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 BBC.

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 Tamalpais.

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 for divorce.

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 Ghosts and 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 production of 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 Norma Talmadge's The Social Secretary.

von Stroheim returned to Hollywood, making Flying Torpedo and Macbeth for 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 'fussy perfectionism.'

After 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 making.'

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 the window.

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 renamed 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 Foolish Wives. 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 big-budget film, 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 Greed is 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 box-office failure.

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 direct 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 her career.

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 fired.

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 Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion and Billy Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo. In 1950 he came back to the U.S. to star in another Wilder picture, Sunset Boulevard, also starring Gloria Swanson.

Erich von Stroheim died May 12, 1957 in Maurepas France.

This page has been given a 3 star rating thanks to votes from readers. You can vote for it by selecting the vote icon to the right of this text. This means you are selecting it as a site you consider worthwhile to recommend to others.

Glen Pringle /
Kally Mavromatis /
Copyright © 1997,1999 by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis
ISSN 1329-4431