The first million dollar movie: restoring Erich von Stroheim’s monumental Foolish Wives

One hundred years after its original release, Erich von Stroheim’s glitteringly debauched Riviera saga is back on screen in a painstaking restoration. Ahead of its premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, we spoke to Robert Byrne, who led the project.

14 September 2022

By Bryony Dixon

Foolish Wives (1922) © MoMA
London Film Festival

They don’t come badder than Erich von Stroheim’s fraudulent, predatory Russian count, who seduces his way through a lavishly realised Monte Carlo in Hollywood’s first million-dollar movie, 1922’s Foolish Wives.

Following his 1919 debut Blind Husbands, von Stroheim wrote, directed and starred in what he originally envisaged as a six-hour Zola-esque saga, with lavish Riviera sets built on the California coast. But he was obliged by Universal to squeeze his ambitions into a more conventional feature film format, and the surviving print was cut further for an ultimately abandoned 1928 re-release.

It’s this version that has been intelligently restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and MoMA, who have returned the original sequencing, tinting and intertitles to give us the best possible impression of this extraordinary director’s vision, and his startlingly sleazy performance.

Ahead of the restoration’s UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Bryony Dixon, the BFI’s curator of silent film, spoke to Robert Byrne, film restorer and president of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

What makes Foolish Wives worth seeing 100 years later?

It’s all about Erich von Stroheim, a larger than life actor-director whose entire Hollywood career and persona were based on a character he invented for himself; a debonair cavalry officer from the upper echelons of Viennese society. 

The film reflects this imposture; it’s all based around a fictitious book, the ‘Foolish Wives’ of the title, which seems to be a cautionary tale for American women against falling for the old-world sophisticate with his refined tastes and charming manners. It’s a kind of companion piece to Blind Husbands, and similarly deals with the superficial world of the leisured classes, with seduction and deception. 

So the subject has an immediate draw, and the principal character played by von Stroheim himself is fabulous; a real scoundrel who enjoys preying on the weak and the credulous. There is really nothing he won’t do to assuage his sordid appetites. This makes for some outstanding scenes. For example, having taken refuge in a during a stormy deluge, he gallantly turns his back while a woman undresses – and then leeringly watches over his shoulder using a pocket mirror.

Foolish Wives (1922)
San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The history of the making of the film is fascinating. It was intended to be a detailed story, hours long, a bit like his most famous film Greed (1924), but similarly it was cut and cut by the studio to fit what they saw as an inflexible commercial format. That narrative of the prima donna director unwilling to compromise his genius has led some to assume he was not a good filmmaker who couldn’t plan his storytelling in the conventionally structured way. Do you think that’s true?

Not at all. He was a great filmmaker and it was entirely deliberate; he kept doing this. If you look at Greed, which is based on a slenderish novel, McTeague, you see that he was genuinely interested in a very intricate treatment of his subject. The kind of detail he brought to his acting performances reinforces this. Perhaps it’s the refinement he so admired in those aristocratic Europeans he impersonated. 

Of course nowadays he could make it a 13-parter for Netflix.

Well exactly. He is very like Abel Gance – of Napoleon (1927) fame – in that respect. They were both visionaries who tried to bend the industry to their vision with mixed success. They both liked to make long, strongly written, very detailed films with high production value, beautiful sets and costumes.

Contemporary advertisement for Foolish Wives (1922)
Robert Byrne

Hollywood was very resistant to directors who wanted to make three-hour films. There were very few – D.W. Griffith, De Mille maybe, later Coppola…

Yes, and they really had to prove themselves first. So the version of Foolish Wives that was released in 1922 was far from Stroheim’s original vision. He had gone far over budget. The studio Paramount eventually made a virtue of the overspend by marketing it as “the first million dollar movie”. And there is a level of choppiness caused by the editing down, things that would have been better paced, side characters that would have been better rounded and so on. 

For the restoration did you have complete material to work from?

Far from it! The original 1922 US release version is lost. We were working principally from two sources. The first was a 1928 re-release, which was re-edited, retitled and probably prepared for reissue with a synchronised score. This was the year in America when sound film became predominant. In the end it was shelved and this was the print that Iris Barry acquired for the Museum of Modern Art collection.

The second source was an original Italian release print held in the Milan Archive, which had some extra material including the famous fire scene which is the climax of the film. The original intertitles were reconstructed through some real detective work from a variety of documents: censor records, scripts, a contemporary article on the poetic titling of the film and a music cue sheet. 

Foolish Wives (1922)
San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The results are astounding, especially given this complex history. What really comes through is his vaulting ambition. What are your favourite bits? What should people look for? 

Always a tough question, but I like the scene where Stroheim’s fraudulent and foppish cavalry officer shows almost superhuman strength and determination in an apocalyptic storm, carrying a woman, the object of his seduction, through the flood waters. The quality of the lighting is stunning. 

I also find myself admiring the performance of Maude George, playing the role of Princess Olga Petchnikoff. She commands the screen almost as much as Stroheim and she’s the perfect complement to Stroheim’s Count Sergius Karamzin. And of course there is the endless cavalcade of Stroheimian touches: religious iconography, uniforms, gardenias, mourning bands, amputees, military protocols, and a litany of proclivities and fetishes that would astound even the most jaded psychoanalyst.

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