Erich von Stroheim - Silent Star of October, 1997
by Kally Mavromatis
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 ever since, you are still recognized as an
artist and honored accordingly. People take off their hats 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..
- Erich von Stroheim, part of an eulogy for D.W. Griffith, given to the
He was right, of course; Hollywood is full of stories of directors who,
despite their talents and achievements were consigned to the scrap heap.
- Griffith, Ingram, Porter, and Erich von Stroheim.
When the German steamer Price Friedrich Wilhelm arrived in New York
harbor November 25, 1909, he was Erich Oswald Stroheim, 2nd son of Johanna
and Benno Stroheim, a Jewish hat dealer and manufacturer. By the time
he got to Immigration, however, he was Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von
Stroheim, son of a German Baroness and Austrian Count, a decorated
graduate from the Military Academy at Wienerneustadt.
His first job was wrapping packages for the holidays at the
Simpson-Crawford department store, afterwards working a variety of
menial jobs. According to another of von Stroheim's personal legends,
it was during this period, living in a ramshackle hotel, that he found a
copy of Frank Norris' novel McTeague. With nothing better to do, he
read the book, reading it all in one night. Regardless of its genesis,
the idea of bringing McTeague to the screen became an obsession.
Although inspired with the idea of making films, practicality won out,
and von Stroheim got a job as travelling salesman for the Max Grab
Fashion Company, an import house. Troubles at the home office, however,
left von Stroheim stranded in San Francisco, and in 1912 he began
working at The West Point Inn, a tavern at the summit of Mount
While working at the tavern he met his first wife, Margaret Knox, and in
a daring move for 1912 moved in with her. Knox acted as a sort of
mentor to von Stroheim, teaching him language and literature and
encouraging him to write. Under Knox's tutelage he wrote a novella
entitled In the Morning, with themes that anticipated his films:
corrupt aristocracy and innocence debased.
He and Knox were married February 19, 1913, but money woes drove von
Stroheim to deep depressions and terrible temper tantrums, which he took
out on Knox. Not long after Margaret left him, and in May of 1914 filed
von Stroheim retreated to Lake Tahoe working as a mountain guide,
where he won the admiration and eventual financial support of Emma
Bissinger, wife of a wealthy San Francisco merchant. With her $500 von
Stroheim made his way to Hollywood, winding up as an extra for
The Birth of A Nation.
von Stroheim was never as a close a confidante of Griffith's, never even
making it into Griffith's 'inner circle.' But unlike many who worked
for 'the Master,' von Stroheim was deeply impressed by Griffith's
attention to detail, his insistence on character development and sense
of realism in his films. von Stroheim considered himself to be
Griffith's true heir, himself becoming legendary in his zeal for
authenticity in every frame of his films.
But that was still to come, and after
The Birth of A Nation von Stroheim, along with
hundreds of other hopefuls, haunted the studios looking for work. He
took bit parts in
The Failure, which brought him some attention. He
won his first real part as the villain in Farewell to Thee, a
part that he played to the hilt.
During his many studio hauntings, in 1915 von Stroheim came to the
attention of Broadway director John Emerson, whose wife,
Anita Loos, was a long-time scenarist for Griffith. For Emerson's
Old Heidelberg, von Stroheim was
actor, assistant, and technical advisor for him, an alliance that
lasted for two years.
Not very well documented during this period is von Stroheim's second
marriage to Mae Jones, a seamstress and dressmaker. The marriage was
brief, but produced one son, Erich von Stroheim Jr.
After Old Heidelberg von Stroheim accompanied Emerson to New York to
assist with two more pictures, Douglas Fairbanks.
His Picture in the Papers and
The Social Secretary.
von Stroheim returned to Hollywood, making
Flying Torpedo and
Triangle/Fine Arts. Having gained something of a reputation as 'the
evil Hun,' and with the nation's anti-German hysteria growing, to
supplement his income from bit parts von Stroheim obtained work as a
'technical advisor' for films.
