Advertised, reluctantly, by Universal as the "First Million Dollar Movie," Erich Von Stroheim's
Foolish Wives became one of the greatest debacles of the silent era. Given more or less a free hand by Universal founder Carl Laemmle, who certainly should have known better, Von Stroheim went about recreating famously faithful copies of Monte Carlo, both on the studio back-lot and on location near Monterey, California. A stickler for authenticity, Von Stroheim's vision ended up running an incredible 30 reels. But rather than the epic that such expenditure suggested, Foolish Wives was proved an intimate if complex study of American hypocrisy versus European decadence. Von Stroheim cast himself as Karamzin, a bogus Russian count living in sin with two decadent cousins, Olga (Maude George), and Vera Mae Busch), with all three engaging in a bit of counterfeiting. When Karamzin learns of the arrival of a new American envoy to the principality of Monaco, the trio concoct a plan to woo the wealthy diplomat's foolish wife, Helen Hughes (the enigmatic Miss Du Pont). Despite his less than Adonis-like appearance, Karamzin's heel-clicking Continental manners overwhelm the lady, who quickly becomes putty in his gloved hands. The remainder of the film, as it survives, depicts Karamzin's more and more frustrating attempts at seduction and his eventual comeuppance in the hands of a counterfeiter (Cesare Gravina), whose simple-minded daughter Malvina Polo) he has violated. The filming of this story took almost a year and was further delayed by the sudden death of actor Rudolph Christians, who had played the envoy. Prohibited by the studio from remaking the envoy's scenes, Von Stroheim hired veteran character actor Robert Edeson for a few sequences yet to be filmed. Although mainly positioned with his back to the camera, Edeson still looked nothing like Christians, a curious oversight from the otherwise overly conscientious director. This surprising error in judgment notwithstanding, Von Stroheim's legendary obsession with detail not only creates an unforgettable mise-en-scene but does much to clarify the director's cynical world view. Naturally, 30 reels of anything was not a feasible proposition -- much less a labyrinthine narrative peopled with witless Americans, phony aristocrats and Von Stroheim's usual gallery of cripples, hags, lechers, and dullards -- and young production supervisor Irving G. Thalberg managed to have the film edited down to a workable ten reels, although much to Von Stroheim's disgust. But even Universal's final release print came in for heavy cutting by various local censorship boards despairing at such extravagant scenes as Karamzin spying on an undressing Mrs. Hughes and of Von Stroheim's generally less than sympathetic depiction of Americans abroad. European censors had different objections, of course, and by combining two surviving prints -- one American, the other located in Italy -- film historian Arthur Lennig managed in 1971 to reconstruct a fair assimilation of Von Stroheim's original work, making Lennig, as he jokingly admitted, the only editor to ever actually add footage to Foolish Wives!
All Movie Guide - Hans J. Wollstein