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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

THE REEL REALS: Erich von Stroheim

Erich von Stroheim
Lord knows I love a good Austrian, and it could be said that Erich von Stroheim is the best of the worst. He cut his teeth in Hollywood by banking on his Germanic heritage by playing sadistic foreigners in the push for propaganda films during the Great War. In a way, he maintained his "soldier's position when he turned to directing, strutting around like some combination of a General and a Monarch in his boots, riding crop, and monocle. All this, while absurd from the outside, was but a calculated way for him to differentiate himself from the rest of the pack. No one remembers "normal" or "average," after all. (Think of him as the Marilyn Manson or Lady Gaga of his day). Of course, Erich's penchants for grandiosity and making a bold statement also interfered with his creative process. He never quite learned how to edit himself-- either in behavior or in artistry-- which brings us to the best and the worst of him.

Erich's unique talent as a filmmaker was his eye for detail. (See, the monocle helped)! His films are by nature all epics. The lush compositions of his sets, mise en scenes, the wardrobe, etc, make his jaw-dropping even today: the screen still seems to drip with his startling authenticity. In terms of story, Erich pulled no punches, standing in as the precursor to Orson Welles, directing movies that turned a pointed finger at the audience. Unfortunately, his aesthetic sensibilities, while savory to the eye and intellect, were uncomfortable for tooshies and equally drove MGM crazy as he bled them dry reshooting and perfecting every project, making them bigger and bigger, longer and longer. Irving Thalberg had to fire him from Merry Go Round, Gloria Swanson did the same when Queen Kelly started spiraling out of control, and his ultimate success, Greed, which clocked in at somewhere between 7-10 hours had to be cut to shreds in order to be both bearable to audiences and releasable-- some theaters weren't even open that many hours! 

Finally, his overzealous penchants put an end to his directorial efforts, but Erich was able to continue his acting career, as his notoriety had guaranteed him an eternal place in the spotlight. He churned out impressive and iconic performances in Le Grande Illusion, Portrait d'un Assassin, and of course, Sunset Boulevard. While Hollywood may have shunned his filmmaking, film lovers sure haven't, and we continue to be enchanted, bewitched, and transfixed by his efforts-- still remarkable and some of the best examples of cinematic genius from the silent era.

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