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Arthur Lennig
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 574
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Erich von Stroheim (1885-1957) was one of the giants in American film history. Stubborn, arrogant, and colorful, he saw himself as a cinema artist, which led to conflicts with producers and studio executives who complained about the inflated budgets and extraordinary length of his films. Stroheim achieved great notoriety and success, but he was so uncompromising that he turned his triumph into failure. He was banned from ever directing again and spent his remaining years as an actor. Stroheim's life has been wreathed in myths, many of his own devising. Arthur Lennig scoured European and American archives for details concerning the life of the actor and director, and he counters several long-accepted claims. Stroheim's tales of military experience are almost completely fictitious; the ""von"" in his name was an affectation adopted at Ellis Island in 1909; and, counter to his own claim, he did not participate in the production of The Birth of a Nation in 1914. Wherever Stroheim lived, he was an outsider: a Jew in Vienna, an Austrian in southern California, an American in France. This contributed to an almost pathological need to embellish and obscure his past; yet, it also may have been the key to his genius both behind and in front of the camera. As an actor, Stroheim threw himself into his portrayals of evil men, relishing his epithet, ""The Man You Love to Hate."" As a director, he immersed himself in every facet of production, including script writing and costume design. In 1923 he created his masterpiece Greed, infamous for its eight-hour running time. Stroheim returned to acting, saving some of his finest performances for La Grande Illusion (1937) and Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950), a role he hated, probably because it was too similar to the story of his own life.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7125-8
    Subjects: History, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Fade-in
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xviii)
  5. 1 Beginnings
    (pp. 1-23)

    Erich don Stroheim was no mere mortal. To speak of his birthdate, family, schooling, or personal life is to succumb to facts. What is extraordinary about this man is the fiction, a fiction more real than reality. After he left Vienna at age twenty-four to come to America, he foundered for years in poverty and failure, one disappointment following another. His sense of destiny, however, gave him the strength to persevere, for when happenstance and hunger brought him to the fledgling movie industry, he not only found his métier, but soon grew to master it. Where else but in the...

  6. 2 The Ascent
    (pp. 24-58)

    The year 1914 proved no better for the hopeful Erich von Stroheim than the previous ones in America, but soon his fate would change. Stroheim claimed as early as 1919 that he became a lifeguard at Lake Tahoe during the summer of 1914. Even this was probably an exaggeration. More likely, his function was rowing tourists around the lake. One day, he met an affluent woman to whom he confided his theatrical ambitions. Impressed by his enthusiasm and intelligence, she promised to help him. “When the summer season ended,” according to Curtiss, “Stroheim was told to take the 24 horses...

  7. 3 The Artist
    (pp. 59-100)

    Stroheim was hardly a youth when he embarked on his directorial career in 1919. At the age of thirty-three, he not only knew the lifestyles of two countries but also had been through two marriages, fatherhood, and four years at the heart of the film industry. He also harbored in his psyche a number of ideas—obsessions may be the better word—that would be part of all of his subsequent works.

    All major directors (perhaps minor ones, too, if we cared to notice) bring to their films a degree of individuality. The auteur theory is no fantasy. In Stroheim’s...

  8. 4 Blind Husbands
    (pp. 101-120)

    After Carl Laemmle said “I do” to Stroheim’s proposal forBlind Husbands,the fledgling director devoted all his time to smoothing out his shooting script and consulting with the set department. He had innumerable suggestions as to how the “village” ought to look. Although the exterior set was rather modest, it was a permanent one that would remain on the Universal lot for a number of years. Stroheim tried to make the interiors authentic by paying close attention to details: carved chairs, tablecloths, menu holders, posters on the walls, other furniture, and even the way the electric wiring was attached...

