Erich von Stroheim Criticism

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Peter Noble (essay date 1950)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stroheim, Sex and Symbolism," in Hollywood Scapegoat: The Biography of Erich von Stroheim, The Fortune Press, 1950, pp. 82-92.

[In the following essay, Noble examines Stroheim's portrayal of sexuality.]

Thanks to Stroheim the women and young girls of America learned to prefer the slick, insolent archdukes, whose kisses burned like the lash of a whip, to the bucolic American heroes. He was the true creator of a sophisticated cinema.

[Herman Weinberg in Film Art (Spring 1937)]

Foolish Wives is an insult to every American … Stroheim has made a film that is unfit for the family to see; that is an insult to American ideals and womanhood. It gives an insight into Continental morals and manners such as only, so far, we have been able to get from certain books and paintings.

[Photoplay (March 1922)]

Stroheim taught the Americans how to make love.

[Oswell Blakeston in Film Quarterly (Spring 1947)]

Hollywood without sex would hardly be Hollywood at all. Since the very beginnings of movies the primary objective of most film producers has been to turn out motion pictures which act as a visual process of sexual stimulation or sublimation, believing that every young person in the audience imagines himself—or herself—to be the central character in the love scenes being enacted on the screen. There is nothing new in this; the one aspect of the cinema which has remained constant for more than thirty years is the unlimited variation of the sex or love theme. Stroheim played a most important role in developing this theme beyond the vulgarities and crudities of the early silent cinema. He was a pioneer, and can be said to have exerted a stronger influence on this aspect of films than any other Hollywood director, even including Lubitsch.

Curiously enough, little is known of Stroheim's legitimate—and illegitimate—sex life. There have been murmurings of an unhappy love affair back in Vienna; in California he was married three times. His first wife was Dr. Margaret Knox of Oakland, California, who died in 1915. His second wife, May Jones, a designer for D. W. Griffith, was the mother of his eldest son, Erich, now an assistant director at Twentieth Century-Fox Studios in Hollywood. Stroheim's third wife, following his divorce in 1918, was actress Valerie Germonprez, whose brother Louis was Von's devoted assistant director for ten years. She was the mother of Stroheim's second son, Josef Erich.

Whether Stroheim's deep interest—some have termed it an obsession—with sexual themes in his films was an expression of his own sublimated desires is doubtful, but it is certainly curious that the man who did more to bring a sophisticated approach to sex into the silent cinema was himself a loving and faithful husband for more than thirty years. This is yet another paradox in Stroheim's paradoxical life.

Stroheim's celluloid world is a world of swaggering seducers, of light-hearted love affairs, of kings, dukes and counts making love to servant girls and tavern maids, of princes abandoning their thrones for love of pretty little working-class girls, of intrigue and sacrifice—in short, of Romance. Yet it is also a world of sordid affairs, of adultery, plots, deception and broken faith. Stroheim's philosophy is simple. In the credit titles of The Devil's Passkey the director reproduced a quotation from the American philosopher Elbert Hubbard: "To be deceived is less shameful than to be suspicious", and his delineation of suspicious husbands was always considerably more unsympathetic than that of his erring wives. His moral outlook was a protest derived from what he had experienced in his adolescence. He had lived in a world of intrigue and lasciviousness. At court he had seen drunken officers at midnight dragging protesting maid-servants into their quarters until he was sickened by the lechery with which he was surrounded. Himself a studious and aesthetic person, he was repelled by the indications of sexual licence which he encountered everywhere in the...

(The entire section is 48,455 words.)