Erich von Stroheim (1885-1957) is best known to the filmgoing public for his acting roles as monocle-wearing Nazi officers and other villains, which earned him the nickname "the man you love to hate." However, during the 1920s and early 1930s von Stroheim also directed and wrote screenplays for films in Hollywood, most notably the silent film Greed. After World War II, he left the United States and worked in Europe until his death in 1957. He returned to Hollywood only once, to portray Gloria Swanson's butler/ex-husband in Billy Wilder's 1950 film classic Sunset Boulevard.
Von Stroheim enjoyed telling elaborate tales about his youth in Vienna as Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim, the son of a noble Austrian family; however, the truth was far different. He was born Erich Oswald Stroheim, on September 22, 1885, in Vienna, Austria. However, rather than being a wealthy member of the Austrian aristocracy, his father, Benno Stroheim, sold straw hats for a living. Although von Stroheim claimed that he had served several years in the Austrian military, he actually had worked as a supervisor in his father's hat factory. In 1909 he decided to start a new life in the United States. When he landed at Ellis Island, he was penniless but listed himself as "von Stroheim," so people would think he was an Austrian aristocrat.
By 1912 von Stroheim had moved to San Francisco and had begun to write short plays. He also met and married Margaret Knox, a young woman from a wealthy California family. The marriage was stormy, and Knox filed for divorce after only a year. Von Stroheim then turned to acting; unverifiable Hollywood legend says that he acted in D. W. Griffith's classic silent film, The Birth of a Nation, breaking two ribs in a stunt fall. During World War I his Austrian background came in handy. He played assorted villains in films such as Sylvia of the Secret Service, Hearts of the World, The Hun Within, and The Heart of Humanity, in which his loathsome character tosses a baby out of a window.
Von Stroheim remarried in 1915, this time to Mae Jones, a New York seamstress. This marriage also was stormy and, although it produced a son (Erich von Stroheim, Jr.), the couple soon separated and divorced in 1919. He had become involved with another woman, Valerie Germonprez, and she became his third wife; they later had a son, Josef.
Studio Conflicts Plagued Directing Career
After the war, von Stroheim needed to move in a new direction, since there was less of a market for Germanic villains. He decided to try directing silent films, basing his first effort, Blind Husbands (1919), on his own short story. The film tells the story of an American couple vacationing in Austria, who meet a flirtatious Austrian officer (played by von Stroheim). The husband falsely suspects that his wife has been unfaithful and confronts the officer while the two men are mountain climbing. When the husband says he will not harm the officer if he confesses to the affair, the officer does so out of fear. However, the husband then cuts their connecting rope, and the officer dies. Blind Husbands introduced new levels of realism and sexual explicitness into film, themes that would be repeated in von Stroheim's later films and that would him cause frequent problems with film censors.
Von Stroheim followed up by directing two films that focused on marital infidelity and other scandalous behavior, The Devil's Passkey (1920) and Foolish Wives (1922). These films established his reputation in Hollywood as both a gifted actor and director. However, they also gave hints of the problems that would follow with studio executives. Publicists for Universal first decided to promote Foolish Wives by billing it as "the first million dollar film ever made." Despite the fact that the film was a great success with the public, it ran far over budget and barely made a profit; and it was originally so long that the studio had to cut its length by a third. When the same problems surfaced on von Stroheim's next film, Merry-Go-Round, and he refused to cooperate, Universal fired him midway through the shooting.
After his ties to Universal were severed, von Stroheim moved to Goldwyn Studios. There he began work on what critics consider his masterpiece, Greed (1924). Based on Frank Norris's 1899 novel McTeague, Greed does not have any of the decadent aristocrats of von Stroheim's earlier films. Instead, it focuses on poor settlers in turn-of-the-century California. McTeague is a kindhearted but unlicensed dentist who marries Trina, the daughter of German immigrants. His lack of credentials is exposed by Marcus Schooler, one of Trina's former suitors, and the couple plunges into poverty. Trina begins to hoard gold, and, when she will not give McTeague any of it to buy food, they struggle and she is killed. Schooler is part of a posse that chases McTeague into Death Valley; handcuffed together and lost in the desert, McTeague and Schooler die. Greed is summarized by biographer Peter Noble as abounding with "squalor, poverty, misery, lust, revenge, fear-and greed."
Despite its rather sordid subject matter, von Stroheim's greatest struggle to bring this film to the public was not with film censors. Instead, he once again went head to head with studio executives. Goldwyn originally had agreed to fund a film eight reels long, but agreed to twelve reels after von Stroheim completed his shooting script. This would have been a film over two hours long, definitely the upper limit for silent films. Von Stroheim proceeded to shoot hundreds of hours of film on location in San Francisco and Death Valley, eventually far exceeding his budget and creating a finished product of at least forty reels (somewhere between seven and nine hours long). When the studio insisted on drastic cuts, von Stroheim invited journalists to private viewings of the complete film. Although those who saw the film praised it in news articles, von Stroheim and then studio editors proceeded to cut it down drastically. Meanwhile, Goldwyn had been part of a merger that produced Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer (MGM), and the new studio's managers chopped still more film. Finally, a two-hour version was finally released to the public.
