Richard Koszarski (Limelight Editions 2001) 404 pages
Like most of his fellow immigrants, Erich von Stroheim arrived in New York City in
1909 with little money and no prospects. But a scant 10 years later he was the toast
of Hollywood and being celebrated as a brilliant new director. This rags to riches
story was not uncommon among the masses of energetic immigrants, but von Stroheim’s
success underscores the unique opportunities of an emerging film industry in Hollywood
in the early part of the 20th Century. Film historian Richard Koszarski has devoted
much time and research to the career of von Stroheim. Von -
Von Stroheim’s ascension to the exalted ranks of Hollywood came about with the success of Blind Husbands, his first directorial effort. A film for which he also wrote the story and played one of the lead roles. The film was a critical and box office success which today would be called a blockbuster. Von Stroheim’s persistence in getting the backing Carl Laemmle at Universal Studios to produce the film and let him direct is one of the more interesting aspects of the book. But as is often the case with creative types, von Stroheim lost control of his ambition in his new found license. In the succession of films that followed, von Stroheim would develop a pattern of excessively long, and over budget productions. His obsession to detail was a constant problem and cause for production delays for which he never acquiesced to compromise. In his second film, Foolish Wives, von Stroheim far exceeded the budget and the film lost money for Universal. Throughout the book Koszarski gives many instances of von Stroheim’s extravagance when it came to authenticity and detail. One rather egregious example occurred during the filming of Greed in 1923 when von Stroheim insisted on shooting in Death Valley, in the summer no less. Without benefit of air conditioning and daytime temperatures reaching 130° many in the crew become sick and one cook died. Within a fifty mile drive of downtown Los Angeles is barren desert that would have been sufficient, but that would not do for von Stroheim because it wasn’t Death Valley. It was this type of obsession that would ultimately lead to von Stroheim’s demise.
After his directorial opportunities dried up, von Stroheim worked for awhile at MGM as a script consultant. But in 1936 he left Hollywood for Europe where he would spend the rest of his life, occasionally returning for acting jobs. Most notable of these was in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, a film that earned him newfound attention and an Academy Award nomination. Koszarski does a masterful in this well researched book and anyone interested in von Stroheim or film history in general should find the book well worth reading.
NOTE: Queen Kelly, a film von Stroheim wrote and directed in 1928 is available on DVD. Von Stroheim was fired before the film was completed and it languished for years with various attempts to construct a suitable ending. The DVD includes an excellent audio commentary by this book’s author as well as an interview with Gloria Swanson who produced and starred in the film.