Erich von Stroheim
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Erich von Stroheim (September 22, 1885 – May 12, 1957) was a filmmaker and actor, noted for his arrogant Teutonic character parts. As an actor, he became known as "The Man You Love to Hate" because of the many villains he played. Hervé Bazin nicknamed him "the Marquis de Sade of film".
Stroheim's most recent biographers such as Richard Koszarski say that he was born in Vienna, Austria in 1885 as Erich Oswald Stroheim, the son of Benno Stroheim, a middle-class hat-maker, and Johanna Bondy, both of whom were practicing Jews.
Stroheim himself claimed to be Count Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim und Nordenwall, the son of Austrian nobility like the characters he played in his films, but both Billy Wilder and Stroheim's agent Paul Kohner claimed that he spoke with a decidedly lower-class Austrian accent. However Jean Renoir writes in his memoirs: “Stroheim spoke hardly any German. He had to study his lines like a schoolboy learning a foreign language.” Later, while living in Europe, Stroheim claimed in published remarks to have "forgotten" his native tongue.
Stroheim was a great fantasist and his authorized biography contains many factual errors.
By 1914 he was working in Hollywood. He began working in movies in bit-parts and as a consultant on German culture and fashion. His first film, in 1915, was The Country Boy in which he was uncredited. His first credited role came in Old Heidelberg.
He began working with D. W. Griffith, taking uncredited roles in Intolerance. Later, he played the sneering German in such films as Sylvia of the Secret Service and The Hun Within. In The Heart of Humanity, he tore the buttons from a nurse's uniform with his teeth, and when disturbed by a crying baby, threw it out a window.
Following the end of the First World War, Stroheim turned to writing and then directed his own script for Blind Husbands in 1919. He also stared in the film. As a director, Stroheim was known to be dictatorial and demanding, often antagonizing his actors. He is considered one of the greatest directors of the silent era, representing on film his by turns cynical and romantic views of human nature.
His next directorial efforts were the lost film The Devil's Passkey (1919) and Foolish Wives (1922), in which he also starred. The studio publicity for the Foolish Wives claimed that it was the first film to cost one million dollars.
In 1923, Stroheim began work on his next film Merry-Go-Round. He cast the American actor Norman Kerry in a part written for himself 'Count Franz Maximilian Von Hohenegg' and newcomer Mary Philbin in the lead actress role. However studio executive Irving Thalberg fired Von Stroheim during filming and replaced him with director Rupert Julian.
Probably Stroheim's most famous work as a director is Greed, a detailed filming of the novel McTeague by Frank Norris. Stroheim filmed and originally edited a nine-hour version of the story, shot mostly at the locations described in the book in San Francisco and Death Valley. After his attempts to cut it to less than three hours were rejected by the studio, MGM cut the film to a little over two hours, and, in what is considered one of the greatest losses in cinema history, destroyed the excess footage. The shortened release version was a box-office failure, and was angrily disowned by Stroheim. The film was partially reconstructed in 1999, using the existing footage mixed with surviving still photographs, but Greed has passed into cinema lore as a lost masterpiece.
Stroheim's next films were the commercial project The Merry Widow (his most commercially successful film) and the more personal The Wedding March and the now-lost The Honeymoon.
Stroheim's unwillingness or inability to modify his artistic principles for the commercial cinema, his extreme attention to detail and the resulting costs of his films led to fights with the studios, and as time went on he received fewer directing opportunities.
In 1929 Stroheim was dismissed as the director of the film Queen Kelly after disagreements with star Gloria Swanson and producer and financier Joseph P. Kennedy over the mounting costs of the film and the introduction by Stroheim of indecent subject matter into the film's scenario.
After Queen Kelly and Walking Down Broadway, a project from which Stroheim was also dismissed, Stroheim became principally an actor, working in both the United States and France. He is perhaps best known as an actor for his role as von Rauffenstein in Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion and as Max von Mayerling in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. For the latter film, which co-starred Gloria Swanson, Stroheim was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The Mayerling character states that he used to be one of the three great directors of the silent era, along with D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille; many film critics agree that Stroheim was indeed one of the great early directors.
In the 1932 movie The Lost Squadron he parodied his image when he starred as a detail-obsessed German film director who tells soldier extras, that when they are "dead" they are to stay dead!
In 1939 Stroheim was working on a project in which he was to direct a film in France called "La Dame Blanche" which was to star Louis Jouvet and Jean-Louis Barrault. The production of the film, however, was interrupted by the war and the film was never made.
Stroheim was married several times, the last time shortly before his death, to actress Denise Vernac, who had been his longtime secretary and companion, and who starred with him in several films.
Stroheim spent the last part of his life in France where his silent film work was much admired by artists in the French film industry. In France he acted in films, wrote several novels that were published in French, and worked on various unrealized film projects. He was awarded the French Légion d'honneur shortly before his death in 1957 in Maurepas, France at the age of 71.
Filmography (as Director)
- Blind Husbands (1919)
- The Devil's Passkey (1920)
- Foolish Wives (1922)
- Merry-Go-Round (1923)
- Greed (1924)
- The Merry Widow (1925)
- The Wedding March (1928)
- The Honeymoon (1928)
- Queen Kelly (1929)
- Walking Down Broadway aka Hello, Sister (1933)
- Paprika, The Macaulay Company (New York, 1935) and Thornton Butterworth, Limited (London, 1935)
- Les Feux de la Saint-Jean, I ("Veronica"), Andre Martel, ed. (Paris, 1951), "Traduit de l'americain par Renee Nitzschke"
- Les Feux de la Saint-Jean, II ("Constanzia"), Andre Martel, ed. (Paris, 1954), "Traduit de l'americain par Renee Nitzschke"
- Poto Poto, Editions de la Fontaine (Paris, 1956), "Traduit de l'americain par Renee Nitzschke," preface by Blaise Cendrars
- Blind Husbands (1918) (Universal)
- The Devil's Passkey (1919) (Universal)
- Foolish Wives (1920) (Universal)
- Merry-Go-Round (1921) (Universal)
- The Wedding March (1926) (Paramount)
- Queen Kelly (1927) (Gloria Productions)
- Poto Poto (1927) (unpublished)
- Tempest (1928) (United Artists)
- East of the Setting Sun (1928) (unpublished)
- Walking Down Broadway (1932) (20th Century Fox)
- I'll be Waiting For You (1951) (unpublished)
"Lubitsch shows you first the king on the throne, then as he is in the bedroom. I show you the king in the bedroom so you'll know just what he is when you see him on his throne."
"If you live in France, for instance, and you have written one good book, or painted one good picture, or directed one outstanding film fifty years ago and nothing else since, you are still recognized and honored accordingly. People take their hats off to you and call you "maitre". They do not forget. In Hollywood --in Hollywood, you're as good as your last picture. If you didn't have one in production within the last three months, you're forgotten, no matter what you have achieved ere this."