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Arthur Lennig

Publication Year: 2000

Erich von Stroheim (1885-1957) was one of the giants in American film history. Stubborn, arrogant, and colorful, he saw himself as a cinema artist, which led to conflicts with producers and studio executives who complained about the inflated budgets and extraordinary length of his films. Stroheim achieved great notoriety and success, but he was so uncompromising that he turned his triumph into failure. He was banned from ever directing again and spent his remaining years as an actor. Stroheim's life has been wreathed in myths, many of his own devising. Arthur Lennig scoured European and American archives for details concerning the life of the actor and director, and he counters several long-accepted claims. Stroheim's tales of military experience are almost completely fictitious; the ""von"" in his name was an affectation adopted at Ellis Island in 1909; and, counter to his own claim, he did not participate in the production of The Birth of a Nation in 1914. Wherever Stroheim lived, he was an outsider: a Jew in Vienna, an Austrian in southern California, an American in France. This contributed to an almost pathological need to embellish and obscure his past; yet, it also may have been the key to his genius both behind and in front of the camera. As an actor, Stroheim threw himself into his portrayals of evil men, relishing his epithet, ""The Man You Love to Hate."" As a director, he immersed himself in every facet of production, including script writing and costume design. In 1923 he created his masterpiece Greed , infamous for its eight-hour running time. Stroheim returned to acting, saving some of his finest performances for La Grande Illusion (1937) and Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950), a role he hated, probably because it was too similar to the story of his own life.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky


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pp. v

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pp. vii-viii

This book deals with a complex man, a great man, and certainly a tragic man. It deals with someone who held his artistic mission higher than worldly success, who felt that the integrity of his vision and his undoubted sincerity and even genius would somehow triumph over...

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pp. ix-xv

This examination of the life and career of Erich von Stroheim stems from a number of personal factors. During my grade school days, I was drawn to the work of two actors, John Barrymore and Bela Lugosi. Soon, they were joined by Erich von Stroheim, whom I first encountered...

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1. Beginnings

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pp. 1-23

Erich von Stroheim was no mere mortal. To speak of his birthdate, family, schooling, or personal life is to succumb to facts. What is extraordinary about this man is the fiction, a fiction more real than reality. After he left Vienna at age twenty-four to come to America, he...

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2. The Ascent

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pp. 24-58

The year 1914 proved no better for the hopeful Erich von Stroheim than the previous ones in America, but soon his fate would change. Stroheim claimed as early as 1919 that he became a lifeguard at Lake Tahoe during the summer of 1914. Even this was probably an exaggeration....

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3. The Artist

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pp. 59-100

Stroheim was hardly a youth when he embarked on his directorial career in 1919. At the age of thirty-three, he not only knew the lifestyles of two countries but also had been through two marriages, fatherhood, and four years at the heart of the film industry. He also...

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4. Blind Husbands

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pp. 101-120

After Carl Laemmle said "I do" to Stroheim's proposal for Blind Husbands, the fledgling director devoted all his time to smoothing out his shooting script and consulting with the set department. He had innumerable suggestions as to how the "village" ought to look. Although...

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5. The Devil's Pass Key

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pp. 121-129

As soon as Blind Husbands, was finished, Universal knew that it had a good picture, possibly a great one, and sensed that the film would do well at the box office. As a consequence, the studio encouraged Stroheim to begin on another. He had no screenplay at hand-his...

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6. Foolish Wives

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pp. 130-155

After the critical and financial success of Blind Husbands and the satisfactory completion of The Devil's Pass Key, Stroheim became the close-cropped but fair-haired boy at Universal. The studio announced in January 1920 that Stroheim's next project would be McTeague, starring...

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7. Merry-Go-Round

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pp. 156-185

The history of each Stroheim film is a nightmare, but Merry-Go-Round is perhaps the most difficult to discuss, not because of its intellectual complexity but because of its confused authorship. Stroheim's other films--except for Walking down Broadway--were cut and mutilated...

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8. Greed

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pp. 186-220

One day prior to 1919, Stroheim's eye fell upon a book called McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, by Frank Norris. The subtitle may have attracted him, because he had lived in that area, but it was the content that held his attention. Here was a story that had guts, honesty,...

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9. The Merry Widow

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pp. 221-237

When Stroheim was fired from Merry-Go-Round in the fall of 1922, the Goldwyn Company was in the process of purchasing the rights to Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow, which had proved an extraordinary success since its 1905 premiere in Vienna. With a logic peculiar to...

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10. The Wedding March

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pp. 238-260

Shortly after the end of shooting on The Merry Widow, Stroheim ran across a major figure in Hollywood, Pat Powers, who many years before had been a partner of Carl Laemmle at Universal. As a result of his nasty habit of not letting anyone look at company books, Powers was severed from Universal and became an independent...

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11. The Honeymoon

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pp. 261-272

The Honeymoon is a difficult film to assess for the simple reason that the sole remaining print was destroyed in 1957. The Devil's Pass Key suffered a similar fate, but this loss is the greater tragedy, for it was a portion of one of Stroheim's greatest works. Fortunately, we can...

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12. Queen Kelly

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pp. 273-290

Although Stroheim's artistic connection to The Wedding March had virtually terminated by August 1927, he was not a free agent. He remained under contract to his angry producer, Pat Powers, to make another picture, with an option for two more. In no way did...

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13. The Descent

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pp. 291-314

The collapse of Queen Kelly in January 1929 was more than just another unhappy event in Stroheim's directing career. It heralded its end. Like the main character in Blind Husbands, he had fallen from the pinnacle, not to death, but to a life of continued disappointment. As if...

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14. Walking down Broadway

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pp. 315-330

Stroheim's well-publicized difficulties with The Wedding March and Queen Kelly and the revocation of his agreement with Universal for a sound version of Blind Husbands had damaged his reputation as a director almost irrevocably. In the Hollywood film industry, a director...

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15. The Depths

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pp. 331-360

Beset by financial worries and seemingly banished from directing, Stroheim grew more depressed and more desperate. Director Rouben Mamoulian related to me a strange story about Stroheim at this period. "It's a tale in which I don't particularly shine," he said, "and...

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16. A Star in France

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pp. 361-406

While Stroheim was slaving away in MGM's script department in late 1936, having not acted for a major studio for over four years, he received an offer from France to play the typical evil German officer in a film about spies in the First World War called Marthe Richard....

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17. America Again

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pp. 407-436

Stroheim's return to Hollywood was not as a victor, but as a loser. The fame, notoriety, and respect that he had enjoyed in France were not to be encountered in a town where he was almost forgotten and that regarded him as a quaint relic from the heady silent...

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18. The Last Years

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pp. 437-465

When Stroheim arrived in France on December 5, 1945, he hoped that his career of playing major roles in significant films would resume. But many changes had occurred during the war years. Because American pictures had been banned by the Nazis, and those...

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pp. 467-473

The following list contains all the films in which Stroheim functioned as director, as assistant director, and as actor. His script and novel writing has been covered in the text. The films appear in the order in which they were shot. The dates, generally from the Film Daily Yearbook...


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pp. 475-492

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Selected Bibliography

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pp. 493-500

I am listing only the works that directly pertain to this biography. My own collection of well over a thousand books, which I began to acquire in the late 1940s, has been, of course, useful in learning the medium and its methods, but I see no reason to waste the reader's time or mine by...


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pp. 501-514

Image Plates

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pp. 516-563

E-ISBN-13: 9780813171258
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813121383

Page Count: 574
Publication Year: 2000