Foolish Wives is a 1922 American erotic silent drama film produced and distributed by Universal Pictures under their Super-Jewel banner and written and directed by Erich von Stroheim. The drama features von Stroheim, Rudolph Christians, Miss DuPont, Maude George, and others.
The producers had censorship problems with the New York Motion Picture Censorship Commission. Not only did the commission order specific cuts in the film, but they requested that all advertising be submitted for their review. Carl Laemmle publicly denied that they complied with any specific request from the commission; instead, he said the cuts were made due to the film's excessive length. In Pennsylvania, the State Board of Censors banned the film. Censors also banned the picture in Ohio.
When released in 1922, the film was the most expensive film made at that time, and billed by Universal Studios as the "first million-dollar movie" to come out of Hollywood. Originally, von Stroheim intended the film to run anywhere between 6 and 10 hours, and be shown over two evenings, but Universal executives opposed this idea. The studio bosses cut the film drastically before the release date. The staff at Variety, in their review of the film, concentrated on the film's expensive costs and von Stroheim's involvement.
Stroheim was born in Vienna, Austria in 1885 as Erich Oswald Stroheim, (some sources give Hans Erich Maria Stroheim von Nordenwall, but this seems to have been an assumed name, see below), the son of Benno Stroheim, a middle-class hat-maker, and Johanna Bondy, both of whom were observant Jews.
Stroheim emigrated to America aboard the SS Prinz Friedrich Wilhelm on 26 November 1909. On arrival at Ellis Island, he claimed to be Count Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim und Nordenwall, the son of Austrian nobility like the characters he would go on to play in his films.
By 1914 he was working in Hollywood. His first film, in 1915, was The Country Boy in which he was uncredited. His first credited role came in Old Heidelberg. He began working with D. W. Griffith, taking an uncredited role as a Pharisee in Intolerance. Later, with America's entry into World War I, he played sneering German villains in such films as Sylvia of the Secret Service and The Hun Within. In The Heart of Humanity, he tears the buttons from a nurse's uniform with his teeth, and when disturbed by a crying baby, throws it out of a window.
Following the end of the war, Stroheim turned to writing and then directed his own script for Blind Husbands in 1919. He also starred in the film. As a director, Stroheim was known to be dictatorial and demanding, often antagonizing his actors. He is considered one of the greatest directors of the silent era, creating films that represent cynical and romantic views of human nature. His next directorial efforts were the lost film The Devil's Pass Key (1919) and Foolish Wives (1922), in which he also starred. Studio publicity for Foolish Wives claimed that it was the first film to cost one million dollars.
In 1923, Stroheim began work on Merry-Go-Round. However studio executive Irving Thalberg fired Stroheim during filming and replaced him with director Rupert Julian.
Probably Stroheim's best remembered work as a director is Greed, a detailed filming of the novel McTeague by Frank Norris. The original print ran for an astonishing 10 hours. After rejecting Stroheim's attempts to cut it to less than three hours, MGM removed Greed from his control and gave it to head scriptwriter June Mathis, with orders to cut it to a manageable length. Mathis gave the print to a routine cutter, who reduced it to 2.5 hours. In what is considered one of the greatest losses in cinema history, a janitor destroyed the cut footage. The shortened release version was a box-office failure, and was angrily disowned by Stroheim.
Stroheim followed with a commercial project, The Merry Widow (his most commercially successful film) and the more personal The Wedding March and the now-lost The Honeymoon.
Stroheim's unwillingness or inability to modify his artistic principles for the commercial cinema, his extreme attention to detail, his insistence on near-total artistic freedom and the resulting costs of his films led to fights with the studios. As time went on, he received fewer directing opportunities. In 1929, Stroheim was dismissed as the director of the film Queen Kelly after disagreements with star Gloria Swanson and producer and financier Joseph P. Kennedy over the mounting costs of the film and Stroheim's introduction of indecent subject matter into the film's scenario. After Queen Kelly and Walking Down Broadway, a project from which Stroheim was also dismissed, Stroheim returned to working principally as an actor, in both American and French films.
Working in France on the eve of World War II, Stroheim was prepared to direct the film La dame blanche from his own story and screenplay. The production was prevented by the outbreak of the war on September 1, 1939, and Stroheim returned to the United States.
Stroheim is perhaps best known as an actor for his role as Rauffenstein in Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion (1937) and as Max von Mayerling in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950).
For the latter film which costarred Gloria Swanson, Stroheim was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Excerpts from Queen Kelly were used in the film. The Mayerling character states that he used to be one of the three great directors of the silent era, along with D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille; many film critics agree that Stroheim was indeed one of the great early directors.