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The Wedding March

The Wedding March(1928)

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teaser The Wedding March (1928)

Reconsidering any film by Erich von Stroheim inevitably becomes an exercise in "what should have been" because no other Hollywood director endured more studio interference or uncompleted projects. Likewise, any discussion of his work cannot escape comparisons to his background and biography, an endeavor made complicated by von Stroheim's own myth-making. These caveats weigh heavily on The Wedding March.

Set in pre-WWI Vienna, The Wedding March stars von Stroheim as Viennese aristocrat Prince Nikolas von Wildeliebe-Rauffenburg. Prince Nicki must marry into a family with money, because the royal house of Wildeliebe-Rauffenburg is too broke to sustain their extravagant lifestyle. Plans are set in motion for Nicki to marry Cecelia Schweisser, the daughter of a wealthy but decidedly middle-class corn-plaster merchant. At the celebration for Corpus Christi in the square in front of St. Stephens Cathedral, Nicki spots beautiful Mitzi Schrammell. Their eyes lock, and their romantic attraction is immediately apparent. Mitzi's family owns a small inn, so she cannot provide the fortune that Nicki's family needs. Local butcher Schani Eberle, who has his sights set on Mitzi for a bride, lurks on the sidelines, seething with jealousy and bitterness toward the aristocracy. The plotline follows von Stroheim's so-called "master narrative" in which a royal heir is torn between his love for a lower-class girl and his duty to his family or position. The girl in von Stroheim's films not only represents purity but offers redemption for the privileged protagonist from an immoral or debased life. In addition, The Wedding March features other von Stroheim motifs, tropes, and themes, including an unsympathetic portrayal of royalty, the pomp and circumstance of an Old-World military, the suggestion of imperial decay, and a bitter nostalgia for pre-war Vienna.

In fan magazines and publicity articles, Von Stroheim liked to spin mysterious versions of his life story in which he hinted that he was a lost member of Austrian aristocracy forced to immigrate to America because of some unspoken nefarious deed. Such a background might explain his obsession with pre-war Hapsburg Vienna to movie-goers and fanzine readers, but the definitive biography of von Stroheim offers the truth about his childhood. The Man You Loved to Hate: Erich von Stroheim and Hollywood revealed that the director was the oldest son of a Jewish hatter. Thus, his favored themes, stylistic characteristics, and storylines represented the fantasy construction or wish fulfillment of someone who saw himself as the perpetual outsider.

Von Stroheim's directorial style was famous for its lush opulence and extravagant mise-en-scene, which revealed an obsessive devotion to the intricate details of costumes, set designs, and makeup. Stories are legion about his insistence that the underwear of the military characters be historically accurate, though audiences would never see beneath the soldiers' uniforms. According to researchers at Western Costume, which provided most of Hollywood with clothing, uniforms, dresses, and props, the costumes and set dressings for The Wedding March came from pre-war Austria. An article in a 1938 issue of Silver Screen claimed that a buyer for Western Costume traveled to Vienna where he purchased two royal carriages that had belonged to Emperor Franz Josef, furs, medals, and military and court uniforms. Though the exact story of the purchase varies from source to source, most suggest that the items were acquired under strenuous or devious circumstances. Von Stroheim showcased the authentic costumes and props in the Corpus Christi procession by shooting it in two-strip Technicolor, a common practice in silent films for dream sequences, lavish pageants, or fantasy scenes. Von Stroheim's devotion to authentic costumes and set details is often dubbed "realism," but his interest in portraying the realities of society or the human condition ended with Greed. In his last films, he retreated to romantic melodramas set in a dream-like interpretation of Old Europe. The result is more spectacle than drama.

Less often discussed is Von Stroheim's talent for editing, which he learned from the master, D.W. Griffith. Arguably, Von Stroheim may have surpassed Griffith in his ability to convey emotion and advance the narrative through editing. For example, when Prince Nicki and Mitzi watch each other during the Corpus Christi procession, there is a lengthy exchange of looks, gestures, and expressions depicted in close-ups and medium shots. The sequence reveals their growing attraction and announces their budding relationship, which fuels the narrative.

