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Image Entertainment presents
"It is a dangerous place for strangers—so many hungry sharks lying in wait to get holdof one's money."
DVD ReviewThe title Foolish Wives not only characterizes the seduction of Helen Hughes (Miss DuPont), but also is the title of the novel that she is reading throughout the film. We only get brief glimpses into the book (author Erich von Stroheim!) but what we see makes it clear that life imitates art.
We are initially introduced to Count Sergius Karamzin (von Stroheim), and his two cousins, Princess Olga Petchnikoff (Maude George) and Princess Vera Petchnikoff (Mae Busch, who would later make a career out of playing Mrs. Oliver Hardy). They are in post-World War I Monte Carlo, keeping up appearances as best they can as Russian expatriates. However, as the film soon makes clear, the appearances are highly misleading. Karamzin is in fact a fraud, acting in complicity with his two mistresses who are only posing as his cousins. They are engaged in a series of complicated confidence schemes utilizing their phony identities, and think nothing of passing counterfeit money and swindling people out of their fortunes.
A wonderful opportunity presents itself when the new American special envoy to Monaco, Andrew J. Hughes (Rudolph Christians) and his wife Helen arrive. Helen is a reader of trashy romances, and soon finds herself won over by the Count's continental manners and charm. Hughes treats the matter lightly, but soon Helen is turning over vast amounts of cash to the Count, and is in danger of having her reputation quite completely ruined.
This picture is notable in a number of respects. It was the first film to exceed, or even approach, a million dollars in cost. Much of that cost goes into completely invisible items, such as real plate glass for all of the windows in the sets, leading to von Stroheim's reputation as a spendthrift. In his defense, it should be noted that Carl Laemmle Sr. literally gave von Stroheim a blank check to spend whatever he wanted on this film. In fact, Laemmle's gamble paid off, for it established Universal Studios as a serious artistic force in cinema.
Unfortunately for von Stroheim, he envisioned telling stories on a much grander scale than the studios were prepared to release. Foolish Wives was cut down from 32 reels (approximately eight hours in length) to 16, and then 14. A similar experience would befall him just a year later with the massive epic Greed which was amputated in much the same way. In 1928, Universal re-released Foolish Wives with a recorded soundtrack, now cut down to a mere 7 reels. For years, all of the additional footage was believed to be lost. Then another print recently turned up in Italy. This print contained about 7 reels as well, but these included some different material. The two have been edited together here, making this film more than half an hour longer than has ever been available on home video previously. It's not a full reconstruction, but it looks like it is the best we'll probably ever be able to manage.
Von Stroheim literally steals the show here. Those who are only familiar with him in typical roles as a stiff martinet, such as in 1939's Grand Illusion, will be surprised to see him also using a wide range of expressions and animation in his face. Occasionally this lapses into mugging, but we see here that he was a far more versatile actor than he is usually given credit for. He clearly assumes the persona of the "man you love to hate," for his Karamzin is incredibly vile and selfish, yet gleeful while he fleeces the wealthy, steals his maid's life savings and rapes the mentally retarded daughter of one of his accomplices. Other than his suavity and aristocratic airs, there is little admirable in his character. Yet he nicely marries the two sides in a believable fashion. Miss DuPont seems slightly credulous; perhaps the missing footage would have made her falling under Karamzin's spell more gradual and believable.
Modern audiences will probably find the pace rather slow going here. The tempo is undeniably leisurely, even in this shortened form. The film put me in mind of a Henry James novel, with similar languid pacing and emphasis upon the moneyed classes of Europe. Yet von Stroheim is not as madly in love with the idle upper classes as James; he inserts a number of pathetic characters for contrast: a ragamuffin wearing an old German soldier's helmet, and an armless veteran who reappears several times, always with a glare of disapproval of Helen. While the wealthy go about their vacuous business, he seems to be saying, they almost deserve to be taken to the cleaners by Karamzin. Certainly the way that they're impressed by his bogus title shows them to be asking for it. The film does build to an exciting climax and an extended coda follows to wind matters up and to give Karamzin a final opportunity for brutality.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: Because several prints are married together, the image quality is widely variable. The main print looks pretty good, although there is plenty of wear, speckles, flickering and frame damage. The Italian print used to supplement the film is in more questionable shape. Some sequences are extremely high contrast and others are hardly legible, though this typically lasts only for moments. Another shortcoming is that the Italian print is missing a great many frames from the sequences which appear only in it; this is remedied by double- and triple-printing some of the frames to smooth out the motion. This often gives a sensation of slow motion, but without it many of the shots would be nearly subliminal. The color tinting is tastefully done and unobtrusive. Shadow detail ranges from fair to excellent, depending on the print in question.
The film is projected at proper running speed, so that movement is natural, which is always a big plus in my book. On the downside, the picture seems to be severely cropped in a number of places. This is most noticeable in the first shots of the book Foolish Wives; several words on each side of the screen are missing, making the sense only barely recognizable. This is corrected in the concluding shot of the page during the coda. The intertitles appear to be the originals; occasionally portions of them are lost off the screen as well. This presentation really should have been windowboxed in order to preserve the picture properly.
Image Transfer Grade: C-
Audio Transfer Review: The audio is a new musical score for piano by Philip Carli. It is quite appropriate for the film, and doesn't rely heavily on familiar and cliched cues. The audio track is free of hiss and noise, and serves admirably.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Extras Review: Other than lengthy production notes on the case exterior and interior (which give away the entire plot, including the ending), there aren't any extras. Chaptering is just barely adequate for a film of this length.
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsA slow-paced film is pleasingly restored to a somewhat larger portion of its once-massive size. While the source material is iffy at best, it's certainly interesting to see a better approximation of von Stroheim's epic vision for the material.
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