The debate over Erich von Stroheim's reputation as a filmmaker exists in a state of suspended animation: it's more or less settled, but could conceivably fly open one day if the 9-hour version of his masterpiece, Greed, is ever discovered. The film was a page-for-page rendering of Frank Norris' classic American novel McTeague, about a man of limited intellect who fails at his ambition to be a dentist and winds up chained to a dead man in Death Valley. With a shooting script only ten pages shorter than the novel, it took a grueling year to shoot and ended up provoking an actual fistfight between von Stroheim and Louis B. Mayer. Upon completion, it was screened for a select few at its full length, then Mayer ordered that it be hacked down to two hours and allegedly ordered the remaining seven hours of footage to be destroyed. Unless that information is wrong, and several dusty film cans pop up in a basement somewhere in the year 2036, we're stuck with what we have.
After Greed, there were only more fights and more compromises. The director's last project, before giving up filmmaking for good in favor of acting, was 1933's Hello, Sister! The version of that film that has survived to be recently screened as part of Film Forum's Before the Code festival bears every possible scar of a titanic struggle between director and studio. With its insulting running time of 59 minutes and its absurd drop-ins of cheerful banter amidst circumstances that bleed tragedy, it's clearly the end-product of an uneasy stalemate, and not a terribly successful one. The surviving picture can be charitably described as a sometimes flavorful, sometimes surreal cocktail of life and love in Depression-era New York City. Two couples engage in middling affairs of the heart while also improbably ignoring a fifth character -- a drunk who repeatedly walks on screen carrying a stick of dynamite. Turns out he collects dynamite and stores it all in his flat, just for kicks. Do you think that might become a factor in the third act, perhaps?
I should stop here and mention that my impressions may be somewhat colored by the fact that watching the film in its current state is something of a chore; the first twenty minutes or so are unbearably shaky, owing to some kind of deterioration in the stock that I don't know the technical name for. The picture vibrates, shifts and almost jumps off the screen once or twice. Surely we have the technology to correct such things -- maybe the one I saw was just a bad print? Once the shaking gets under control, our task becomes clear: to try to envision the film that von Stroheim wanted us to see and weed out the studio-imposed nonsense. An early scene of polite conversation, which is interrupted when a female character falls into an open sewer, is a good example of that dichotomy. It's easy to imagine the monacled, stick-straight director obsessing over the tiniest details of such a scene, and possibly having some kind of special sewage imported just to get the right effect when the woman is forced to drop in.
And of course, we have to look for the stress of seventy takes on the face of the actress. von Stroheim was notorious for putting his actors through the ringer in a way that was probably illegal by the time Stanley Kubrick came along. Stories abound of von Stroheim stopping fight scenes between actors because they weren't hitting each other for real, and other such things. By the time of Hello, Sister! -- an alternate title that exists for the film, Clipped Wings, sounds much more suitably bleak -- von Stroheim may have been too exhausted from constant battling to put the B-list actors through his special hoops. Only one of the courtship scenes, in which the couple attempt to climb up and out of a skylight to take in a rooftop view, has enough resonance to be memorable. The others contain little more than throwaway babble. Was von Stroheim just going through the motions? Was such a concept even known to him? What we know of his personality suggests a complete aversion to any kind of casualness.
I almost don't have the heart to mention that an entire subplot of the film, in which one of the couples was actually a lesbian couple, was completely excised with prejudice by the studio. Whatever von Stroheim had in store for us, we'll probably never know. He was far too ahead of his time and not lucky enough to have his best footage survive for reassessment by future generations. On the bright side, however, his exile from directing did leave him time to add to a number of notable films as an actor, including Renoir's Grand Illusion in 1937, and Five Graves to Cairo in 1943, for a young Billy Wilder. Shortly before his death, he would also appear in another Billy Wilder film, Sunset Boulevard, which had a special resonance. von Stroheim had once been fired as director from a Gloria Swanson film, Queen Kelly, for ordering another actor to spit tobacco juice on her. On the set of Sunset Boulevard, Wilder is rumored to have had Swanson watch footage of Queen Kelly in order to amp up enough painful memories to evoke Norma Desmond.