26 February 2003 | tom.hamilton
A stately affair
History paints Erich Von Stroheim as the great misunderstood genius, the `footage fetishist' whose grandiose films were too ahead of their time & too ambitious for producers with their `nickel and dime' mentalities. Irving Thalberg emerges as a major villain in this saga, sacking him first from Universal in the midst of shooting Merry Go Round, then hacking apart his masterpiece Greed over at MGM before sacking him again from The Merry Widow. By 26/7 Von Stroheim was running out of major studios to work for. Fortunately Merry Widow was a hit and he won backing from Pat Powers at Paramount for a two part epic critique of royalty. Only the first part survives, an executive changeover at Paramount occurred and new boss, B.P. Schulberg, took fright at the expense and failure of Part 1 and quickly dumped Part 2 on the European market where it vanished permanently. Von Stroheim was ostracized by the major studios and after two further abortive projects (Queen Kelly and Walking Down Broadway) he never directed again.
Whilst it's impossible not to feel sympathy with a man whose vision was too much for the industry of his time, the films themselves are often overloaded with details and appear stiff and pedantic when compared with the contemporary work of Vidor, Murnau, Lubitsch, Von Sternberg or DeMille. A good example of this is the scene where Fay Wray first sees Von Stroheim's prince. Partly filmed in 2-color Technicolor, this is a pleasure on the eyes, but an incident which should play out in 3 or 4 minutes is here stretched out to about 15. That would be fine if it was an isolated incidence or a dramatic high point, but this is the pacing Von Stroheim employs throughout. Whilst the result is impressive and strangely hypnotic, `Von Stroheim' time feels much slower than real time and the two hours of this film felt closer to three. Mannered as this is in a silent film, this style would've been painful indeed if attempted in sound.
Von Stroheim's direction reminds me of the theatrical producer Gordon Craig who in the early 20th century attempted to reproduce realism on stage with fully plumbed and working interior sets, real trees, gravel and soil for outside settings etc, even utilising giant tanks of water in which to stage shipboard scenes. Real objects are on stage, yes. but doesn't this miss the point of an audience engaging with players and text to create their own realism? Another result of this is an oddly dehumanizing one, as our attention is distracted from the interplay of characters by the piling on of detail. That for me is the basic problem with Von Stroheim Not to say Von Stroheim wasn't a great film maker, as Greed definitely proves. But I can't help feeling the cutting helped Greed more than hurt it. The recent TCM restoration, while fascinating and something to be grateful for, only serves to illustrate this, and in Wedding March we see just how indulgent the Von could become.
Choosing himself as leading man didn't help either. In The Merry Widow, John Gilbert was able to engage the audience through his charm and charisma. However here, Von Stroheim's impoverished Prince looks rather villainous and appears both cold hearted and kinky - not an endearing combination. He mostly gives a statue-like performance and only Fay Wray, vibrantly fresh and beautiful, engages us emotionally.
Admittedly the story becomes more gripping in the last half hour or so, and the ending (a surprisingly bitter one) made me wish the 2nd Part had survived.
It's definitely worth seeing, both as cinema and for what it tells us of this fascinating figure, but once is enough.