When thinking of cinema’s biggest, most lavish productions, one often finds his or herself sifting through various modern franchise films and classic epics like the legendary over budget monster Cleopatra. However, even in cinema’s earliest days, filmmakers were not only pushing the medium forward, but they tried to push wallets even greater.
And now, with this week’s biggest theatrical release (at least buzz-wise) being the $250,000 gem of a micro-budget drama The Canyons, it’s time to think of how many films have had greater budgets for food than this entire production. Even the occasional silent picture makes Schrader’s experiment look like a home movie, budget wise.
In 1922, director Eric Von Stroheim not only released one of his most legendary productions, Foolish Wives, but also cemented himself as the era’s gaudiest auteur. The film world’s first million dollar production, the medium’s most expensive film to that period, Foolish Wives tells the story of the evil womanizer Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin, played with delicious charisma by von Stroheim himself, and his “cousins” (read: lovers) who are also partners in crime. In order to keep up their image, Karamzin attempts to seduce various women, with the hopes that he’ll be able to garner a hefty load of cash from their coffers. This time, his sights become set on a woman named Helen Hughes, even in the face of her highly influential husband.
Ultimately concluding with a relatively simplistic thesis (stating that wives are often foolish in wanting something else when they have all they truly need in the arms of the men who dearly love them), the film is a beautifully made drama that is as much a big budget generation-defining blockbuster as it is a deeply auteurish piece of cinema.
The film’s writer, its director and also its lead actor, Eric Von Stroheim is this picture’s defining voice. Featuring shockingly lavish sets recreating Monte Carlo the best Universal could, at the time, on their own backlot, the million dollar-plus budget is entirely on screen. Salacious and lurid in many ways, the film is drenched in a sense of atmosphere and brood that isn’t unbeknownst to those familiar with von Stroheim’s sense of style and narrative, but the sets here are something entirely refreshing. Beautifully soaked in over the top costume design, smoke filled black and white photography and some truly entrancing (if over used) title cards unlike anything silent cinema ever saw, Foolish Wives is a truly inspired bit of style from one of cinema’s greatest epic auteurs.
Clocking in at just slightly over two and a half hours in length (he shot over 320 reels of negative for this film, an amount that is still nearly impossible to truly quantify), this film is now available in its most complete form thanks to a brand new Kino Blu-ray, now available for purchase everywhere. The film that would go on to give von Stroheim various titles, ranging from simply being called Hollywood’s greatest money spender to “The Man You Loved To Hate,” the film itself is a superb picture. An inherent meditation n erotic obsession that just so happens to be planted against a backdrop that would have later Hollywood epics blushing, Foolish Wives is, in all of its playfully experimental glory one of silent cinema’s most entrancing epics.
And thankfully, this new Kino Blu-ray is breathtaking. The transfer here, billed as a 35mm archival restoration, is the best the film has looked in over 90s years. The source material (much of which is, if not lost, beaten to absolute dust) looks rough here, but the transfer shines as just how potent a true restoration of a silent picture can be. The black and white photography is top tier, and the contrast-heavy cinematography is kept intact here, as does the beautiful costumes and budget-busting set design. It’s truly an epic of the highest regard, and the restoration does this monstrous production more than the justice it so rightly deserves. And yet, everything said here pales in comparison to the releases supplements. Spearheaded by the legendary 1979 feature documentary The Man You Loved To Hate, a documentary that is as interesting a look at a filmmaker as any biography we’ve ever seen, we also get a look at the cuts made to the film by the New York Censor Board, a selection of interviews, a photo gallery and even a commentary that gives a great deal of context both production wise and also thematically and intellectually, to a film that many cinephiles may have forgotten about.
A deliciously perverse masterpiece from one of film’s great directors, Foolish Wives is as interesting a look at lust and erotic obsession as it is a true Hollywood epic. The most expensive film of its day, von Stroheim’s picture is truly one of silent cinema’s greatest auteur pictures. Released in its most complete, most aesthetically awe-inspiring form to date, the newly available Blu-ray is as much a must own release as July has given us. And should be on the top of any cinephile’s wish list going into the holiday season.