

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Wedding March was yet another example of Erich von Stroheim's unfettered genius being lashed and tamed by those with all the money. It was meant to have been another many-houred epic (if Stroheim were making films today, perhaps he'd be doing mini-series?) but the studio balked, and forced him to split his work into two films. The second film, reportedly entitled The Honeymoon, was lost years ago. So all that remains is this two-hour masterpiece, which feels surprisingly complete. Its sequences are all mirrored, and it comes to a satisfying full circle. I had been wanting to see this movie for decades, and now it will be screened Saturday, May 4, 2019 at the annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

The film, essentially a love quadrangle, centers on four characters in Vienna, said to be reminiscent of the place in which Stroheim grew up. Stroheim himself plays Prince Nickolas von Wildeliebe-Rauffenburg (he had a love for long names), or "Nicki" for short. He's the son of an aristocratic family that keeps up appearances but, in actuality, has no money. He asks his father for a loan to pay some debts, and the advice he receives is either to commit suicide or marry money. His parents decide to set him up with Cecelia Schweisser (Zasu Pitts, also in Stroheim's Greed), an undesirable girl — she has an unbecoming limp — whose family does have lots of cash.

Meanwhile, during a showy procession, Nicki spots the lovely Mitzi (Fay Wray) in the crowd, and they instantly fall for one another. But Mitzi is saddled with the rough, grotesque butcher Schani Eberle (Matthew Betz), who tries to impress his date by buying her flowers while sausage links dangle from his mouth. But the procession goes wrong, and amidst the chaos of noise and bucking horses, Mitzi is injured and whisked away in an ambulance. Stroheim then shows us the procession that Mitzi missed, in rare two-strip Technicolor.

After her accident, Mitzi walks with a cane, mirroring Cecelia's limp. Nicki discovers that Mitzi plays harp at her parents' restaurant; additionally, Schani appears to butcher pigs on the premises for the diners' meals. Nicki romances Mitzi under the restaurant's luminous, dangling apple blossom trees, lit seemingly from within, like millions of tiny beautiful bulbs, some of which fall like snow. This is immediately juxtaposed with Schani in his butcher shop, working under hanging cuts of raw meat; the perturbed butcher saws a hunk off and gnaws on it when he discovers the news of Nicki's flirting. Finally, the movie's final act brilliantly mirrors the opening procession, but with the opposite effect, leaving us with a sense of perfect inevitability.

Stroheim was known for his attempts at realism, with a focus on mise-en-scene rather than montage, and Andrew Sarris writes in The American Cinema that this film has no camera movements in it. That's actually wrong; there are several sublime pull-backs, tilts, and even what appears to be a crane shot in the opening, establishing the cityscape. Moreover, Stroheim employed many bizarre, specifically non-real flourishes, such as during the notorious drunken orgy sequence; a drunken man sees double and triple images spinning around. At the wedding itself, the hands playing the march on the organ occasionally turn into skeleton hands! (This reminded me of the thin, gnarly hands clawing at the pile of gold in Greed.)

Not to mention, there is the procession itself, with Stroheim bedecked in an opulent uniform and headgear, perched above on his horse, while Mitzi is jostled among the commoners below. Stroheim's cutting during this sequence, as well as the performances during the close-ups, are sublime, and proved that he was just as adapt at montage as he was at mise-en-scene. And, yes, while Stroheim was often cast as a kind of hard loony, especially in horror films in the 1930s after his directing career ended, he was keenly aware of his screen presence, and was capable of small gestures as well as grand ones. The lovely Wray is quite potent here, Pitts is touching, and Betz conjures loathing just by adjusting his hat.

The current school of critical thought is that The Wedding March is a minor Stroheim effort, but I find it to be one of his most complete and most satisfying films. He's a filmmaker that deserves continuous re-assessment. His persistence was relentless, his vision lunatic; during the lovemaking scene under the apple blossoms, the characters also sit beneath a life-size sculpture of crucified Jesus; immediately following, climbing into a carriage, Nicki sits on a bent nail! There are only nine confirmed films as director on his resume (one of them, The Devil's Pass Key, is lost), most of them dealing with the pursuit of money or the pitfalls of marriage, and most of them incomplete in some way, but he remains one of the most fascinating, fiercely personal filmmakers of all time, perhaps on a level with Orson Welles. His struggles in the name of cinema are something to admire.

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