One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on a film executive who did his best to anticipate trouble:
It is estimated at Universal City that Foolish Wives, the $1,000,000 super-feature, will be released early in October. Erich von Stroheim, who directed it, is now making the first screen cut. It will be ready for its preview on the 15th when censors will arrive at Universal City from all over the country to view the production, and confer with Irving G. Thalberg, general manager, at Universal, as to whether Foolish Wives needs the scissors in spots, or whether it may be shown just as it stands.
Irving Thalberg was good at his job. Only 22 years old, it’s no wonder he’d been promoted so quickly at Universal. There was plenty in his studio’s million-dollar investment to horrify censors; von Stroheim’s story of a con artist who seduces and swindles rich women in Monte Carlo featured lechery, adultery, gambling, murder, arson, suicide, plus abuse of a mentally disabled girl. Von Stroheim made sure that his villain was utterly villainous! So Thalberg planned a week-long junket to flatter a collection of censors. The Los Angeles Times reported on his program:
Members of the official censor boards of Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and of the cities of Detroit and Kansas City, assembled in Chicago as guests of Carl Laemmle of the Universal Film Company, will leave today for Los Angeles.
The party will arrive in Los Angeles at 2:40 p.m. Sunday, August 14, over the Santa Fe. Harry M. Berman, general sales manager of Universal, will be in charge of the delegation.
After a brief reception at the station at which Mr. Thalberg will welcome the members of the commission to Southern California on behalf of Carl Laemmle, the party will be motored to the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Stanley Anderson, managing director of the hostelry, will participate in entertaining them. Following a dinner at the hotel, the censors will receive Los Angeles newspaper writers, representatives of the motion-picture trade publications and correspondents of news services.
Festivities during the first day of the censors’ stay include a luncheon at the studio, a tour of Universal City, a trip to Santa Monica, sea bathing and a barbecue. In the evening the members will be the guests of the Emanuel Presbyterian Brotherhood at a meeting of particular interest to those concerned in censorship.
Tuesday will be devoted to a personally conducted tour of other picture studios, where the censors may see for themselves just how things are done, and to a luncheon at Beverly Hills Hotel, followed by a motor trip through Pasadena.
As by this time the censors should be in high, good humor, they are to experience the “great moment” of their visit. They’re going to be allowed to take a peek at Eric von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives.
Wednesday will be a gala day. The guests will be conveyed to Universal city early in the morning for an animal circus at the Universal City arena. A.C. Stecker, chief animal trainer, will put on a thrilling animal act. On the same day the censors will meet such celebrities as Priscilla Dean, Harry Carey, Gladys Walton, Frank Mayo, Eddie Polo, Marie Prevost, Art Acord, Eileen Sedgwick, Lee Moran, Bert Roach and the battalion of noted Universal directors.
This event will lead up logically to the entertainment at Sunset Inn of the noted guests, with no less seductive a person than Priscilla Dean as hostess. And just as if this weren’t enough merriment for one week, the censors will be the guests next day of Harry Carey at his western ranch.
Once more Foolish Wives will be shown the censors, this event happening on Thursday evening, when the guests will be asked to comment on the picture. Eric von Stroheim will be present, too, and will make a little talk.
If there is anything in the picture’ the censors don’t like, it is likely to be forgotten next day, when they will be taken on a trip to Catalina Island, where they will be the guests of William Wrigley, Jr., and Sunday will be devoted to religious services according to the preference of the visitors.
They kept them busy! Thalberg’s wining and dining of the censors worked, at first (no wonder people called him the Boy Genius). According to Motion Picture News, by the end of their trip the censors gave Foolish Wives their official approval; after seeing a 24-reel version of it they
were sincere in their praise and but a few minor changes were suggested. “The consensus of our opinion,” said Harry Knapp, who acted as chairman of the censors in their convention, and who is also chairman of the Pennsylvania State Board of Censors, “is that the picture will prove a highly interesting entertainment when it is finally shipped into the more contracted shape required for public exhibition.
What happened next was beyond Thalberg’s control. Over the following weekend the events leading to the Roscoe Arbuckle scandal happened, and he was arrested on September 17th. Public opinion turned against the perceived corrupting influence of Hollywood. Thalberg responded by ordering extensive editing of Foolish Wives, which delayed its release.
By the end of November, Exhibitors Herald reported that von Stroheim was off the project. They thought that it was at his own request: “After having attempted for several months to get the world’s most expensive motion picture production cut down to exhibition length, Eric von Stroheim has given up the task. Either that of General Manager Irving Thalberg of Universal has taken it away from von Stroheim—probably the former.”
Foolish Wives premiered in New York in January 1922, and the controversy didn’t hurt it a bit. On January 14th, Kingsley reported:
Now that von Stroheim’s great feature picture, Foolish Wives, has made a sensational hit in New York, as—according to a telegram received yesterday by Irving G. Thalberg, from President Carl Laemmle—it has, Universal officials are drawing a long breath, and are preparing for the biggest invasion of the field of picture are which Universal has ever known.
However, the New York State Censorship Board demanded more cuts even after it opened. According to von Stroheim’s biographer, Richard Koszarski, another 3500 feet were eliminated; “audiences attending New York’s Central Theater during January 1922 could watch the film wasting away, literally day by day, until it had lost a full hour.”
It opened in Los Angeles in that ten-reel version a month later on February 15th. Kingsley’s boss Edwin Schallert reviewed it, and had a mixed reaction: “There is much, nay a tremendous lot, to admire in settings, acting and photography. There is a great deal, on the other hand, to find fault with in the matter of continuity, drama, and theme. This much is certain, however, that Foolish Wives is utterly different from anything that has come to the silver screen. There is nothing commonplace or trite about its manner or its method.”
It stayed at the Mission Theater until the end of March; they estimated over 100,000 people saw it at that one theater alone.
Now it’s a considered a classic. In 2008, it was added to the Library of Congress’ Film Registry. People still write about it, and it has a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes!
Jay Balfour, “Von Stroheim Gives Up Task of Cutting Special,” Exhibitors Herald, November 26, 1921, p.36.
Harry Hammond Beall, “Personality of Film Folks has Conquered Censors,” Exhibitors Herald, September 3, 1921, p. 32.
“Censors Approve of Foolish Wives,” Motion Picture News, September 3, 1921, p.1195.
“Censors Enjoy Varied Views of Studioland,” Los Angeles Times, August 18, 1921.
“Censors Pleased with Foolish Wives; Few Suggestions of Eliminations Made. Moving Picture World, September 3, 1921, p. 52.
“Censors Show Their Talents in Acting,” Los Angeles Times, August 19, 1921.
“Film Censors Coming Here,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1921.
“Foolish Wives is to Close Tuesday,” Los Angeles Times, March 26, 1921.
Grace Kingsley,” Flashes,” Los Angeles Times, January 14, 1921.
Richard Kosazrski, Von: The Life and Films of Erich von Stroheim, New York: Limelight, 2004.
Edwin Schallert, “Foolish Wives Haut Realism,” Los Angeles Times, February 16, 1921.