One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed a serious filmmaker, but she didn’t ask about his important theories about Art. Since Erich von Stroheim was publicizing his upcoming release Foolish Wives, her first question was just who are those wives? He responded with some nonsense:
The foolish wife, according to the famous Universal director, is one who not only doesn’t study her own husband, but who doesn’t study masculine psychology in general, accept certain facts, and learn how to cope with them.
“You’ll smile at the suggestion,” he said, “but I believe that girls should be taught this along with domestic economy. And they should be taught male psychology…For instance, if my wife told me I couldn’t smoke in bed I would be perfectly miserable.”
Kingsley was too polite to say: so, you mean put up and shut up? An eye-roll, not a smile, seems like a better response to his suggestion. However, she was annoyed enough to point this out:
“Mr. von Stroheim, who is now a bridegroom and has been married three times, should be something of an authority on the question of wives, shouldn’t he?”
He told her about his former wives, but lots of it wasn’t particularly true (he didn’t only lie to the press about his imaginary aristocratic origins). He said his first wife died of tuberculosis. Margaret Knox did die in 1916, but they were divorced before that; the marriage lasted from 1913-1915. According to his biographer Arthur Lennig, he couldn’t find work and they fought a lot. Stroheim said he met his second wife while working as a lifeguard at Lake Tahoe. She was supposedly from a rich Oakland family and they divorced because she wanted to accept money from her family, and he didn’t. This also wasn’t true. He met Mae Jones in New York City while working on a Douglas Fairbanks film, His Picture in the Papers. Her stepfather was a salesman, and she became a dressmaker after they divorced in July 1919, so her family wasn’t rich.
However, he seems to have been truthful about his current wife. He did meet Valerie Germonprez when he played a lecherous Hun in Allan Holubar’s The Heart of Humanity (1918). She had a small part as an ambulance driver. He noticed that her costume was wrong and he helped her pick the correct uniform, then
“We at once became friends. We became engaged soon after, and I owe more than I can say to her constant companionship, advice and sympathy. I feel sure ours is really the ideal marriage.”
He was quite fortunate that he’d married her; she played an important part on his film sets according to Lennig:
Sometimes Stroheim would go into an absolute rage about some detail. At this point, his wife Valerie, always with him on the sets as a sort of steadying wheel for his moods, would try to soothe his ruffled nerves. He would never work without her. The two would talk over the problem, after which he would then return, the storm over.
They parted in 1936 when he moved to France, but they never divorced. He moved in with actress Denise Vernac in 1939 but continued to send money and “effusive notes on birthdays and anniversaries and Christmas and Easter.” Lennig doesn’t know if it was guilt or love.
In an essay entitled “Blind Biographers: The Invention of Erich von Stroheim,” Ealasaid A. Haas comes to a useful conclusion about Stroheim’s stories:
Whatever his motivation for remaking himself, he was certainly skilled at it. And no wonder – he was a gifted screenwriter, and he turned that talent to constructing his past as he wished it might have been. One can look at it as his greatest creation, for it was not edited by other hands. For once, he had complete artistic control.
Stroheim mentioned that his next project would be based on Arthur Schnitzler’s seven one-act play cycle about the loves and disappointments of a playboy in fin de siecle Vienna, Anatol. He was probably unhappily surprised when just next week, Cecil B. De Mille announced his next film was to be The Affairs of Anatol, and he’d already chosen his cast: Gloria Swanson, Wallace Reid Wanda Hawley, Bebe Daniels and Agnes Ayers. According to De Mille biographer Robert Birchard, it was a big hit. But it’s a shame von Stroheim didn’t make it anyway – the two films would have been so different! Stroheim was so good with louche characters.
Speaking of canonical filmmakers, Kingsley reported that one of them was trying to get his most famous film made much earlier than anybody knew:
They do say that if Carl Laemmle will let him do it, Mr. Browning is hoping to filmize that novel shocker entitled Dracula by Bram Stoker.
Tod Browning could have beat Nosferatu (1922) to the theaters by two years if he’d gotten started right away. He was still thinking about it in 1921, when Lillian Gale reported in Motion Picture News that he “recently threatened” to adapt Dracula to the screen. (“Live Notes from the Studios,” May 14, 1921, p. 3069) After that, the project doesn’t appear in the Media History Digital Library until 1930, and the rest is horror movie history. Letting the idea cook for a decade probably helped make it a better film. The play version that they ended up basing the screenplay on didn’t come out until 1924. Besides, Bela Lugosi didn’t arrive in the U.S. until December 1920.
In a review of “the good old crook comedy” Officer 666, Kingsley thought that a remarkable part of the play didn’t translate well to the screen:
A lot of the chases, unaccompanied by the dialogue of the play not only were bewildering but meaningless.
We know why this stinker needed chasing
How in the world did they louse that up? Movie chases had been successfully filmed since L’Arroseur Arrosé in 1895! Has anybody ever been confused by a Keystone Kops chase? The film is lost, so we can’t see exactly how it went wrong, but J.S. Dickerson in Motion Picture News (November 13, 1920, p. 3811) mentioned that they used lines directly from the play as intertitles, and:
The result is a picture that interests only so far as reading the script would interest and has a handicap of much running in and out by various characters and the squad of police, that will be confusing to those who do not read titles quickly or are not familiar with the stage version.
So there were too many different groups chasing and being chased. It sounds bad indeed.
Arthur Lennig, Stroheim, Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.