Foolish Wives

Foolish Wives is a 1922 American erotic silent drama film produced and distributed by Universal Pictures under their Super-Jewel banner and written and directed by Erich von Stroheim. The drama features von Stroheim, Rudolph Christians, Miss DuPont, Maude George, and others.[1]

Foolish Wives
Theatrical release poster
Directed byErich von Stroheim
Produced byCarl Laemmle
Erich von Stroheim
Written byErich von Stroheim
StarringErich von Stroheim
Miss DuPont
Maude George
Music bySigmund Romberg
CinematographyWilliam H. Daniels
Ben F. Reynolds
Edited byArthur Ripley
Jewel Productions
Distributed byUniversal Film Manufacturing Company
Release date
  • January 11, 1922 (1922-01-11)
Running time
384 minutes (original cut)
117 minutes (original release)
142 minutes (restored)
CountryUnited States
LanguageSilent film
English intertitles

When released in 1922, the film was the most expensive film made at that time, and billed by Universal Studios as the "first million-dollar movie" to come out of Hollywood. Originally, von Stroheim intended the film to run anywhere between 6 and 10 hours, and be shown over two evenings, but Universal executives opposed this idea. The studio bosses cut the film drastically before the release date.[2]

In 2008, Foolish Wives was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[3]


The silent drama tells the story of a man who names himself Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin (von Stroheim) to seduce rich women and extort money from them.

He has set up shop in Monte Carlo, and his partners in crime (and possible lovers) are his cousins: "Princess" Vera Petchnikoff (Busch) and "Her Highness" Olga Petchnikoff (George).

Count Karamzin begins his latest scam on the unworldly wife of an American envoy, Helen Hughes (DuPont), even though her husband is nearby. He attempts to charm her, planning to eventually fleece her of her money. She is easily impressed by his faux-aristocratic glamor, to the chagrin of her dull, but sincere, husband. Karamzin also has his eye on two other women, Maruschka (Fuller), a maid at the hotel, and Marietta (Polo), the mentally disabled daughter of one of his criminal associates (Gravina), seeing them both as easy sexual prey.

During the climax of the film Maruschka, the maid he has seduced and abandoned, goes mad and sets fire to a building in which Karamzin and Mrs, Hughes are trapped. To save himself, Karamzin jumps, leaving Mrs Hughes in danger. She is saved and looked after by her devoted husband. Karamzin's public displays of selfishness and cowardice ensure that he is shunned by the high society by whom he craves to be accepted. Humiliated, he tries to restore his pride by seducing Marietta, the mentally disabled girl. Her father kills him, dumping his body in a sewer. Karamzin's "cousins" are arrested for being imposters and con-artists.


Cast notes

  • Robert Edeson replaced Rudolph Christians as Andrew J. Hughes when Christians died during production. Edeson was filmed entirely from the back.


This film began Erich von Stroheim's reputation as a "perfectionist" director who insisted upon "authenticity" for his films at a high price amidst long shooting schedules. During filming, part of the production's elaborate Monte Carlo set was destroyed in a storm and had to be rebuilt. Von Stroheim also ordered elaborate doorbell systems to be operational, and opted for real caviar to appear on-screen, at high expense. One of the lead actors, Rudolph Christians, died from pneumonia on February 7, 1921 in the midst of production, and his part was taken over by Robert Edeson. Edeson only showed his back to the camera so as not to clash with footage shot of Christians that were used in the completed film.[4]

While the budget was slated at $250,000, according to von Stroheim, it ended at $750,000. In the end, Universal estimated the cost at $1,225,000, and advertised the fact for publicity. During the production, Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal, appointed 20-year-old Irving Thalberg to oversee the studio's ongoing productions on the West Coast; right away the new studio chief started clashing with von Stroheim.[5]

The producers had censorship problems with the New York Motion Picture Censorship Commission. Not only did the commission order specific cuts in the film, but they requested that all advertising be submitted for their review. Carl Laemmle publicly denied that they complied with any specific request from the commission; instead, he said the cuts were made due to the film's excessive length.[6] In Pennsylvania, the State Board of Censors banned the film.[7] Censors also banned the picture in Ohio.[8]

Original prints reportedly had hand coloring of certain scenes by artist Gustav Brock.


