FOOLISH WIVES (Erich von Stroheim, 1922, USA, 117m, BW)
Cast: Maude George, Mae Busch, Rudolph Christians, Erich von Stroheim, Miss Du Pont, Cesare Gravina, Edward Reinach, Malvina Polo, Al Edmundsen, Miss Dupont, Louis K. Webb, C.j. Allen, Dale Fuller
Director: Erich von Stroheim
Writer: Erich Von Stroheim
Running Time: 100 min.
In this silent classic, Sergius Karamzin (Erich von Stroheim) is a con artist who pretends to be a count in order to charm and swindle naïve women for money. He lives in Monte Carlo, Monaco, with his cousins, "princesses" Olga (Maude George) and Vera (Mae Busch), who are in on his scams. When Karamzin meets American diplomat Andrew Hughes (Rudolph Christians), the count immediately takes aim at his wife, Helen (Miss DuPont). But Karamzin soon finds he has double-crossed too many women.
Foolish Wives, the first film in this special double feature showcasing the work of Erich von Stroheim, explores the boredom and disdain felt by one woman for her husband, an American diplomat who's obsessed with his work during their holiday in Monte Carlo. FOOLISH WIVES is generally believed to be the first film made that cost one million dollars. In the modern era, when film budgets often run into many millions of dollars, this may seem slight--but in 1922 Universal Studios was staggered not only by the costs, but by Von Stroheim's seemingly endless shooting schedule; at a time when most movies were made in six weeks or less, FOOLISH WIVES took a year or more to complete and threatened to bankrupt the studio.
The circumstances brought Von Stroheim into direct conflict with production manager Irving Thalberg, who threatened to replace him with another director. By most accounts, Von Stroheim laughed in Thalberg's face: not only was he director, he was the star as well, and if he were fired the film would never be completed. Thalberg and Universal had little choice but grin and bear it... but it was something Thalberg would recall several years later, much to Von Stroheim's chagrin.
Set in post-World War I Monaco, FOOLISH WIVES presents the story of the ultra-amoral Count Wladislaw Sergius (Von Stroheim) and his two supposed cousins Olga (Maude George) and Vera (Mae Busch) who present themselves as wealthy Russian nobility--but who are in fact a trio of vicious con-artists who generate cash flow by passing counterfeit bills through Monaco's legendary casinos. Eager to deflect suspicion, they scrape acquaintance with an American diplomat and his wife (Rudolph Christians and Helen Hughes)--and in time at all the naive wife is so much putty in the Count's diabolical hands.
Von Stroheim recreated a fairly large chunk of Monaco on the Universal back lot, and the sets, costumes, and crowds of extras still put most modern productions to shame. But the film's real fascination are the deadly trio of Maude George, Mae Busch, and most particularly Von Stroheim himself. Within the first few minutes of the film he contemplates advances upon an attractive but mentally deficient young woman--and as the plot unfolds we discover that he has seduced the maid with a promise of marriage he does not intend to keep. This, of course, does not prevent him from taking her life savings for a little gambling money when the need arises! The overall cast is quite good, with Miss DuPont a stand out as the diplomat's wife, and the cast plays without recourse to the broad mannerisms often seen in many silent films. But what drives the film is our curiosity at how far Von Stroheim will take both the film and his own performance.
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