Remembered by Griffith, von Stroheim was delighted to once again
work for the Master in
Intolerance as bit actor and
assistant director, supervising segments of the crowd during mass
action scenes. Again, von Stroheim would marvel and admire Griffith's
Intolerance von Stroheim returned to New
York to again work with Emerson, working on Mary Pickford's
Less Than The Dust and with Allan Dwan
on Norma Talmadge's
Panthea. In 1917
Douglas Fairbanks signed Emerson for all of his films,
but due to his 'German-sounding' name von Stroheim went uncredited on
such films as
In Again, Out Again, and
Wild and Woolly.
von Stroheim continued playing bit parts in 1917, continuing as the
'evil Hun' in Vitagraph's
For France, Metro's
Draft 258, and Edison's
The Unbeliever, as well as
consulting for George Fitzmaurice on
Sylvia of the Secret Service and Griffith's
Hearts of the World. Even though this would be the last
time he was to work with Griffith, throughout his life von Stroheim
considered himself a 'graduate of the D.W. Griffith school of film
In 1919 von Stroheim was at Universal for
The Heart of Humanity. 'The Man You Love to Hate'
was again the villain, displaying touches that later were to became his
trademark. Particularly memorable is the rape scene, where von
Stroheim, irritated by the screams of the woman's baby, throws it out
While at Universal, von Stroheim became obsessed with showing studio
head Carl Laemmle his screenplay, The Pinnacle, even going so
far as to camp out at Laemmle's home. The ploy eventually worked, and
von Stroheim was given the go-ahead to film the script. Eventually
Blind Husbands, the 1919 film was a
success. It was classic von Stroheim, with his sophisticated approach
to sex and seduction in a Continental setting, themes and motifs that
became his trademark.
His next films,
The Devil´s Passkey, and
Foolish Wives, continued to explore the same 'sexual
triangle' theme, including the subtle, witty, and ironic touches that
marked von Stroheim's work. The success of
The Devil´s Passkey (now a lost film) convinced
Laemmle to give von Stroheim the helm for what was to be Universal's
most lavish production to date, 1922's
Von Stroheim's dedication to detail nearly derailed the production, and
foreshadowed his troubles with Greed. Determined that the film's
setting, Monte Carlo, should be meticulously reproduced down to the
minutest detail, von Stroheim spent nearly one year and over $1,000,000
filming the picture.
During the filming of
Foolish Wives, von Stroheim
ran up against the newly hired production executive, Irving Thalberg.
Alarmed at the continually mounting bill, Thalberg called a halt to
production, although not until most of the shooting had been
completed. In its final form, the film ran seven hours; heavy editing
brought the film down to seven or eight reels.
Despite the troubles with the production and the director,
Foolish Wives was both a critical and commercial
success, and in 1923 Universal assigned von Stroheim to another
Merry-Go-Round. This time, when
costs began escalating Thalberg acted quickly, firing von Stroheim
after five weeks of shooting. Rupert Julian was called
in to finish the film, but the difference between the two directors was
markedly noticeable in the final film.
Merry-Go-Round brought von Stroheim's association
with Universal to a grinding halt. Despite his reputation for
'excess,' he was able to sign with the Goldwyn Company, announcing his
intention to bring to film the Frank Norris. novel McTeague.
The filming and cutting of
the stuff of legends, and indeed the complete, uncut, 9-hour version of
the film has become something of a 'Holy Grail' among film fans.
Nonetheless, the film, with its unrelenting view of the effect of greed
on human nature, was too grim for audiences of 1925, and the film was a
Adding to von Stroheim's chagrin was the reappearance of his nemesis,
Irving Thalberg, now production chief at the newly merged Metro-Goldwyn
Company. von Stroheim was given one last chance, and was assigned to
The Merry Widow, starring Mae Murray
and John Gilbert. Despite the strained atmosphere, the
film was a box-office success, with Murray gaining the best notices of
On the strength of the success of
The Merry Widow,
von Stroheim was given the opportunity to film another project,
The Wedding March. Once again, von Stroheim's
propensity for authenticism got him fired, and this time for good.
In 1928 von Stroheim was hired by Gloria Swanson and
her backer Joseph P. Kennedy, to direct a film for Swanson's own
production company. The film,
Queen Kelly, was
written by von Stroheim and featured Swanson as an orphan who is
seduced by the Queen's fiancee. As filming progressed, and the
storyline grew darker, Swanson walked off the set and von Stroheim was
Queen Kelly was to be his last directorial effort. 1932's
Walking Down Broadway, his last chance, was never completed,
ironically not due to von Stroheim. In 1936 he left for France,
leaving behind wife Valerie and sons Erich Jr. and Josef.
The rest of his career was spent writing two novels, touring in a
production of Arsenic and Old Lace, and appearing in small roles in
Europe and the U.S. Particularly notable were his roles in
La Grande Illusion and
Five Graves to Cairo.
In 1950 he came back to the U.S. to star in another Wilder picture,
Sunset Boulevard, also starring
Erich von Stroheim died May 12, 1957 in Maurepas France.
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Kally Mavromatis /
Copyright © 1997,1999
by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis