FOOLISH WIVES (director/writer: Erich von Stroheim; screenwriters: Marian Ainslee/Walter Anthony; cinematographers: William Daniels/Ben Reynolds; editor: Arthur Ripley; cast: Rudolph Christians (Andrew J. Hughes), Miss Du Pont (Helen Hughes), Maude George (Princess Olga Petschnikoff), Mae Busch (Princess Vera Petschnikoff), Erich von Stroheim (Count Sergius Karamzin), Dale Fuller (Maruschka, a maid), Cesare Gravina (Caesare Ventucci, a counterfeiter), Malvine Polo (Marietta, Ventucci’s daughter); Runtime: 146; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Irving Thalberg; Universal; 1922-silent)
“The film that made the monocle wearing von Stroheim famous as The Man You Love To Hate.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
It’s hard to judge how good the Austrian-born writer-director Erich von Stroheim’s (“Greed”/Queen Kelly”) would-be epic about postwar European decadence could have been if intact, as much of the original three hour and a half film is lost. In any case, the film that made the monocle wearing von Stroheim famous as “The Man You Love To Hate” is good enough in parts, from what remains intact, to say this one had the possibility to be really great. It excels in craftsmanship, has a fiery star performance by von Stroheim, lavish production values and leaps over other silent melodramas in its originality in ideas. It offers von Stroheim’s take on the hypocrisies in high-society, despite the pretense of having good manners, and the depravity it leads to if not checked in time.
The film’s sumptuous setting of Monte Carlo just after the Armistice for WW II is signed was recreated in Universal’s back lot by von Stroheim and looks as good as a million bucks, which was the film’s budget–supposedly the most ever at the time. Though it did well at the box office, it barely made back its investment. The auteur known for his eccentric behavior and demanding work style, took a year to film for various reasons including the death of one of the principal actors–most films were made in about a month. It has all the earmarks for being a sensational sex melodrama, but stays decidedly in the high art camp due to von Stroheim’s ability to keep it more thought provoking than lurid. The plot focuses on von Stroheim’s bogus Russian Count Sergius Karamzin, a captain in the hussars, who works as a scam artist and a blackmailing seducer of women in Monte Carlo while his two mistresses/accomplices are called his cousins. The fakers take the names of Princess Olga Petschnikoff (Maude George) and Princess Vera Petschnikoff (Mae Busch).
The trio lease the luxurious Villa Amorosa just outside of Monte Carlo and live like wealthy high-society types, eating caviar for breakfast and drinking champagne in the evening. They use Ventucci’s (Cesare Gravina) counterfeit money as they host private card games at the villa with their society acquaintances and lose their funny money while winning their guests’ real money. Sergius uses his romantic charms to get wealthy married women into compromising positions and then extorting money from them. To keep up the pretense with his society friends, the trio cultivate the friendship of the newly arrived American envoy Andrew J. Hughes (Rudolph Christians), a wealthy middle-aged financier, and his wife Helen (Miss Dupont, insisted on being billed this way), who takes to the count’s flattery and flirtations and they become friends (the joke is that the vain woman is reading von Stroheim’s book “Foolish Wives”).
Warning” spoiler in the next paragraph.
Sergius takes Helen for a day stroll in the country, and gets lost on purpose. When it rains hard, they are forced to stay overnight at a hut. But Sergius’ plan to compromise Helen is foiled when a monk also takes shelter with them. Back in the casino Sergius’ encouragement helps Helen wins a fortune at the wheel, and while her hubby is lured into a card game at the villa the count passes a secret note to her requesting her presence in the villa’s tower. The count puts on a good act of how much he needs money to save his good name and she without question gives him her winnings. But Sergius’ Russian maid Maruschka (Dale Fuller), whom he’s having an affair with and promised to marry after she was duped into given the lecher her life savings, overhears him with Helen and in a fit of jealous rage sets fire to the tower. But the two are rescued by the fire department when they jump into a net. Meanwhile Maruschka goes to the sea to commit suicide, while the angry Hughes tracks down the count and calls him a phony and punches him in the mouth in front of the count’s society friends. Soon after that incident the police arrive at the villa with wanted posters to arrest the princesses, but the depraved Sergius has already fled to Ventucci’s house and rapes his mentally retarded daughter (Malvine Polo). So much was deleted, including how Ventucci kills Sergius, that a lot must remain to our imagination. But we do see the enraged counterfeiter dragging Sergius’ body from the closet to outside and dropping his body in a sewer. The last scene has the American couple reconciling, with hubby joking if Helen, the film’s principal foolish wife, intends to finish reading Foolish Wives.
REVIEWED ON 7/5/2006 GRADE: B+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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