Erich Von Stroheim


Director
Erich Von Stroheim

About

Also Known As
Erich Oswald Stroheim, Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria Stroheim, Count Erich Von Stroheim, Eric Von Stroheim, Count Von Stroheim
Birth Place
Austria
Born
September 22, 1885
Died
May 12, 1957
Cause of Death
Cancer

Biography

Costumed in tailored military uniforms accessorized with gleaming medals, Austrian émigré Erich von Stroheim became known to American filmgoers during the silent era for his icy portrayals of pre-World War II German soldiers. Arriving in Hollywood in 1914 with a fabricated autobiography of nobility and military honor, von Stroheim gained entry into the film industry as a technical adviso...

Photos & Videos

Sunset Blvd. - Publicity Stills
Five Graves to Cairo - Publicity Stills
Grand Illusion - Movie Poster

Family & Companions

Margaret Knox
Wife
Married from February 19, 1913 until her death in 1915; American socialite; born c. 1879.
Mae Jones
Wife
Seamstress. Worked for Griffith company; married in 1916; divorced in 1918.
Valerie Germonprez
Wife
Actor. Appeared in "Heart of Humanity" with Stroheim; burned during a 1933 beauty salon explosion; separated from Stroheim in 1945 but never divorced; died at age 91 on October 22, 1988.
Denise Vernac
Companion
Actor. Together from late 1930s until Stroheim's death.

Bibliography

"Stroheim"
Arthur Lenning, University of Kentucky Press (2000)
"Poto-Poto"
Eric von Stroheimn (1956)
"Les Feux de la St. Jean"
Eric von Stroheim (1954)
"Les Feux de la St. Jean"
Eric von Stroheim (1951)

Notes

"The public at large is not as spiritually poor as the producers imagine. It wants to be shown life as real as it actually is for people: harsh, unexpected, hopeless, fatalistic. I intend to tailor my films in the rough fabric of human conflicts. Because to make films with the regularity of a sausage machine forces you to make them neither better nor worse than a string of sausages."--von Stroheim, in 1925

Given the Legion of Honor by French government for his services to film art in 1957.

Biography

Costumed in tailored military uniforms accessorized with gleaming medals, Austrian émigré Erich von Stroheim became known to American filmgoers during the silent era for his icy portrayals of pre-World War II German soldiers. Arriving in Hollywood in 1914 with a fabricated autobiography of nobility and military honor, von Stroheim gained entry into the film industry as a technical advisor and horseman. Later an assistant for D. W. Griffith, von Stroheim brokered a deal, agreeing to work for free for the chance to direct his first film. "Blind Husbands" (1919) was a hit despite von Stroheim's insistence on expensive location photography. His spendthrift habits would ultimately cost him control of his films, with his nine-hour "Greed" (1924) reduced to two and "The Wedding March" (1928) shut down after nine months. Fired by star Gloria Swanson during the shooting of "Queen Kelly" (1929), von Stroheim was considered unemployable as a director and returned to the life of a jobbing actor. Using his sinister mien to good effect in such quickies as "The Crime of Dr. Crespi" (1935) and "The Great Flamarion" (1945), von Stroheim contributed vivid supporting performances to Billy Wilder's "Five Graves to Cairo" (1943) and "Sunset Blvd." (1950), the latter reuniting him with Swanson for an acidic meditation of the dark side of the silver screen. Despite an Academy Award nomination, von Stroheim's greater glory was already behind him. Cancer took his life in May 1957, robbing moviegoers of one of its most unique visionaries and an unforgettable film presence.

Erich Oswald Stroheim was born on Sept. 22, 1885, in Vienna, Austria. His parents were middle-class Jews who ran a millinery in Vienna's 7th District and expected their first-born son to assume control of the family business. Uninterested in school work, Stroheim was sent to a trade school in Graz to prepare him for a business career, but that too ended in failure due to frequent truancy. In the fall of 1906, in a bid to escape his destiny as a merchant, Stroheim enlisted as a volunteer with a military transport regiment, where he was trained to handle horses and wagons. Declared unfit for active duty due to physical weakness, Stroheim was discharged in April 1907 and returned to Vienna. Due to a hunting accident, in which Stroheim's younger brother Bruno killed a friend, a portion of the Stroheim savings was put towards arbitration to keep the affair out of court. The family business was liquidated in 1913, but Stroheim had long since left Austria for the promise of a new life in America.