  9. 5 The Devil’s Pass Key
    (pp. 121-129)

    As soon asBlind husbandswas finished, Universal knew that it had a good picture, possibly a great one, and sensed that the film would do well at the box office. As a consequence, the studio encouraged Stroheim to begin on another. He had no screenplay at hand—his success had been that sudden—so he chose an unpublished story, “Clothes and Treachery,” by Mahra de Meyer, a woman of international connections who had managed to become a baroness.¹ This he transformed intoThe Devil’s Pass Key,² a film now totally lost.

    Even before Universal bought the story’s rights in...

  10. 6 Foolish Wives
    (pp. 130-155)

    After the critical and financial success ofBlind Husbandsand the satisfactory completion ofThe Devil’s Pass Key,Stroheim became the close-cropped but fair-haired boy at Universal. The studio announced in January 1920 that Stroheim’s next project would beMcTeague,starring Gibson Gowland, but this plan must have seemed of questionable practicality, for Frank Norris’s novel had never been a best seller and was, in fact, one of the most depressing books ever written.

    Temporarily putting aside his dream of showing the underbelly of American life, with which fate had made him well acquainted, Stroheim decided to continue depicting Europe...

  11. Photos
    (pp. None)
  12. 7 Merry-Go-Round
    (pp. 156-185)

    The history of each Stroheim film is a nightmare, butMerry-Go-Roundis perhaps the most difficult to discuss, not because of its intellectual complexity but because of its confused authorship. Stroheim’s other films—except forWalking down Broadway—were cut and mutilated by others, but at least he had done all the writing and filming.Merry-Go-Round,however, was not entirely his.

    Stroheim conceived the story ofMerry-Go-Roundin the late winter of 1922. Soon after, he consulted with Irving G. Thalberg, the new head of production at Universal. The youthful Thalberg was a sharp businessman who believed in organization, discipline,...

  13. 8 Greed
    (pp. 186-220)

    One day prior to 1919, Stroheim’s eye fell upon a book calledMcTeague: A Story of San Francisco,by Frank Norris. The subtitle may have attracted him, because he had lived in that area, but it was the content that held his attention. Here was a story that had guts, honesty, and drama, the very qualities he most admired. Although the novel had been filmed in five reels asLife’s Whirlpool(1916), it is doubtful that he ever saw it at that time.

    Norris, born in 1870 in Chicago to a well-off family, studied art in Paris in his teens,...

  14. 9 The Merry Widow
    (pp. 221-237)

    When Stroheim was fired fromMerry-Go-Roundin the fall of 1922, the Goldwyn Company was in the process of purchasing the rights to Franz Lehar’sThe Merry Widow,which had proved an extraordinary success since its 1905 premiere in Vienna. With a logic peculiar to Hollywood, the studio seemed to regard the operetta as having the potential of becoming a profitable silent film because of its familiar title and its music, which could be used as a background score, even though the lyrics, of course, would be lost. In early 1923, the studio announced proudly thatThe Merry Widowwould...

  15. 10 The Wedding March
    (pp. 238-260)

    Shortly after the end of shooting onThe Merry Widow,Stroheim ran across a major figure in Hollywood, Pat Powers, who many years before had been a partner of Carl Laemmle at Universal. As a result of his nasty habit of not letting anyone look at company books, Powers was severed from Universal and became an independent producer, eternally looking for a good “deal.” Initially, during the Patent Wars of the early teens, he had made his fortune supplying pirated cameras. By 1928, he again smelled easy money and became a purveyor of sound equipment based on rather dubious patents....

  16. Photos
    (pp. None)
  17. 11 The Honeymoon
    (pp. 261-272)

    The Honeymoonis a difficult film to assess for the simple reason that the sole remaining print was destroyed in 1957.The Devil’s Pass Keysuffered a similar fate, but this loss is the greater tragedy, for it was a portion of one of Stroheim’s greatest works. Fortunately, we can draw upon written and photographic material to convey at least some of its substance and effect.The Wedding Marchestablishes the plot and also acquaints us with the faces and personalities of the principal characters. Furthermore, we have a carefully delineated scenario as well as a cutting continuity that describes...

