Archive for Erich Von Stroheim


Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2022 by dcairns
Some of these insert shots have an Argentoesque intensity

TV director William Sterling’s one feature film, ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND (1972) assembles lots of great people and looks nice. It’s not my idea of wonderland, though.

As you can see, the copy I scraped up isn’t very good, so I may not be doing the film justice. It’s a lot better than most adaptations — fairly true to the text. It doesn’t become an incoherent mishmash of Wonderland and Looking Glass, as so many do. But being true to the story and characters isn’t the same as capturing the spirit. On the other hand, you can legitimately aim to capture a DIFFERENT spirit. I’m not sure if that’s what happens here.

I remember some piece that discussed the film, and spoke very critically of Michael Jayston’s visible panty line. He plays Charles Dodgson, and the film begins with a boat outing with the Liddell sisters, but does NOT have these characters reappear in Wonderland, disguised, as Lewis Carroll does: he, the stammering Do-do-dodgson, becomes the Dodo. But Jayston doesn’t stutter, he speaks beautifully. Seductively, in fact. He also neglects historical accuracy in his choice of Y-fronts, which show through his white trousers in a way sure to inspire disapproval in a Von Stroheim undie perfectionist.

Fiona Fullerton, a perky Alice, has been told to smile a lot, and does. Her perplexing adventures seem to amuse her greatly. This strikes me as wrong, but given what she’s been asked to do, she does it charmingly, though she’s too old. But if the film is about anything, which isn’t certain, it may be about coming of age — indeed, the soft-focus boat ride looks very much like what I imagine a David Hamilton adolescent smut film must be like (haven’t seen one).

Wonderland is all sets. Quite big ones, but things still get to seem a little airless. The transition occurs when the dream begins, rather than when Alice goes done the rabbit hole, which is a distortion, but an acceptable one. The budget allows for some very interesting visuals. A well decorated rabbithole, a Dali-meets-Geiger sky, an infinite corridor for the key business.

One blunder is carried over directly from the Paramount version: there’s a terrific cast, and most of them are rendered unrecognisable under Stuart Freeborn’s makeups. As usual, the humanoid characters come off best in such circumstances: this may be the only adaptation of the book where the most amusing character is the Duchess’s cook, played in a maelstrom of fury by Patsy Rowlands. Robert Helpmann is a perfect Mad Hatter (though I don’t understand why Kenneth Williams never did it). Peter Bull is a pretty unbeatable Duchess, Flora Robson slightly out of her element as the Queen of Hearts, Dennis Price very much IN his as the King (he does nothing but recite Lewis Carroll in the same year’s PULP). Tiny playing card parts are stuffed with familiar faces like Rodney Bewes, Dennis Waterman, Ray Brooks and Richard Warwick.

Smothered under prosthetics, Peter Sellers still does well as the March Hare, Dudley Moore copes as the Dormouse, Spike Milligan capers and goons as the Griffin, but it’s all schtick and no character. The only bit of Michael Hordern you can see in his Mock Turtle outfit is his lower face, but the rest of the makeup gives him some kind of jowl-lift, so even that part doesn’t look like it’s his. Michael Crawford’s stylish White Rabbit ears and whiskers allow him to do his thing relatively unimpeded (as with Sellers, it’s all in the eyes and voice) but Roy Kinnear has lost most of the Cheshire Cat’s lines AND business, and barely registers, an astonishing fate for such a great scene-stealer. Ralph Richardson has quite wisely refused to don a caterpillar’s head, and can be seen and enjoyed.

There are fewer laughs, I’d say, than in Jonathan Miller’s BBC version, which only had a few. Miller, however, had decided that this was a Victorian child’s dream, and his choices were mainly consistent with that. I’m just not sure what Sterling has decided on. A panto, perhaps. We have songs by John Barry with lyrics by Stanley Black, which edge out many of Carroll’s own superior words. Barry has gone fully into soupy strings mode, with a bit of the pizzicato guff he did in the early sixties. His main theme is almost identical to the one he foist onto ROBIN AND MARIAN.

Not as alienating as TALES OF BEATRIX POTTER, another children’s film from this period (it looks amazing but positively declines to deliver any tales, or any entertainment at all), it still feels like it would have baffled me as a kid. The Disney version made me feel stoned, as I recall, though I didn’t know what that was. I may have made some suggestions in the past for how the books should be treated, but if I did I’ve forgotten, so here goes —

Get good actors, and I don’t know that they have to be comedians. Give them some signifiers — the White Rabbit can have ears, for instance. Otherwise, dress them like the Tenniel illustrations and leave their faces on display and let them act. I hate hate hate the Tim Burton version but the idea of using CG to turn actors into live-action cartoons (giving Bonham-Carter a huge(r) head) was decent.

I would tend to favour locations over sets, even though Michael Stringer’s were very good here.

I think, controversially I know, that Alice should be a child. Get one who can act (which Miller inexplicably failed to do).

I think it should be a bit like Welles’ THE TRIAL, really, just slightly funnier, slightly less sinister. But A BIT sinister. (And the Welles is already pretty funny, funnier than this anyway).

When I read the book I was struck by how funny it was, which the films rarely seemed to be. I wonder if Richard Lester would have wanted to do this: it has eleven of his actors and numerous crew. And there’s the Goons connection. Carroll isn’t as rambunctious as The Goon Show, but he has his moments. It’s a funny thing: the book has almost never been filmed by a comedy specialist.

