BLIND HUSBANDS (Erich von Stroheim, 1919, USA, 98m, BW)
Cast: Francilia Billington, Jack Perrin, Valery Germonprez, Ruby Kendrick, Richard Cummings, Louis Fitzroy, William de Vaull, Percy Challenger, Jack Mathis, Erich von Stroheim, Gibson Gowland, Fay Holderness, Sam De Grasse, Francelia Billington
Director: Erich von Stroheim
Running Time: 68 min.
On vacation with her surgeon husband, Dr. Armstrong (Sam De Grasse), Margaret (Francilia Billington) feels neglected and flirts with Austrian Lt. Erich von Steuben (Erich von Stroheim). When the doctor is called away for an emergency, the lieutenant tries to enter Margaret's room but is stopped by Silent Sepp (Gibson Gowland), the couple's mountain guide. The doctor returns and goes hiking with the lieutenant but grows furious when he sees a note from his wife in the Austrian's pocket.
This was Stroheim's first effort at directing, made after he'd attained some fame as an actor playing German heavies. He offered the script for nothing to the head of Universal, Carl Laemmle, on condition that he could direct it. Laemmle took a chance, and the film was budgeted at $25 thousand. Before shooting was over, Stroheim had spent more than four times that much, but Laemmle heavily promoted the picture, and the gamble paid off. It was a hit, tripling Universal's investment, and launching Stroheim's tumultuous career as a director.
He seems to have learned a lot from his experiences as an assistant director at Mutual, and from observing the master, D.W. Griffith, at work, because Blind Husbands is a remarkably self-assured debut. Stroheim's camara placement creates the illusion of spaciousness called for by the Alpine setting. The acting is subtle for its time--no melodramatic flailing about here; everything is conveyed through small gestures.
The sophisticated treatment of adultery and of romantic matters in general was practically unheard of in American films, and there's some witty visual symbolism that managed to get by the censors. Best of all is the figure of Stroheim himself--he was modest enough to give himself a very unflattering role here--in addition to being a roué, the officer is something of a phony as well, yet you can understand why he would seem attractive to the wife, especially in contrast to her stick-in-the-mud husband.
The theme is identical to Stroheim's next surviving work, 1922's Foolish Wives, but the latter film is a much greater achievement, more elaborate, complex, and ambiguous. This movie is simple and direct, which makes it something of an anomaly in the brief Stroheim canon. Blind Husbands searches for some measure of importance as it draws out its slight tale to a too-long 92 minutes (the original print, which ran another seven minutes or so, has been lost) but succeeds only in emphasising its ordinariness despite some arresting shots and fine location photography.
Regarding his prey through narrowed eyes as he draws on his cigarette, Von Stroheim makes an enjoyably hissable cad, and Sam De Grasse struggles manfully to convince us of Armstrong’s unlikely transformation from bookish doctor to commanding mountain man when the time comes. The outcome is never in doubt, to be honest. The film’s age counts against it, making a drama out of a situation that would be brushed aside in an instant today, but it would have been more watchable if we had been able to care about any of its characters.
Erich von Stroheim (1885-1957)
The actor and director known as 'Von' to his friends was born Erich Oswald Stroheim on
22 September 1885 in Vienna, to a middle-class Jewish family. In 1909 he emigrated
the United States, giving his name on arrival as Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von
Stroheim. By the time he directed his first film Blind Husbands in 1919 he had converted
to Catholicism and woven various legends about himself, eagerly seized on and
elaborated by the Hollywood publicity machine. In these legends he was always an
aristocrat, generally Austrian, with a distinguished record in the imperial army, but he also
passed himself off as German, and an expert on German student life. His actual military
record in Austria seems to have been undistinguished, and it is not known if he had even
been to university, let alone in Germany.
The 'German' version seems to have been merely, though bravely, opportunist, helping
him to an acting career as an evil Prussian officer in films made during the anti-German
fever of 1916-18, and contributing to his screen image as 'the man you love to hate'. But
the Austrian identity struck deeper. He became immersed in his own legend, and
increasingly assumed the values of the world he had left behind in Europe, a world of
decadence but also (in both senses of the word) nobility.
As an actor he had tremendous presence. He was small (5' 5") but looked larger. His gaze
was lustful and his movements were angular and ungainly, with a repressed energy which
could break out into acts of chilling brutality. Both his charm and his villainy had an air of
calculation-unlike, say, Conrad Veidt, in whom both qualities seemed unaffectedly
His career as a director was marked by excess. Almost all his films came in over-long and
over budget, and had to be salvaged (and in the course of it often ruined) by the studio.
He had fierce battles with Irving Thalberg, first at Universal and then at MGM, which
ended in the studio asserting control over the editing. To get the effects he wanted he put
crew and cast through nightmares, shooting the cinematic scenes in Greed on location in
Death Valley in midsummer 1923, in temperatures of over 120° F. Some of this excess
has been justified (first of all by Stroheim himself) in the name of realism, but it is better
seen as an attempt to give a extra layer of conviction to the spectacle, which was also
marked by strongly unrealistic elements. Stroheim's style is above all effective, but the
effect is one of a powerful fantasy, drawing the spectator irresistibly into a fictional world
in which the natural is indistinguishable from the grotesque. The true excess is in the
passions of the characters - overdrawn creations acting out a mysterious and often tragic
On the other hand, as Richard Koszarski ( 1983) has emphasized, Stroheim was much
influenced by the naturalism of Zola and his contemporaries and followers. But this too is
expressed less in the representational technique than in the underlying sense of character
and destiny. Stroheim's characters, like Zola's, are what they are through heredity and
circumstance, and the drama merely enacts what their consequent destiny has to be.
Belief in such a theory is, of course, deeply ironic in Stroheim's case, since his own life
was lived in defiance of it. Unlike his characters, he was what he had become, not what
fate had supposedly carved him out to be. What he had become, by 1925 if not earlier, was
the unhappy exile, for ever banished from the tum-of-the-century Vienna which was his
imaginary home. A contrast between Europe and America is a constant theme in his work,
generally to the disadvantage of the latter. Even those of his films set in America, such as
Greed ( 1924) or Walking down Broadway ( 1933) can be construed as barely veiled
attacks on America's myth of its own innocence. Most of his other films are set in Europe
(an exception is the monumental Queen Kelly, set mostly in Africa). Europe, and
particularly Vienna, is a site of corruption, but also of self-knowledge. Goodness rarely
triumphs in Stroheim's films, and love triumphs only with the greatest difficulty.
Nostalgia in Stroheim is never sweet and he was as savage with Viennese myths of
innocence as with American. His screen adaptation of The Merry Widow ( 1925) turned
Lehar's operetta into a spectacle in which decadence, cruelty, and more than a hint of
distortion could the fantasy Ruritanian air. The Merry Widow was a commercial
success. Most of his other films were not. Stroheim's directing career did not survive the
coming of the synchronized dialogue films, and he had increasing difficulty finding roles
as an actor in the changed Hollywood climate. In his later years he moved uneasily
between Europe and America in search of work and home. In the last, unhappy decades of
his life he created two great acting roles, as the camp commandant Rauflfenstein in
Renoir's La Grande Illusion ('The great illusion', 1937), and as Gloria Swanson's butler in
Wilder's Sunset Boulevard ( 1950). It is for his acting that he is now best remembered. Of
the films he directed, some have been lost entirely, while others have survived only in
mangled versions. This tragedy (which was partly of his own making) means that his
greatness as a filmmaker remains the stuff of legend - not unlike the man himself.
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