Thursday, 25 August 2016

Richly textured elegance with banality, filth and deviance

Today marks the centenary of Erich von Stroheim Jr, an undistinguished assistant director of films and several western TV series including The High Chapparal.

His father, however, was far more interesting to us here at Dolores Delargo Towers - possibly the most recognisable of (male) silent-film-to-talkies visual self-creations...

"In Hollywood, you're as good as your last picture."

From the Harvard Film Archive:
Upon his entry into America in 1909, Erich Oswald Stroheim (1885 – 1957) crowned himself Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim, embellishing his own legend before it began. Though the Austrian's mythic heritage involved a decorated military past and aristocratic background, von Stroheim's most notorious distinction became his relentlessly catastrophic relationship with Hollywood studios and the tragic fates that befell most of his cinematic output. If his films were not permanently mutilated by studios (Foolish Wives, Greed, The Wedding March) or turned over to other directors and altered forever (The Merry-Go-Round, Queen Kelly, Hello, Sister!), then they were simply lost (The Devil's Pass-key).

His embroidered persona masked relatively humble beginnings and a youthful struggle both personally and professionally. However, once he entered Hollywood as a European and military consultant, set dresser and extra, his meticulous eye for detail quickly attracted attention. Exploiting his unconventional looks, he sported dashing military outfits and paraphernalia, adding odd mannerisms when in front of the camera. After working as an assistant director on several pictures, he employed his eccentric magic on and off screen in D.W. Griffith's Hearts of the World (1918) and obtained a leading role in Allen Holubar's propagandistic The Heart of Humanity (1918), which locked his villainous, monocled Hun persona securely in place. After the war ended, the evil German type that audiences "loved to hate" faded from popularity and von Stroheim needed a new role. This came with his directorial debut, Blind Husbands.

Credited as one of the first directors to portray his heroes and heroines as realistic, flawed characters who often succumb to desire, von Stroheim rejected stars and sentiment. The lights and darks in his cynical view of humanity were always shaded tones, highlighted with symbolic artistry and black humour. Offsetting a richly textured elegance with banality, filth and deviance, von Stroheim exposed aristocrats in their pyjamas and moustache bands. He focused on aberrations, idiosyncrasies, and deformities, inserting debauched orgies and sexual fetishes wherever he could while masterfully conveying believable, intricate emotions in the face of the often-overwrought theatrics of silent cinema. The result is a kind of enchanted realism where sincerity, love and goodness are always under threat by greater forces – societal, carnal and spiritual... [However] he could not escape his difficult reputation or his grandiose visions – both incompatible with the studio system. Von Stroheim was only able to release the first half of what was to be a two-part saga in the form of The Wedding March, while Queen Kelly – a stormy collusion of morbid content and bad timing – knocked von Stroheim out of the director's chair and back to acting. The last nail in his directorial coffin came with the strange and sexually frank Walking Down Broadway which reached audiences severely edited with no director credit as Hello, Sister!.

Beyond starring in mostly low-budget movies as parodies of himself, von Stroheim did enjoy a handful of significant roles. In Jean Renoir's classic Grand Illusion (1937), he plays a German pilot whose flaws and misfortunes are encapsulated by a somewhat comic neck brace which was, of course, von Stroheim's contribution. And his memorable turn in Billy Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo (1943) eventually brought him the role for which he is most widely remembered, Norma Desmond's enigmatic butler in Sunset Boulevard.
For all his hubris, his apparently impossible-to-work-with reputation, his fantastical mythologising of his own life and background, he was certainly a man whose image - and image is, after all what counts on screen - will forever be indelibly associated with the decadent early years of cinema. For that, we applaud him.

Erich von Stroheim by Arthur Lennig.


  1. Extraordinary talent and self creation

    1. ...and the inspiration of many a Steampunk enthusiast, methinks! Jx


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