Madame Ora Was Right

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on November 5, 2019 by dcairns

Erich Von Stroheim’s introduction to THE MERRY WIDOW is the gift that keeps on giving ~

ERICH VON STROHEIM: Mae Murray, who always played under the direction of her husband, a very great man, very great, six-feet-three, and a very gentle man. I could make a comparison between a Saint Bernard dog… [laughter] …She herself, if I may say so, was very active, very agile, too active… [laughter] So this grand man and this little woman, you know very well who won the battle… [laughter] It was always Mae Murray, it was always she who won, and the big Saint Bernard did exactly as she told him to do.

But it was very different with me, since I was not married to this woman… [laughter]

No, she was very gentle, but she had ideas… [laughter] …And, as I said before, I have ideas myself. So these two ideas… [laughter] …clashed.

One time we had a terrible battle, during the embassy ball scene, and it was terrible because I had 350 extras in it who loved me very much… it was always the workers who liked me, not the producers — the workers… do you see the difference? … [laughter and applause] So this woman thought… it was after World War I… and she called me “dirty Hun”… naturally, I did not like it, since I was born in Austria, in Vienna, and since she was born in Vienna, too… [laughter] …As a matter of fact, she was born in Czechoslovakia, but, then, I did not see much difference… [laughter] …and, since my workers, the extras, understood that this meant the end, they took off their uniforms and threw them on the floor…

ERICH VON STOHEIM: I want to tell you a very, very strange story … You will permit me to sit down. [He sits on the podium.] Thank you. Because this is a very strange story… [Laughter]

…I am very superstitious, also religious, and in many cases that goes together, as you know. I had troubles with Mae Murray, as I said before, and, also, troubles with electricity, lamps, with the helpers, with everybody. And it was strange, because it had never happened that way before. So, after the duel with Mae Murray, I was discharged by the company, but really… [laughter] …But I almost forgot to tell you my story.

Since I am very superstitious and religious, I used to visit a certain voyeuse…


ERICH VON STROHEIM: …voyante… [laughter] …So, before I started working on THE MERRY WIDOW, at the time when the company approached me, I naturally went first to my friend Madame Ora… [laughter] … She was an old woman, only an EAR, so I asked her what would be the outcome, should I make the film or not? She waited a little while, just enough to give the necessary weight, and said that I should “absolutely do it,” because it will be a great feather in my hat… [laughter]… In California nobody wears a hat, and I did not have a hat — but she assured me of great success, a large feather, a beautiful plume in my hat, bon!

So I started the film. I was discharged, and I came immediately, the first thing I did, to my advisor Madame Ora. I told her that I was discharged and that the president of the company had shown me the doors himself and that, in my turn, I have given him a few words that he shall never forget, and that I am in the street now. What should I do? And you have assured me that this will be a large feather in my hat! The Madame said to me, “Monsieur Von Stroheim, I can’t change my idea. You will continue tomorrow on THE MERRY WIDOW, you will direct it tomorrow, and it will be a great success, and it will be a great feather in your hat.”

“I said, “Madame, you have not understood me correctly, I am in the street…” [laughter] … “No, Monsieur, it is you who does not understand, it is you who does not understand. You will be continuing tomorrow morning.” And this was at six o’clock in the afternoon. And she says to me that furthermore, now, at this very moment, there are four or five men in my Los Angeles home waiting to see me… regarding tomorrow’s work. I said, “But this is ridiculous, isn’t it?” And she says, “And they are in uniforms…” [laughter]

…And it was the time of prohibition in California, and I, like a good citizen, had plenty of whiskey in my house… [laughter] …and a few whiskeys in my car, just like that… [laughter] …That meant this… [laughter] …the years not in a private prison but on the island of Alcatraz…

So I hurried home, and, believe it or not, there were four men waiting and they were in uniforms. But they were not policemen but from the staff of the company, sent by the president himself to speak to me, to ask me to continue to swork on the film the next morning! That was too much… too strange. During the night, the president sent his men twice more, just to be sure that I would definitely be at work the next morning, at 8.30 — counting thirty minutes for the peace talks… Oui! Madame Ora was right.

I continued directing, it was one of the great successes of its time, and it was chosen by the critics of America as the best film of 1926. That, perhaps, is not such a great credit in itself, since, probably, the other films were very bad… [laughter]

Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, November, 1955


  1. David Lynch has also reportedly had strange troubles with electricity. Michael J. Anderson describes a generator repeatedly blowing on a night shoot for FIRE WALK WITH ME. Finally, Lynch rearranged a couple of lines of dialogue, and the generator went back to working normallt. “I thought that might have been it,” observed Lynch, mysteriously.
  2. Could this talented voyante be the same psychic who predicted Murnau’s death? It seems probably. How many psychics were there in LA in the late twenties, anyway? And how many of them were that good?

[laughter] …

The Sunday Intertitle: What Do You Want?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on November 3, 2019 by dcairns

John Gilbert and Mae Murray in THE MERRY WIDOW.

And now, here’s Erich Von Stroheim introducing a screening of the film at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1958.

“…this film has made for its company four and a half million … though not for me. I had 25% of it. How much do you think I received?

“I thank you once more and ask you to have patience because the film is thirty years old, this print is only a 16mm version projected on too large a screen, and I don’t have the sound or the colour or the Cinerama … I have nothing. And so I have made all the possible excuses that I could think of. All the good things in this film were made by me. The things that are no good in it were made by others…”

From Film Culture, an anthology edited by P. Adams Sitney