The last of the Katies for 1928-29 have been awarded—and it only took six weeks! At this rate, I'll reach the present day in, hmm, let's see, nine years.
Well, better get to it.
In case you've forgotten who won Katies for 1928-29, here's a recap of the year's winners:
Picture: The Passion of Joan of Arc (prod. Société générale des films)
Actor: Buster Keaton (Steamboat Bill, Jr.)
Actress: Lillian Gish (The Wind)
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc)
Supporting Actor: Ernest Torrence (Steamboat Bill, Jr.)
Supporting Actress: Anita Page (Our Dancing Daughters)
Screenplay: Frances Marion (The Wind)
Special Award: Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks (the creation and marketing of Mickey Mouse); Steamboat Bill, Jr. (prod. Joseph M. Schenck) (Best Picture-Comedy); Erich von Stroheim (The Wedding March) (Best Actor-Drama); Marion Davies (Show People) (Best Actress-Comedy); Douglas Shearer (The Broadway Melody) (Special Achievement In The Use Of Sound); "The Broadway Melody" (The Broadway Melody) (Best Song); Un Chien Andalou (prod. Luis Buñuel) (Best Short Subject); John Arnold (The Wind) (Cinematography)
And because a list of awards doesn't tell the whole story, here's another list, this time my selections for the "must-see" movies of the year:
Must-See Movies Of 1928-29: The Cameraman; Un Chien Andalou; The Docks Of New York; The Iron Mask; Our Dancing Daughters; The Passion Of Joan Of Arc; Show People; Steamboat Bill, Jr.; Steamboat Willie; The Wedding March; The Wind
I've written about each of the listed Katie Award winners and in doing so I've also written about each of the must-see movies—except The Wedding March, the last movie directed by Erich von Stroheim that can be reasonably said to work. It's the story of a young aristocrat forced to marry for money rather than love. Von Stroheim was surprisingly sympathetic in the lead role, reminding you, as he would again in Sunset Boulevard, that he wasn't just a pretty face in a monocle. For his performance in The Wedding March, I nominated him for a Katie (he lost to Buster Keaton).
Like most of his work (see, e.g., Greed and Queen Kelly), the version of The Wedding March that wound up on the screen was quite a bit less than what von Stroheim had envisioned. Most film buffs have heard tales of von Stroheim's nine (nine, Mrs. Bueller!) hour cut of Greed that the studio whittled down to 130 minutes. In this case, The Wedding March is only the first third of what von Stroheim, who was not one to learn a lesson, conceived of as a six-plus hour movie tracing the reluctant courtship and subsequent marriage of the young aristocrat and a rich industrialist's crippled daughter (Zasu Pitts). The studio shut down the production after nine months and ordered von Stroheim to split the film as conceived into three parts, with The Wedding March at two hours to be followed by its sequel, The Honeymoon, and an unnamed third film to complete the trilogy. The Honeymoon was started but apparently never completed; its elements were destroyed by fire in the 1950s.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, I suspect the studio's intervention, rather than destroying a work of art, may well have saved von Stroheim from himself.
In retro- spect, I think it's clear that von Stroheim was attempt- ing, with all these six and nine hour cuts of his movies, to invent the HBO miniseries. And he was absolutely right that there is artistic merit to taking time to tell a nine-hour story—I mean, think of The Sopranos reduced from a thirteen-hour season to a two-hour movie. Instead of having a deeply-layered, nuanced story, you would wind up with the same slam-bang surface-level gangster fluff that routinely shows up in the theaters, here for a disappointing opening weekend and then gone forever.
But unfortunately for von Stroheim, HBO and the miniseries hadn't been invented yet. Hell, they hadn't invented television yet. He was stuck with what he had, silent movies, a brevity-is-the-soul-of-wit medium. And while I support an artist's right to chase a vision no matter how impractical, there is no way von Stroheim could have expected in his wildest fantasies that an audience was going to sit still for nine hours while he threw shadows on a screen. In that context of the world he worked in, von Stroheim was not so much an artist pushing the edge as a gasbag who couldn't get to the point. (Or in his case, most likely a pompous poseur with a pathological need to prove himself superior to a public he regarded as rabble. But I digress.)
But let's say for the sake of argument that von Stroheim was a genius and further that some scientist somewhere is working on a time machine that would bring von Stroheim, contract and camera in hand, to the home offices of HBO. The fact is, he still couldn't make a miniseries for HBO because he'd insist on a $100 million budget. Need to film a scene in a nondescript San Francisco boarding house? Go to San Francisco! Have a desert scene in the screenplay? Move your entire company to the desert for months to shoot a scene that winds up looking like something shot on a Hollywood backlot. He was extravagant beyond all reason, insisting on a fidelity to realism that didn't translate to the screen. With the way he spent money, on what in the end were tiny little art films, he never had a hope of turning a profit. No wonder he drove people like Irving Thalberg nuts.
"What's that about?" Thalberg asked von Stroheim as they watched the rushes from the director's 1925 movie, The Merry Widow, referring to one of the odder scenes in a movie heavily censored before its release.
"That is a foot fetish," von Stroheim said.
"You, Von," replied Thalberg, "have a footage fetish."
In all fairness, I should point out that Cecil B. DeMille routinely spent more money than von Stroheim. But I also have to point out that DeMille routinely made more money than von Stroheim. And as nasty a notion as that is to an artist, when you're making pictures with somebody else's money, you have to create the possibility that the guy writing the check will turn a profit or he's soon going to stop writing those checks.
Which really brings me to the most important point, that what survives of von Stroheim's work really isn't that pretty. Von Stroheim's characters may have indulged a wide variety of fetishes—the panty sniffing of Queen Kelly, the foot fondling of The Merry Widow—but von Stroheim himself had a fetish for the grotesque, grotesque in the true sense of the word, "characterized by the fanciful," distorting "the natural into absurdity, ugliness or caricature." For all his blather about realism, von Stroheim was attracted to the fantastic, and the problem with a fetish is that it is inaccessible to anyone who doesn't share the fetish, a serious problem if you're looking for an audience of millions to defray the cost of your particular brand of lunacy.
I'm willing to concede that it's possible that the nine (nine!) hour version of, say, Greed was subtle and brilliant and absorbing (that is, if you didn't have to watch it in a single sitting). As I said, The Sopranos whittled down to two hours would never have had the same impact that the full series had. We'll never know.
But I think it's more likely that von Stroheim needed someone to rein him in, control his impulses, find the movie buried within the miles of footage. The director needed direction.
In any event, von Stroheim only directed nine movies (two of which he didn't finish; five others were heavily cut). His last movie, 1933's Hello, Sister, was mostly reshot after the studio fired von Stroheim. I think to a degree his reputation is based on a sense of what-might-have-been rather than on what-was, the romantic cliche of the great artist with the corporate boot on his neck; but I think based on the what-was I've seen, the-what-might-have-been is a bit overblown.
All of which is an appropriately long-winded way of saying that The Wedding March might be the best movie Erich von Stroheim ever accidentally made.