Stroheim sailed from Bremen to New York aboard the S. S. Fredrich Wilhelm, arriving at Ellis Island in November 1909. At his customs interrogation, and despite speaking with a distinct lower-class accent, the 24-year-old émigré identified himself as Count Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria Stroheim von Nordenwall, the descendant of an aristocratic Prussian family. The makeover would be characteristic of the newly-minted Erich von Stroheim's frequent autobiographical fabrications, which erased his past in favor of a hagiography of titled affluence and military distinction. Due to his limited command of English, von Stroheim's first job in America was wrapping gifts at a Manhattan department store during the Christmas season. In 1911, he enlisted as a private in the New York National Guard, serving only a few months before disappearing from the ranks. Work with a garment company brought von Stroheim to San Francisco in 1912.

In 1914, von Stroheim arrived in Hollywood on the heels of a short-lived but educational marriage to the daughter of an affluent Bay Area physician. His experience with horses in Austria and with the New York National Guard allowed him to secure a position with a riding academy in Pasadena. Work within the film community was not immediately forthcoming, but the new arrival managed to cobble together some experience with director D.W. Griffith. In the 1940s, von Stroheim claimed to have worked as an extra on Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" (1915), whether this credit was genuine or another of his colorful inventions, von Stroheim did appear in bit parts in several productions of Griffith's Fine Arts Studio. By 1917, he had graduated to principal roles, playing Prussian officers in Alan Crosland's "The Unbeliever" (1918) and Chester Withey's "The Hun Within" (1918).

Von Stroheim's work behind the scenes in Hollywood, as a technical advisor on issues of military detail, led to assignments as an assistant director. In 1919, he made his directorial debut with "Blind Husbands" and starred as an Austrian soldier who woos the feckless wife of a vacationing surgeon. In order to persuade the Universal Film Manufacturing Company to allow him the privilege of filming his own screenplay, von Stroheim agreed to direct, design sets, and edit the film for free, while retaining only an actor's salary of $200 a week. By this time, von Stroheim had cemented his cinematic mien to his fabricated backstory, forging for the moviegoing public a reputation as "The Man You Love to Hate," both in front of and behind the camera, epitomizing a presumed quintessential Hun for a nation staggering victorious but scarred from the First World War.

Though von Stroheim would be remembered as one of the preeminent writer-directors of Hollywood's silent epoch, he made only seven films. Soaring costs related to his insistence on location shooting and a high level of realism eventually cost the auteur control of his projects. "Greed" (1924), von Stroheim's adaptation of the Frank Norris novel McTeague and the first feature produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, ran nine hours before the studio cut it down to slightly over two. "The Wedding March" (1928), in which von Stroheim starred as a militarist in love with commoner Fay Wray, went over-budget and over-schedule, compelling Paramount to pull the plug and release the footage as two feature films. In 1928, silent film star Gloria Swanson tapped von Stroheim to direct her in "Queen Kelly" but fired him mid-production, bringing in other directors to complete the film for European distribution.

Von Stroheim's one attempt at a talking picture, "Walking Down Broadway" (1932), was withheld from distribution by Fox, who had the material reshot by Alfred Werker, Alan Crosland and Raoul Walsh before releasing the result as "Hello, Sister!" (1933). Having weathered two more unsuccessful marriages, productive of two sons from different mothers, von Stroheim abandoned filmmaking to return to the life of a jobbing actor. His reputation as a backlot tyrant began to inform his film roles. He played a maniacal film director in "The Lost Squadron" (1932) and a mad scientist in "The Crime of Dr. Crespi" (1935). Abandoning his sons, he sailed to Europe to play the crippled commandant of a German concentration camp in Jean Renoir's classic anti-war film "Grand Illusion" (1937). Returning to the States, von Stroheim broke a creative dry spell by replacing Boris Karloff in the original Broadway production of "Arsenic and Old Lace," staying with the show for a year and a half.

For Billy Wilder, von Stroheim appeared as real life German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel in Billy Wilder's otherwise fictional "Five Graves to Cairo" (1943). Less reputable was his stoic turn as another mad doctor in "The Lady and the Monster" (1945), produced by the Poverty Row outfit Republic Pictures. Also for Republic, von Stroheim appeared in "Flame Over Lisbon" (1944) - a cheap attempt to cash in on the success of "Casablanca" (1942) - and "The Great Flamarion" (1945), in which he played a vaudeville trick shooter gulled into committing murder. For the equally frugal independent Producer's Releasing Corporation, von Stroheim starred in "The Mask of Dijon" (1945), as an embittered hypnotist who mesmerizes others into doing his dirty deeds. Unable to find work with the major studios, von Stroheim settled for a time in France.

Von Stroheim's acting career might have ended in the ignominy of Poverty Row paychecks were it not for the intervention of countryman Billy Wilder. Lured back to Hollywood with the promise of work in a major film, von Stroheim reluctantly accepted the role of Max Mayerling, butler and chauffeur to faded film star Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Blvd." (1951). Though Wilder's acidic meditation on the dark side of the Hollywood dream cut uncomfortably close to the bone, it was von Stroheim who suggested that footage from "Queen Kelly," the feature from which Swanson had once had him fired, be used in the film. Revealed ultimately as more than a mere valet - in fact, the ex-husband and one-time director of Swanson's mildewed Nora Desmond - Max proved to be von Stroheim's most tragically romantic character and netted him Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. Though he was often dismissive of his participation in "Sunset Blvd.," his role in it remained the jewel in his acting crown.

Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1944 and treated with chemotherapy, von Stroheim suffered from declining health through the rest of his life. He continued to act in Europe, appearing as an overreaching scientist in Arthur Maria Rabenalt's remake of the German silent "Alraune" (1952) and bewigged as Ludwig von Beethoven in Sacha Guitry's "Napoleon" (1955), while writing screenplays that went unproduced. In 1957, von Stroheim's cancer metastasized to his spine, crippling him and confining him to his bed. That March, he accepted the French Legion of Honor, one true medal to hang with the costume jewelry and prop department ribbons he had long claimed represented evidence of his former military glory. Heavily sedated for pain in his final months and unable to leave his chateau in the Paris suburb of Maurepas, von Stroheim died in his sleep on May 12, 1957.

By Richard Harland Smith

Filmography

 

Director (Feature Film)

Hello, Sister! (1933)
Director of initial period
The Wedding March (1928)
Director
Queen Kelly (1928)
Director
Greed (1925)
Director
The Merry Widow (1925)
Director
Greed (Reconstructed Version) (1924)
Director
Merry-Go-Round (1923)
Addl Director
Foolish Wives (1922)
Director
The Devil's Passkey (1920)
Director
Blind Husbands (1919)
Director
Less Than the Dust (1916)
Assistant Director

Cast (Feature Film)

Napoleon (1955)
Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Max Von Mayerling
The Mask of Diijon (1946)
Diijon
The Great Flamarion (1945)
The Great Flamarion
Scotland Yard Investigator (1945)
Carl Hoffmeyer
The Lady and the Monster (1944)
Professor Franz Mueller
Storm Over Lisbon (1944)
Deresco
Five Graves to Cairo (1943)
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
The North Star (1943)
Dr. von Harden
So Ends Our Night (1941)
Brenner
I Was an Adventuress (1940)
Andre Desormeaux
Pieges (1939)
L'Alibi (1937)
Professor Wineckler
Grand Illusion (1937)
The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935)
Dr. Andre Crespi
Crimson Romance (1934)
Captain Wolters
Fugitive Road (1934)
Commandant Hauptmann Oswald Von Traunsee
As You Desire Me (1932)
[Karl] Salter
The Lost Squadron (1932)
[Arthur] Von Furst
Friends and Lovers (1931)
Victor Sangrito
The Great Gabbo (1930)
Gabbo
Three Faces East (1930)
Valdar
Souls for Sale (1923)
Foolish Wives (1922)
Count Sergius Karamzin [Captain, 3d Hussars, Imperial Russian Army]
Blind Husbands (1919)
Lieut. Eric Von Steuben, the other man
The Heart of Humanity (1919)
Eric Von Eberhard
The Unbeliever (1918)
Lieut. Kurt von Schnieditz
The Hun Within (1918)
Von Bickel
Sylvia of the Secret Service (1917)
For France (1917)
Draft 258 (1917)
Panthea (1917)
Lieutenant of police
The Flying Torpedo (1916)
His accomplices
Intolerance (1916)
First Pharisee
The Social Secretary (1916)
Adam Buzzard
Old Heidelberg (1915)
Lutz

Writer (Feature Film)

The Emperor's Candlesticks (1937)
Contr to trmt
Between Two Women (1937)
Original Story
The Devil-Doll (1936)
Screenwriter
Hello, Sister! (1933)
Cont and dial
Queen Kelly (1928)
Story
Queen Kelly (1928)
Scen
The Wedding March (1928)
Screenwriter
The Merry Widow (1925)
Adaptation
Greed (1925)
Adaptation
Greed (1925)
Scen
The Merry Widow (1925)
Scen
Greed (Reconstructed Version) (1924)
Writer
Foolish Wives (1922)
Titles
Foolish Wives (1922)
Story
Foolish Wives (1922)
Scen
The Devil's Passkey (1920)
Story
The Devil's Passkey (1920)
Scen
Blind Husbands (1919)
Scen

Editing (Feature Film)

Greed (1925)
Film Editor

Art Director (Feature Film)

The Wedding March (1928)
Art Director
Wild and Woolly (1917)
Tech Director
Blind Man's Luck (1917)
Tech Director

Costume-Wardrobe (Feature Film)

The Merry Widow (1925)
Costumes
Merry-Go-Round (1923)
Costumes

Film Production - Main (Feature Film)

Anna Karénina (1935)
Tech adv on military seq
In Again--Out Again (1917)
Loc

Title Design (Feature Film)

The Man You Loved To Hate (1979)
Titles

Misc. Crew (Feature Film)

The Man You Loved To Hate (1979)
Other

Director (Special)

The Real McTeague: A Synthesis of Forms (1993)
Director

Misc. Crew (Special)

The Real McTeague: A Synthesis of Forms (1993)
Other

Cast (Short)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1925 Studio Tour (1925)
Himself

Misc. Crew (Short)

Erich von Stroheim (1962)
Archival Footage

Life Events

1909

Arrived in America; worked as salesman, clerk, short story writer, railroad worker and travel agent

1912

Wrote first play, "In the Morning"

1914

Initial film work as an extra in "Captain McLean" and

1915

First screen credit in "Farewell to Thee"

1916

Debut as assistant director, "Intolerance"; also acted

1919

First film as director, star, and screenwriter in "Blind Husbands/The Pinnacle")

1919

Signed contract with Universal

1919

Starred as villain in "The Heart of Humanity"

1922

Fired from "Merry-Go-Round" by Irving Thalberg

1923

Fired from "Greed" by Irving Thalberg, the production head of newly-formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer who then hired Rex Ingram to recut the film

1929

Fired from "Queen Kelly" by Joseph Kennedy

1932

Sound film co-directing debut with "Walking Down Broadway" (co-screenwriter; re-directed by Alfred Werker, re-edited and re-titled "Hello, Sister;" no directorial credit; original prints no longer exist)

1934

Attempted suicide (Christmas)

1935

Hired as contract writer at MGM

1936

Quit MGM

1941

Made only stage play appearance in "Arsenic and Old Lace"

Photo Collections

Sunset Blvd. - Publicity Stills
Sunset Blvd. - Publicity Stills
Five Graves to Cairo - Publicity Stills
Five Graves to Cairo - Publicity Stills
Grand Illusion - Movie Poster
Here is the original release French movie poster for Grand Illusion (1937), directed by Jean Renoir and starring Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim.
Greed - Behind-the-Scenes Photo
Here is a still taken behind-the-scenes during production of Erich von Stroheim's silent epic, Greed (1924).
Five Graves to Cairo - Lobby Cards
Here are some lobby cards from Five Graves to Cairo (1943), directed by Billy Wilder. Lobby Cards were 11" x 14" posters that came in sets of 8. As the name implies, they were most often displayed in movie theater lobbies, to advertise current or coming attractions.
Five Graves to Cairo - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
Here are some photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Paramount's Five Graves to Cairo (1943), directed by Billy Wilder.
Five Graves to Cairo - Movie Posters
Here are a variety of American and International movie posters for Paramount's Five Graves to Cairo (1943), directed by Billy Wilder.