P.A. Powers, who owned Associated Studios as well as Western Costume, backed the production of The Wedding March. Von Stroheim had left MGM after the debacle of Greed and the disappointment of The Merry Widow; he was a director without a studio until he persuaded Powers to support him on his new project. Powers cut a deal with Paramount Pictures to split the cost of The Wedding March. Additionally, Paramount agreed to distribute the film while Powers was in charge of keeping von Stroheim in line.

The director secluded himself in drafty mountain cabins and isolated beach houses to write the script with the help of Harry Carr. He crafted several characters to fit the traits and skills of some of his favorite actors: Cecelia was written for Zasu Pitts, Nicki's parents were to be played by George Fawcett and Maude George, and he created Mitzi's mother for Dale Fuller. However, he wanted Mitzi to be portrayed by a new face, and his search for Hollywood's next big star generated much publicity in 1926. After several weeks, von Sternberg and Harry Carr grew weary of auditions. As Carr noted in Von: The Life and Films of Erich von Stroheim: "Nine-tenths of the girls available are more common than gum stuck under the edge of the chair." Finally, they auditioned a slim brunette who had appeared in only a few Hal Roach comedies and Universal westerns. Fay Wray and her agent had tried to audition earlier in the process, but they did not make it beyond the lobby. On their second try, they succeeded in broaching von Stroheim's office. After the director excitedly told her the entire story, which took several hours, he asked her if she was ready for such a role. Wray assured him that she could play Mitzi, and he handed her the part. When Wray burst into tears at the news, von Stroheim was delighted with her outburst of emotion, which he felt suited Mitzi's character. He didn't even make a screen test with Wray, who was just 18 years old. The part proved to be Wray's big break, and she was singled out in several reviews for her presence and her performance.

Shooting began in June 1926, but as was typical for a von Stroheim production, the proceedings ran far over schedule and way over budget. The production was shut down by Powers in January 1927. Von Stroheim thought he could make two films out of the material, which would be shown by theaters on consecutive nights. After Part 1 came in at four hours, Powers confiscated the footage to cut an alternative version. In 1928, The Wedding March was released as one film to a preview audience, but it was not well received. Paramount decided to release it as two films titled The Wedding March and The Honeymoon. The former was released in October 1929, while the latter was distributed only in Europe. Neither was well received by reviewers, nor were they successful at the box office.

Von Stroheim revisited The Wedding March and The Honeymoon in 1950 when Henri Langlois of the Cinematheque Francaise gave him the opportunity to re-edit the films from prints in the Cinematheque collection. Though he was unable to restore any footage, he did put certain scenes back into their original order. Nine years later, the last known copy of The Honeymoon burned in a fire at the Cinematheque.

By Susan Doll

Producer: Presented by Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky and produced by P.A. Powers for Paramount Pictures
Director: Erich von Stroheim
Screenplay: Erich von Stroheim and Harry Carr
Cinematography: Ben Reynolds, Hal Mohr, and B. Sorenson
Editor: Frank E. Hull
Art Direction: Richard Day
Costumes: Max Ree
Cast: Prince Nikolas von Wildeliebe-Rauffenburg (Erich von Stroheim), Mitzi Schrammell (Fay Wray), Cecelia Schweisser (Zasu Pitts), Prince von Wildeliebe-Rauffenburg (George Fawcett), Princess von Wildeliebe-Rauffenburg (Maude George), Schani Eberle (Matthew Betz), Mr. Schrammell (Cesare Gravina), Mrs. Schrammell (Dale Fuller), Mr. Schweisser (George Nichols), Wine-Garden Proprietor (Hughie Mack), Navratil (Sidney Bracey), Franz Josef I (Anton Vaverka).

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