Hollywood’s self-proclaimed “first million-dollar movie,” Foolish Wives saw exotic Monte Carlo recreated in painstaking detail on the Universal back lot in a lavish super-spectacular meant to compete with the awe-inspiring profligacy of, say, Italy’s Cabiria. Foolish Wives was also the film that set the template for the studio system’s handling of writer-director-actor Erich von Stroheim (not to mention future martyred auteurs like Orson Welles): The only reason Universal honcho Carl Laemmle and production manager Irving Thalberg couldn’t yank Von Stroheim out of the director’s chair two months into filming was that he was also firmly planted in front of the camera, a mistake the studio wouldn’t make again. They did control the final cut though. Thus began the painfully protracted saga of whittling Von Stroheim’s epic vision down to more manageable (read: commercial) form, a dolorous drama that would unfold time and again throughout the 1920s, most spectacularly when it came to Von Stroheim’s masterpiece Greed.
Even at approximately a third of its initial length, Foolish Wives is a brilliantly perverse morality play in the Henry James mold that exposes naïve Americans abroad to the predations of decadent European aristocracy. Von Stroheim embodies that cultured depravity as the putative Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin, a Russian émigré living in a ménage of questionable geometry with “cousins” Olga and Vera Petchnikoff (Maude George and Mae Busch) at the Villa Amorosa, a sordidly sumptuous squat whose name appropriately enough translates as the Love Shack. The debauched trio finds themselves enmeshed in some money-laundering scheme involving counterfeiter Ventucci (Cesare Gravina), but it’s mostly an excuse to bring in his mentally handicapped teenage daughter Marietta (Malvina Polo), a pitiful figure with a dead stare and tousled hair, who’s subjected to Karamzin’s lip-smacking appraisal in one of the film’s most outrageous moments. Later, in order to round out his portrait of the all-devouring Count, Von Stroheim lets on that he’s also knocked up the housemaid Maruschka (Dale Fuller), an act of depraved indifference that directly leads to the film’s fiery finale.
Enter American envoy Allan Hughes (Rudolph Christians, who died in the middle of filming, and had to be replaced by another actor’s back) and his wife, Helen (Miss DuPont), who soon grows enamored of the Count’s spiffy uniform and spit-polished manners. Foolish Wives invokes the obligatory love triangle in order to enact a battle between opposing life philosophies. The oft remarked-upon moment where Helen sits reading a book entitled Foolish Wives, written by one Erich von Stroheim, is more than mere hubris or even incipient postmodernism: Returning repeatedly to quote from this book, Von Stroheim clearly intended audiences to take at face value a text that advises its readers not to take things at face value. In other words, the text of the film enjoins viewers not to judge a book by its cover. It’s an injunction contemporary critics seemed largely to have eschewed, rendering their jingoistic attacks on Von Stroheim’s film as “an insult to every American” all the more bitterly ironic. Perhaps it was a case of mistaking actor for role, since Von Stroheim was, after all, known as “the man you love to hate” from his numerous turns as the “bad Hun” in WWI propaganda films. To see the true shape of Von Stroheim’s attitudes, you only have to look at how he disposes of his own creation: Caught in flagrante in Marietta’s room, Karamzin is bumped off by Ventucci (missing footing elides just what was done to whom). Ventucci proceeds to dump the Count’s lifeless body down an open sewer. Not exactly what the Bard had in mind, I imagine, when he had Ophelia dole out those “sweets to the sweet.”
Kino’s Blu-ray packaging comes with a caveat: "The American Film Institute restoration of Foolish Wives was reconstructed from multiple print sources, some of which survived in fragmentary and battered condition. While it’s the most complete version of the film known to exist, it’s below the standards of the typical archival Blu-ray release." That said, the film in HD exhibits some notable improvement in picture quality over Kino’s earlier DVD release. Damage and visual artifacts abound, but clarity and fine detail are boosted overall, and certain sequences (like the tempest that interrupts Count Karamzin’s seduction of Mrs. Hughes) look more stunning than ever. The linear PCM monaural mix delivers Rodney Sauer’s adroit performance of Sigmund Romberg’s original score with sufficient dynamic range and tonal clarity.
The extras have been ported over from Kino’s DVD release. Erich von Stroheim biographer Richard Koszarski delivers an exhaustively researched and impeccably detailed commentary track that delves into every aspect of the film’s torturous production history. Koszarski also offers a nuanced reading of the film’s dominant themes and overtly Freudian symbolism. The Koszarski-scripted documentary "The Man You Loved to Hate" (remastered in HD for inclusion here) covers the entirety of Von Stroheim’s life and career starting with his youth in Vienna, emigration to America (whereupon he added the aristocratic "von" to his name), early days working as an extra and technical advisor to D. W. Griffith, a blow-by-blow account of his career as a director (which was all too literally the case when he was decked by Louis B. Mayer for referring to a character in one of his scripts as a whore), and winding up with his return to acting both here and abroad (especially his roles in Jean Renoir’s elegiac Grand Illusion and Billy Wilder’s acidic eulogy for the silent era, Sunset Boulevard). Interview clips with wife Valerie von Stroheim and producer Paul Kohner were culled from the documentary’s outtakes. Lastly, there’s an illustrated guide to the numerous cuts demanded by the New York Censor Board prior to the film’s premiere in NYC.
Erich von Stroheim liked to refer to the traduced and truncated version of Foolish Wives as "the skeleton of my dead child." Looking at the film today, it’s plain to see there’s still plenty of meat on those bones.