The film was the eighth most popular movie of 1922 in North America.[9]

Critical response

When released, the staff at Variety, in their review of the film, concentrated on the film's expensive costs and von Stroheim's involvement. They wrote "According to the Universal's press department, the picture cost $1,103,736.38; was 11 months and six days in filming; six months in assembling and editing; consumed 320,000 feet of negative, and employed as many as 15,000 extras for atmosphere. Foolish Wives shows the cost – in the sets, beautiful backgrounds and massive interiors that carry a complete suggestion of the atmosphere of Monte Carlo, the locale of the story. And the sets, together with a thoroughly capable cast, are about all the picture has for all the heavy dough expended. Obviously intended to be a sensational sex melodrama, Foolish Wives is at the same time frankly salacious ... Erich von Stroheim wrote the script, directed, and is the featured player. He's all over the lot every minute."[10]

While praising the acting as excellent, Photoplay called the film "an insult to American ideals and womanhood".[11]

In 1994, film critic Ed Gonzalez discussed the film and wrote "1922's Foolish Wives begins with the perfect iris shot. This is no ordinary 'fade into' effect, but an entrancing reinforcement of the sinister, insular and constrictive nature of the milieu Von Stroheim is about to introduce us to ... At the time of its release, Foolish Wives was the most expensive film ever produced, and though Von Stroheim was widely considered a lavish spendthrift, his films remain triumphs of period detail."[2]

In 2008, critic Keith Phipps wrote "Foolish Wives re-creates Monte Carlo in a Hollywood back lot ... Playing a fraudulent aristocrat, in a touch that echoed his own biography, Von Stroheim dupes the gullible, lusts after a retarded teenager, and attempts to undo an innocent American. It's like a Henry James novel as dreamt by a pornographer, and it illustrates what makes Von Stroheim such a problematic genius: Is it nascent post-modernism or egotism run amok that made him prominently feature a character reading a novel called Foolish Wives, credited to Erich Von Stroheim?"[12]

On Rotten Tomatoes, Foolish Wives has an approval rating of 89% based on 9 reviews.[13]


  1. "Foolish Wives". Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved September 28, 2015.
  2. Gonzalez, Ed (March 23, 2004). "Foolish Wives". Film. Slant Magazine. Retrieved August 1, 2013.
  3. "Cinematic Classics, Legendary Stars, Comedic Legends and Novice Filmmakers Showcase the 2008 Film Registry" (Press release). Library of Congress. December 30, 2008. ISSN 0731-3527. Retrieved September 28, 2015.
  4. Eagan, Daniel (2010). America's Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry. A&C Black. p. 79. ISBN 978-0-8264-2977-3.
  5. Ciment, Michel (2008). "Foolish Wives". Film Reference. Retrieved August 1, 2013.
  6. "Change 'Foolish Wives'; Censors Order Further Deletion in Photoplay". The New York Times. January 19, 1922. Retrieved August 1, 2013.
  7. "Democrat Pleads for Federal Censorship". The Editor's Viewpoint. Movie Weekly. 2 (6): 2. March 18, 1922. Retrieved October 16, 2014.
  8. "Foolish Wives Banned by Ohio State Censors". Variety. LXVI (1): 38. February 24, 1922. Retrieved March 20, 2015.
  9. Variety list of box office champions for 1922.
  10. Variety staff (Bell.) (January 20, 1922). "Foolish Wives". Pictures. Variety. XLV (9): 35. Retrieved September 28, 2015.
  11. "'Foolish Wives': A Review of a Picture that is an Insult to Every American". Photoplay. 21 (4): 70. March 1922. Retrieved February 21, 2015.
  12. Phipps, Keith (July 8, 2003). "Foolish Wives/The Man You Loved to Hate". DVD review. The A.V. Club. Retrieved February 19, 2008.
  13. Foolish Wives (1922), retrieved 2019-04-13
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