Constellation of Genius: Erich von Stroheim’s silent cinema epic, Foolish Wives

Count with Mrs Hughes

I thought it would take a bit of effort and fortitude to sit through two and a half hours of silent 1922 cinema, but actually it turned out to be an enjoyable experience. The film in question was Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives, and I was watching it on the anniversary of its release on January 11th, in support of my journey through Kevin Jackson’s Constellation of Genius (Hutchinson) – a book that charts in chronological order, the year that Jackson describes as ‘year one of the modernist movement’.

If two and a half hours seems excessive, then it could have been a whole lot worse. The original version ran for over six hours before it was pared down to a more manageable size. And in this new era of epic cinema von Stroheim very much seemed to be the Steven Spielberg or the Quentin Tarantino of his day, insisting on creating mammoth films both in terms of length and budget, and much to the angst of the producers. In his next project The-Merry-Go-Round (1923), he was replaced when costs threatened to run out of hand, and his next production after that, an adaptation Frank Norris’s novel McTeague, became a behemoth of nine hours in length before it was wrestled out of his hands and cut down to a more digestible size.

von Stroheim as Count KaramzinSo von Stroheim was a bit of a character alright, and he certainly plays a bit of a character in Foolish Wives, in the role of Count Sergius Karamzin. He’s not a real count though, rather he’s a despicable trickster who lures rich and influential women with his charm (boo!!!), in order to fund a lavish and ‘circulating in high society’ lifestyle in Monte Carlo, with his two cousins, who pose as fake princesses. It’s a part that seems to fit the vain and egotistical von Stroheim perfectly. In Constellation of Genius Jackson refers to von Stroheim as being ‘intensely narcissistic’ in his role as the count, and he’s not wrong. Present in every scene, von Stroheim seems to be as much the strutting peacock outside of his character, as he is heinous inside it. He fills the part well though, and I can imagine cinema audiences booing at the screen with tireless enthusiasm, if they did such a thing in 1922.

The plot itself is engaging, if not a little linear and predictable. Keen to reinforce their standing in the Monte Carlo scene, the fake count, with help and encouragement from and his cousins, decides to lure the wife of dignitary (Mrs. Hughes) into falling for him. He succeeds, and the rest of the film tracks this man’s dastardly deeds as he not only tries to seduce the poor woman, but trick her out of money too. But it doesn’t end there. The crooked count has promised himself to another too – his maid of all people – and significantly it’s this relationship, and something even more heinous, that contributes towards his downfall.

'Monte Carlo' at night

As far as to how ‘modernist’ this film is I’m not sure. I don’t know enough about modernist cinema to know if Foolish Wives is pushing too far into the new boundaries of what would be described as modernist. The film is certainly lavish enough, with von Stroheim putting in every effort to push the cost of production as high as possible. However, I think the expenditure – the first real million dollar picture the film poster proudly tells us – was worth it, as we are treated to some quite spectacular wide lingering shots of Monte Carlo streets and casino interiors, which were all apparently constructed in replica form, as Jackson tells us, in California.

The cinematics are quite special too, in parts. The action when it happens – such as when the Count and Mrs Hughes are stuck out in a ferocious storm, and when a fire threatens to engulf a villa – is fast moving and exciting, and there are some clever lighting effects at play at other points in the film that seem quite revolutionary and different.

Modernist or not, it’s clear to tell from watching Foolish Wives that it would have had quite an effect on cinema audiences at the start of 1922, and with it being the first million dollar cinema production, and the first major cinema release of the year, then it was certainly nourishing the seeds of modernism that were beginning to germinate in this landmark year, if nothing else.

Overall, do I think this film is a success? Absolutely. On the face of it silent cinema doesn’t have a lot to offer a modern film buff who’s used to wall-to-wall action and pumping special effects, and yet I felt as every bit engaged with Foolish Wives as I have with any sfx loaded modern day epic that I’ve seen. And this is down solely to story, and with silent cinema, story is about all there is to offer. And while Foolish Wives is perhaps as formulaic story-wise as it’s possible to get i.e. despicable character begins to profit from his evil ways before getting his comeuppance, the overplayed acting of von Stroheim, the extravagant sets, the subtle humour, and some genuinely tender moments i.e. when Mrs. Hughes realises she’s been unkind to a war veteran after he refused to act the gentleman and pick up items she dropped, all combine to create a film that’s worth the effort in watching. So block out an afternoon, and go and treat yourself.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).

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