Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Recap Of The Katie Award Winners For 1928-29, A List Of Must-See Movies And A Word About Erich von Stroheim

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)
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.


Katie-Bar-The_Door said...

Hmmm, I leave MM alone for a day and he starts writing about foot fetishes.

Back to the point, at work I have a rule that any meeting that takes more than an hour isn't worth having. (I have serious meeting ADD.) I can't imagine sitting through a 9 hour movie. If you can't say it in 2 hours, you better seriously think about what you're trying to say. Not that there aren't some great long movies, Schindler's List being a case in point. A couple of times I've caught it on HBO and meant to stop watching after a few moments, but it drags me in, and three hours later I surface and amazed once again at how entertaining it is (although entertaining seems to be the wrong word to use to describe a movie about the holocaust.) There are too many movies/directors/editors out there who are enraptured with their "vision" they they don't get that we're not, and they haven't convinced us why we should be.

Anyway, does a comment this long equate to a 9 hour movie? :)

Mythical Monkey said...

See, you've never been in a meeting with Mister Muleboy, whose flights of non sequitur legal analysis have you ready to bolt the room in ten minutes. But I know what you mean.

I found a von Stroheim quote after I posted this entry. This is from

"After six months in the editing room, Stroheim turned over his cut of [1922's Foolish Wives] to Universal Pictures in December, 1921. The film was 32 reels and 8 hours long, but Stroheim insisted it was now 'a perfect story.' When asked how it would be possible to present thirty-two reels for an evening's entertainment, Stroheim replied, 'That's a detail I hadn't time to bother about.'"

Apparently he had this problem with all of his films ...

TAS said...

The problem with Stroheim (not so much as a filmmaker, but as a phenomenon in American cinema) is that it's extremely difficult to separate fact from publicity jive of the hour. So much so that I'm willing to believe that everything we think we know about Erich Oswald Stroheim is in fact utterly, completely wrong.

For example, the nine-hour cut of 'Greed', screened at least once, may have been no more than a glorified assembly; something no one seriously considered releasing. Stroheim did approve a subsequent cut that ran some five hours; then, when MGM more or less began to lose patience, he reportedly turned the film over to Rex Ingram (probably the second best director in Hollywood after Stroheim) and his editor, Grant Whytock, who got the thing down to 3 1/2 hours.

Eventually, Metro blew its stack and . . . we know the results.

Mythical Monkey said...

It's an interesting point -- and I wonder how much of the legend of the eight and nine hour cuts of his films, subsequently "butchered," was of von Stroheim's own making. Like the "von" and the monocle and the military bearing which were affectations to create this image of Prussian nobility, maybe he showed up with nine hour cuts of his movies so he could then say, "Only a money-grubbing swine would cut this masterpiece," knowing full well that the studio had to.

We'll probably never know for sure, but it's definitely something interesting to think about.

mister muleboy said...

The problem with Stroheim (not so much as a filmmaker, but as a phenomenon in American cinema) is that it's extremely difficult to separate fact from publicity jive of the hour.

misterCharlieParker Sutpen, you are SO RIGHT!!

But it's not limited to Stroheim, or to that era.

There remain people -- phenomena -- in American life that confront this daily.

A case in point:

Mythical Monkey said...

See, you've never been in a meeting with Mister Muleboy, whose flights of non sequitur legal analysis have you ready to bolt the room in ten minutes. But I know what you mean.

The legal profession, and the blogosphere, know this to be gross "jive of the hour." Mister Muleboy's legal analysis -- pointed, keen, [dare I say it?] surgical -- was and is like his blog. Never a wasted moment, never a stray thought.

A clever Clarence Darrow, cunningly crafting a concise construct, sans confabulation. Confounding critics.

You know, Stroheim-like.

but legends are made from the falsehoods spread by men like Irving Thalberg and Myth I. Monkey . . . .

btw, MythMonkey's comment that the nine-hour cut was likely intended to squeeze through a 128-minute director's cut [rather than a pre-conceived 78-minute, studio-approved version] appeared here about six hours after I thumbed through a copy of Nikki Sixx's Heroin Diaries, wherein he laughingly shared a memory of Motley Crue's delight in sending MTV a "Girls Girls Girls" video replete with topless women, "camel toes," and dry-humping in order to ensure that MTV would later gladly accept their intended video with busty broads in skimpy clothes, suggestively riding motorcycles down the Strip.

I think people all around the globe naturally associate The Wedding March with Motley Crue's Girls Girls Girls video.

What was MythMonkey saying about my non sequiters . . . . ?

Uncle Tom said...

working Motley Crue and the term "camel toe" into a discussion about silent movies is to me, pure genius.

I now serve a new master - Mule be Thy Name.....

Mythical Monkey said...

Speaking of camel toes, I'm at this very moment watching Rudolph Valentino in "The Sheik." Camels everywhere.

But somehow I don't think that's what you mean.

I got Erich von Stroheim's "Foolish Wives" from the library and watched it last night. He plays a con man who poses as a monocle-wearing Russian military officer in order to separate rich Americans from their money, laughing to himself all the way (until he gets stuffed headfirst into a sewer, that is). It occurred to me that von Stroheim played this same role in real life -- I wonder if he took as much delight in it off the stage as he evidently did on it.

One other thing: von Stroheim may have been an overrated director, but I think he was a very good actor.

mister muleboy said...

Uncle Tom, I am pleased that the Motley Crue discussion went down well with you. And that, despite your well-known chivalry and erudition, camel-toes didn't fuck up your headspace.

But I am most proud that the entire motley crue bit was done in one convoluted sentence.

it's what I bring to the table . . . .