  18. 12 Queen Kelly
    (pp. 273-290)

    Although Stroheim’s artistic connection toThe Wedding Marchhad virtually terminated by August 1927, he was not a free agent. He remained under contract to his angry producer, Pat Powers, to make another picture, with an option for two more. In no way did Powers want to use Stroheim again, but he would not allow him to work for any other “of the half dozen companies who are seeking his services as director, writer, or actor,” saidHollywood Filmograph.¹ A generally smart operator, Powers could not understand how he had been so hoodwinked by the extravagant and irresponsible director. Feeling...

  19. 13 The Descent
    (pp. 291-314)

    The collapse ofQueen Kellyin January 1929 was more than just another unhappy event in Stroheim’s directing career. It heralded its end. Like the main character inBlind Husbands,he had fallen from the pinnacle, not to death, but to a life of continued disappointment. As if the superstitious man had broken a mirror, the next seven years would bring only bad luck—domestic problems, professional humiliation, and growing poverty.

    At first, the failure of theQueen Kellyproject seemed only a minor setback to Stroheim. However, as the months drew on, he began to realize that no producer...

  20. 14 Walking down Broadway
    (pp. 315-330)

    Stroheim’s well-publicized difficulties withThe Wedding MarchandQueen Kellyand the revocation of his agreement with Universal for a sound version ofBlind Husbandshad damaged his reputation as a director almost irrevocably. In the Hollywood film industry, a director is considered only as good as his last film, and Stroheim was rapidly fading. Although hardly forgotten, he was remembered as “difficult,” talented but profligate. Furthermore, with the coming of sound, numerous silent film directors were dropped, and a revolution in style, technique, and subject matter took place.

    The Fox Studio—which in 1930 had been wrested away from...

  21. 15 The Depths
    (pp. 331-360)

    Beset by financial worries and seemingly banished from directing, Stroheim grew more depressed and more desperate. Director Rouben Mamoulian related to me a strange story about Stroheim at this period. “It’s a tale in which I don’t particularly shine,” he said, “and which I am not proud of, but I’ll explain.”¹ In early 1933, when Mamoulian was castingThe Song of Songs,he needed a continental type and thought Stroheim would be ideal. He respected Stroheim very much and was anxious to meet him. However, he was a little reluctant to offer such a great talent a mere acting role....

  22. Photos
    (pp. None)
  23. 16 A Star in France
    (pp. 361-406)

    While Stroheim was slaving away in MGM’s script department in late 1936, having not acted for a major studio for over four years, he received an offer from France to play the typical evil German officer in a film about spies in the First World War calledMarthe Richard.Taking a leave of absence from MGM in late November 1936 and bidding farewell to his family (with whom he would never live again), he embarked for the continent and thus began a whole new life. As Stroheim later explained: “One cannot imagine what I went through in the making of...

  24. 17 America Again
    (pp. 407-436)

    Stroheim’s return to hollywood was not as a victor, but as a loser. The fame, notoriety, and respect that he had enjoyed in France were not to be encountered in a town where he was almost forgotten and that regarded him as a quaint relic from the heady silent days.

    The emotional strain of the flight, the trip across the country, and his arrival in Hollywood was compounded when he met with Valerie and Josef, who was by now sixteen years old. The meeting was perhaps cordial, maybe even more than cordial, but also awkward. There was still a mutual...

  25. 18 The Last Years
    (pp. 437-466)

    When Stroheim arrived in France on December 5, 1945, he hoped that his career of playing major roles in significant films would resume. But many changes had occurred during the war years. Because American pictures had been banned by the Nazis, and those made by the Fuehrer’s minions had not been popular during the occupation, the French industry itself actually did quite well. But after the war ended, American films again flooded the theaters and French production declined. Furthermore, the type of film that Stroheim could have appeared in waned. No one wanted to see spy stories from the First...

  26. Filmography
    (pp. 467-474)
  27. Notes
    (pp. 475-492)
  28. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 493-500)
  29. Index
    (pp. 501-515)