Foolish Wives is a 1922 American drama silent film produced and distributed by Universal Pictures and written and directed by Erich von Stroheim. Although uncredited, Irving Thalberg, aged 22, was in charge of production. Thalberg would later become one of the most famous studio heads of all time. The drama features von Stroheim, Rudolph Christians, Miss DuPont, Maude George, and others.
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 silent drama tells the story of a man who names himself Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin (von Stroheim) in order to seduce rich women and extort money from them.
He has set up shop in Monte Carlo and his partners in crime (and possible lovers) are his cousins: "Princess" Vera Petchnikoff (Busch) and "Her Highness" Olga Petchnikoff (George).
Count Karamzin begins his latest scam on the unworldly wife of an American envoy, Helen Hughes (DuPont), even though her husband is nearby. He attempts to charm her, planning to eventually fleece her of her money. She is easily impressed by his faux-aristocratic glamor, to the chagrin of her dull but sincere husband. Karamzin also has his eye on two other women, Maruschka (Fuller), a maid at the hotel, and Marietta (Pollo) the mentally disabled daughter of one of his criminal associates (Gravina), seeing them both as easy sexual prey.
In the climax of the film Maruschka, the maid he has seduced and abandoned, goes mad and sets fire to a building in which Karamzin and Mrs Hughes are trapped. Karamzin jumps to save himself, leaving Mrs Hughes in danger. She is saved, and is looked after by her devoted husband. Karamzin's public display of selfish cowardice ensures he is shunned by the high society he craves to be accepted by. Humiliated, he tries to restore his pride by seducing Marietta, the mentally disabled girl. Her father kills him, dumping his body in a sewer. Karamzin's "cousins" are arrested for being imposters and con-artists.
- Rudolph Christians as Andrew J. Hughes, U.S. Special-Envoy to Monaco
- Miss DuPont as Helen Hughes, his wife
- Maude George as Her Highness Olga Petchnikoff
- Mae Busch as Princess Vera Petchnikoff
- Erich von Stroheim as Their Cousin, Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin (Russian Captain of Hussars)
- Dale Fuller as Maruschka, a Maid
- Al Edmundsen as Pavel Pavlich, a Butler
- Cesare Gravina as Cesare Ventucci, a Counterfeiter
- Malvina Polo as Marietta, his half-witted daughter
- C.J. Allen as Albert I, Prince of Monaco
- Robert Edeson as Andrew J. Hughes, U.S. Special-Envoy to Monaco (replaced Rudolph Christians during production after Christians died. Edeson was filmed entirely from the back.)
The film began director von Stroheim's reputation as a "manic perfectionist", a huge spender, and as a director that needed to be brought under control. During filming, the cost of the film soared. While the budget was slated at $250,000, according to von Stroheim, it ended at $750,000. At the end, Universal estimated the cost at $1,225,000. During the production, Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal, appointed 20-year-old Irving Thalberg as head of the studio. Right away the new studio chief started clashing with von Stroheim, whom he considered a spendthrift.
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 denied to the press 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.
Actor Rudolph Christians died on February 7, 1921 from pneumonia during production, and his part was taken over by Robert Edeson. Edeson only showed his back to the camera so as not to clash with footage shot of Christians that was still to be used in the completed film.
Original prints reportedly had hand coloring of certain scenes by artist Gustav Brock.
The film was the eighth most popular movie of 1922 in North America.
When released, the staff at Variety magazine, in their review of the film, concentrated on the film's expensive costs and von Stroheim's involvement. They wrote, "According to the Universal's press department, the picture cost $1,103,736.38; was 11 months and six days in filming; six months in assembling and editing; consumed 320,000 feet of negative, and employed as many as 15,000 extras for atmosphere. Foolish Wives shows the cost â" in the sets, beautiful backgrounds and massive interiors that carry a complete suggestion of the atmosphere of Monte Carlo, the locale of the story. And the sets, together with a thoroughly capable cast, are about all the picture has for all the heavy dough expended. Obviously intended to be a sensational sex melodrama, Foolish Wives is at the same time frankly salaciousÂ ... Erich von Stroheim wrote the script, directed, and is the featured player. He's all over the lot every minute."
While praising the acting as excellent, Photoplay called the film "an insult to American ideals and womanhood".
More recently, film critic Ed Gonzalez discussed the film and wrote, "1922's Foolish Wives begins with the perfect iris shot. This is no ordinary 'fade into' effect, but an entrancing reinforcement of the sinister, insular and constrictive nature of the milieu Von Stroheim is about to introduce us toÂ ... At the time of its release, Foolish Wives was the most expensive film ever produced, and though Von Stroheim was widely considered a lavish spendthrift, his films remain triumphs of period detail."
Critic Keith Phipps wrote of the film, "Foolish Wives re-creates Monte Carlo in a Hollywood back lotÂ ... Playing a fraudulent aristocrat, in a touch that echoed his own biography, Von Stroheim dupes the gullible, lusts after a retarded teenager, and attempts to undo an innocent American. It's like a Henry James novel as dreamt by a pornographer, and it illustrates what makes Von Stroheim such a problematic genius: Is it nascent post-modernism or egotism run amok that made him prominently feature a character reading a novel called Foolish Wives, credited to Erich Von Stroheim?"
- Foolish Wives at the American Film Institute Catalog
- Foolish Wives at the Internet Movie Database
- Foolish Wives at the TCM Movie Database
- Foolish Wives at Rotten Tomatoes
- Foolish Wives is available for free download at the Internet Archive (black and white)
- Foolish Wives is available for free download at the Internet Archive (monochrome colored)
- Foolish Wives film review at Pop Matters by Violet Glaze