Several men from Vienna came to Hollywood in its Golden Age and became successful movie directors. Think Billy Wilder.
But only two became famous actors as well as directors.
The first was Erich von Stroheim (seen above left in Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard).
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-criticDavid Thomson. The picture also ranks right up there with the very best silent films to come out of Hollywood.
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.
Another film director of Austrian descent who occasionally acted before the cameras as well, the indomitable Otto Preminger.
Fans of vintage movies will recall that he often portrayed a Nazi. His most famous role is probably that of the camp commandant opposite William Holden in Billy Wilder’s 1953 World War II POW adventure, Stalag 17.
Unlike von Stroheim, whose directing career went bust (because he flouted all studio rules about movie lengths and budgets) and who had to act to earn a living, Preminger’s career as a director (an occasional producer at 20th Century Fox) flourished, and in later years he only acted as a lark.
His most famous films are 1944’s Laura costarring Dana Andrews and the incomparable Gene Tierney, 1955’s The Man With the Golden Arm, (with Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak ) and 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder starring James Stewart (backed by an extraordinary musical score by Duke Ellington). He was nominated for Best Director twice but never won a Oscar.
His reputation (amply justified) was that of a bully on the set, one prone to throw tantrums. Jean Seberg, the corn-fed 17-year-old unknown from Marshalltown, Iowa, was picked by Preminger out of a field of some 18,000 prospects to play the title role of Joan of Arc in the director’s 1957 costume drama, Saint Joan. It was billed as the biggest talent search since the quest for Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone With The Wind.
Years later, Seberg told a French interviewer that the whole experience permanently damaged her. She compared Preminger to a “tank, who crushes people and terrifies them. He yells and shouts and insults you. Bit by bit I drew back inside myself like a turtle.”
Preminger’s last feature was 1979’s The Human Factor, based on the Graham Greene novel. Preminger died in 1986, at the age of 80. He was one tough nut, but as long as his films were successful (unlike von Strohiem’s) his “eccentricities” were tolerated, unlike von Strohiem’s.