Videos

Movie Clip

Grand Illusion (1937) - May The Earth Lie Gently Second scene, German Captain Von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) returns from a sortie, announcing he expects French officers de Boldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Marechal (Jean Gabin), introduced in the first scene, to arrive, in Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, 1937.
Sunset Blvd. (1950) - The Whole Truth Starting, as has been noted, in the gutter, the opening credits and the first part of William Holden (as "Joe Gillis") narrating his own homicide, from Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd., 1950.
Sunset Blvd. (1950) - You Used To Be Big The first appearance of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), instructing screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), who's there because he had a blowout while fleeing repo-men, on her chimp's funeral, having presumed he's the undertaker she called, from Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd., 1950.
Grand Illusion (1937) - I Am Perfectly Sane! POW officer de Boldieu (Pierre Fresnay) taunting guards with his flute and diversion, chivalrous commandant von Raffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) urging him to surrender, a famous scene from Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, 1937.
Friends And Lovers (1931) - One Is So Like The Other Philandering Roberts (Adolphe Menjou) and Alva (Lily Damita), returning from not attending the opera, quickly found out by her husband Victor (Erich von Stroheim), early in Friends And Lovers, 1931.
Sunset Blvd. (1950) - Still More Norma Desmonds Hard-up screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), now resigned to residing with ex-movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) while he re-writes her comeback picture, offers details of his life with her, in Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd., 1950.
Devil-Doll, The (1936) - Open, My Work Easily the most routine scene, following opening credits, introducing Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) and Marcel (Henry B. Walthall), escaping Devil's Island in Tod Browning's The Devil-Doll, 1936.
Merry Widow, The (1925) - City In The Sky Director Erich von Stroheim going for scale from the opening, introducing "Monteblanco," the king (George Fawcett), queen (Josephine Crowell), evil baron (Tully Marshall) and unappealing crown prince (Roy D'Arcy), in the 1925 MGM version of The Merry Widow.
Merry Widow, The (1925) - Premiere Danseuse American entertainer Sally O'Hara (Mae Murray) and troupe arrive in the fictional Alpine nation of Monteblanco, greeted by chance by the charming, if forward second son of the king, Prince Danilo (John Gilbert), in Erich von Stroheim's The Merry Widow, 1925.
Merry Widow, The (1925) - Manhattan Follies All the kingdom of Monteblanco seems turned out to see the American troupe starring Sally O'Hara (Mae Murray), lusted after by the Baron (Tully Marshall), Crown Prince Mirko (Roy D'Arcy), and his less-evil younger brother Danilo (John Gilbert), in Erich von Stroheim's The Merry Widow, 1925.
Lost Squadron, The (1932) - Drinking And Flying Reunited with wartime pal and Hollywood pilot Woody (Robert Armstrong), meeting his sister "Pest" (Dorothy Jordan), Gibby (Richard Dix), Red (Joel McCrea) and Fritz (Hugh Herbert), get their first movie gig, Erich von Stroheim as the director, in The Lost Squadron, 1932.
Lost Squadron, The - Act Like Dead! Erich von Stroheim (as "Von Furst") stretching to act like a crazy director, likewise Mary Astor as actress "Follette," Richard Dix (as "Gibby") and Robert Armstrong (as tipsy "Woody") as flying aces in Hollywood, early in The Lost Squadron, 1932.

Trailer

Family

Benno Stroheim
Father
Hat salesman, milliner. Jewish; from Gleiwitz in Prussian Silesia; settled in Vienna.
Johanna Bondy
Mother
Jewish.
Bruno Stroheim
Brother
Younger.
Erich von Stroheim Jr
Son
Born on August 25, 1916; died on October 26, 1968; mother, Mae Jones.
Josef Stroheim
Son
Born on September 18, 1922; mother, Valerie Germonprez.

Companions

Margaret Knox
Wife
Married from February 19, 1913 until her death in 1915; American socialite; born c. 1879.
Mae Jones
Wife
Seamstress. Worked for Griffith company; married in 1916; divorced in 1918.
Valerie Germonprez
Wife
Actor. Appeared in "Heart of Humanity" with Stroheim; burned during a 1933 beauty salon explosion; separated from Stroheim in 1945 but never divorced; died at age 91 on October 22, 1988.
Denise Vernac
Companion
Actor. Together from late 1930s until Stroheim's death.

Bibliography

"Stroheim"
Arthur Lenning, University of Kentucky Press (2000)
"Poto-Poto"
Eric von Stroheimn (1956)
"Les Feux de la St. Jean"
Eric von Stroheim (1954)
"Les Feux de la St. Jean"
Eric von Stroheim (1951)
"Hollywood Scapegoat: The Biography of Erich von Stroheim"
Peter Noble, Fortune Press (1951)
"Paprika"
Eric von Stroheim (1935)
"The Man You Love to Hate"
Richard Kozarski

Notes

"The public at large is not as spiritually poor as the producers imagine. It wants to be shown life as real as it actually is for people: harsh, unexpected, hopeless, fatalistic. I intend to tailor my films in the rough fabric of human conflicts. Because to make films with the regularity of a sausage machine forces you to make them neither better nor worse than a string of sausages."--von Stroheim, in 1925

Given the Legion of Honor by French government for his services to film art in 1957.