He was known as a genius. Then a madman. Then a historic relic of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  He was a director and an actor. He was unique.

Who was he?

Next week Joe is beginning a film series in Tucson, Az. —What makes a classic movie classic? If you’re in Tucson please check it out. If you have friends in Tucson please alert them. The discussion and screening will be held at Makerhouse in downtown Tucson.

For the first film in the series Joe has chosen Sunset Boulevard. It stars William Holden and Gloria Swanson. We’ve discussed the film in many previous entries, but today we want to highlight the third, and often overlooked star, Erich von Stroheim (left in the photo above)

The von Stroheim story is long and complicated but we’ll try and simplify things. He is now considered, in short, right up there with D.W. Griffith and Orson Welles in the ranks of Hollywood’s most independent and gifted iconoclasts. And, as with Griffith and Welles, the strength of his artistic personality engendered strong opinions in studio front offices, mostly negative.

Born in Vienna (as Erich Oswald Stroheim; the “von” came later) in 1885, von Stroheim emigrated to the U.S. in 1906, and found himself in Hollywood at the beginning of World War I. Interestingly, he latched on to Griffith, serving as the great man’s assistant and as an actor in bit parts in Birth of A Nation and Intolerance.

Never concealing his ambition to be a director, von Stroheim convinced Universal Pictures mogul Carl Laemmle to let him take on the direction of his own screenplay (with a part for himself as Lt. Erich von Steuben, a prototype of the fastidious, strong hearted military man that von Stroheim later played to perfection). The picture was 1919’s Blind Husbands, and two more Universal silents followed under von Stroheim’s baton.

Working for Universal at the time was Irving Thalberg, an ambitious boy-genius producer who later cut a huge swath as production chief at MGM. Thalberg rode von Stroheim hard, regarding him as wildly profligate from an economic standpoint because his films invariably went way over schedule and over budget. Thalberg viewed von Stroheim as a director who had to be closely controlled.

Thalberg’s view was challenged some five decades later by none other than Welles, who asserted that the producer destroyed von Stroheim, as a man and as an artist.

And von Stroheim at that moment was , I think, demonstrably the most gifted director in Hollywood. Von Stroheim was the greatest argument against the producer. He was so clearly a genius, and so clearly should have been left alone — no matter what crazy thing he did.

Welles also claimed that von Stroheim’s reputation for excess, especially in production budgets, was over-exaggerated. I looked up von Stroheim, the budgets of his movies (in the Universal Pictures archives while making Touch of Evil at the studio). They weren’t that high.  The idea that he was so extravagant was nonsense.

No question that von Stroheim’s films broke the mold.  The original version of Greed, his 1923 adaptation of Frank Norris’ novel McTeague, originally ran some 10 hours.  It was perhaps the most injudiciously ambitious film ever made, observes British writer-critic David Thomson. The picture also ranks right up there with the very best silent films to come out of Hollywood.

von Stroheim and Swanson worked together in 1928’s Queen Kelly, financed by her lover at the time (JFK’s dad, Joseph Kennedy). The rest of the director’s career (von Stroheim died in 1957) was spent as an actor, shuttling between Hollywood and Europe.

In 1936, he costarred in Jean Renoir’s memorable anti-war film, La Grande Illusion, as the German officer of noble background, Von Rauffenstein.  In Billy Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo he portrayed Rommel; in Sunset Boulevard, he triumphs as Swanson’s butler, ex-director and ex-husband, who famously coaxes her down those stairs and into her final closeup.

Did 1950’s Sunset Boulevard revive Stroheim’s career?

Only in terms of Hollywood, said Welles. In America it seemed as though he’d been reclaimed from obscurity, when the reality was he was coming from continuing stardom in France. But the success of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ meant nothing to him because it was Swanson’s picture, and Billy Wilder’s — compared to what he was getting in France.

VON STROHEIM on the top of every marquee. 


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