Despite the problems with Greed, the following year MGM asked von Stroheim to direct a silent version of the Lehar operetta, The Merry Widow. He totally revised the operetta's libretto and inserted sexually explicit scenes, and the studio decided that it no longer could work with him. Next he directed, cowrote, and starred in The Wedding March for Paramount Studios. Once again a von Stroheim film ran to excessive length. As a result, only its first half was shown in the United States; the second was released in Europe as The Honeymoon. In 1928 von Stroheim was hired to direct another silent film, Queen Kelly. Actress Gloria Swanson starred in and produced this film. She fired von Stroheim midway through the shooting; a final version was pieced together but quickly withdrawn from theaters. In 1932 von Stroheim started work on Fox's "talkie," Walking Down Broadway. Not surprisingly, he went over budget and could not meet the production schedule, and the studio shut down the filming.
Returned to Europe as Actor
Walking Down Broadway would be von Stroheim's final attempt at directing. He returned to character acting and appeared in several films during the early 1930s, including Three Faces East, Friends and Lovers, The Lost Squadron, Crimson Romance, and The Crime of Dr. Crespi. Von Stroheim's personal life took several disastrous turns during these years. His wife Valerie was horribly burned when a shampoo solution caught fire at a beauty parlor. Although she eventually recovered, she was badly scarred, and the marriage disintegrated. Von Stroheim's second son, Josef, became seriously ill with what was mistakenly diagnosed as polio. In the midst of these crises, his ex-wife Mae Jones sued him for child support.
Given these awful events and von Stroheim's increasing difficulties in working with Hollywood studios, it is no surprise that, in 1936, he returned to Europe and remained there until the outbreak of war was imminent. While in Europe he acted in several films, most notably Jean Renoir's classic La Grande Illusion (1937). In this film he played the commandant of a German prisoner of war camp during World War I. Von Stroheim often clicked his heels together as a greeting, instead of shaking hands, because he detested contact with men. At his first meeting with Renoir, he was firmly kissed on both cheeks by the Frenchman, who idolized von Stroheim. However, in this case von Stroheim actually returned the gesture. The two men shared tears and hugs, as well as arguments about the plot, throughout the filming. In 1939 von Stroheim returned to the United States, along with his new companion, French actress Denise Vernac. He and his third wife Valerie never divorced, but he remained with Vernac for the rest of his life. During World War II von Stroheim appeared in numerous American films, such as I Was an Adventuress, The North Star, Five Graves to Cairo, The Lady and the Monster, and The Mask of Dijon.
Sunset Boulevard Crowned Career
When World War II ended, von Stroheim and Vernac went back to Europe and settled at a chateau outside of Paris. In 1949 director Billy Wilder asked him to return to the United States and appear in his upcoming film, Sunset Boulevard. The film would tell the story of aging film star Norma Desmond (played by aging film star Gloria Swanson), who becomes involved with and then kills a young screenwriter played by William Holden. Von Stroheim, although initially reluctant, finally agreed to play the part of Desmond's butler, who is revealed to be her ex-husband as well. Sunset Boulevard received numerous Academy Award nominations and awards in 1951, including von Stroheim's only Academy Award nomination during his career, as Best Supporting Actor.
In Europe von Stroheim acted in a few films and co-wrote several screenplays, but never again returned to directing films. In 1956 he began to suffer severe back pain that was diagnosed as cancer. He eventually became paralyzed and was carried to his drawing room to receive France's Legion of Honor award from an official delegation. Von Stroheim died at his chateau on May 12, 1957, accompanied by his longtime lover, Denise Vernac.
More than 30 years after von Stroheim's death, Ric Schmidlin and Glenn Morgan of Turner Classic Movies embarked on the huge project of restoring his silent film Greed. Since MGM executive Irving Thalberg had ordered the uncut film to be burned long ago, Schmidlin and Morgan had to use hundreds of still photographs to assemble a four-hour-long film, which was released in 1999. Variety praised this attempt to restore one of the "most celebrated and mourned mutilated masterpieces in cinema history."
Curtiss, Thomas Quinn, Von Stroheim, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1971.
Koszarski, Richard, The Man You Loved to Hate, Oxford University Press, 1983.
Lennig, Arthur, Stroheim, University Press of Kentucky, 2000.
Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia, Penguin/Dutton, 1994.
Noble, Peter, Hollywood Scapegoat: The Biography of Erich von Stroheim, Arno Press, 1972.
Atlantic, September 1987, p. 73.
Film Comment, November 1999, p. 10.
Variety, September 13, 1999, p. 44.
"Biography for Erich von Stroheim," Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com (December 6, 2000).