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Erich von Stroheim

Out of the Past: Hearts of the World

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

Let’s face it. No matter how much homage we pay (and rightly) to D.W. Griffith as the father of narrative cinema, no matter how many ‘sublime’s and ‘magnificent’s we garnish our appreciations with, The Master made his share of films that, as watched movies, are bummers. The film scholar and the diehard film freak want to see them all, and should. The film programmer has other criteria besides his own curiosity to bear in mind, though. If he wants to bust out of the official-classics repertory of The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm but has seen (and probably has had opportunity to see) nothing else, he proceeds at his and his audience’s peril. The colossal miscalculation of a Dream Street or the choppy turgidity of an America may be the reward for his commendable adventurousness. Now, just incidentally, True Heart Susie and Abraham Lincoln are two titles I’d add to any must-see/must-show list of Griffiths; and having just seen Hearts of the World I’m eager to recommend it as well.

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Silents Please: The Merry Widow (1925)

Mae Murray is the Merry Widow

The Merry Widow (Warner Archive)

Erich von Stroheim was the auteur of unapologetic decadence in the silent era and he fills this old world fantasy, an adaptation of a popular operetta, with fairy-tale European kingdoms, arrogant royals and aristocrats and lives of uninhibited attitudes of entitlement that allow—nay, encourage—the most wanton behavior in its princes. That includes the devil-may-care Prince Danilo Petrovich (John Gilbert), “the world champion of indoor sports,” in words of his cousin the Crown Prince (Roy D’Arcy), a nasty, weaselly Prussian twit with a perpetual grin held in place so long it has settled into a rictus grimace of sadistic delight.

These competitive cousins vie for the affections, or at least the physical pleasures, of gorgeous American showgirl Sally O’Hara (Mae Murray) who arrives in their kingdom with The Manhattan Follies, a travelling show apparently doing the provincial circuit of Old Heidelberg and points beyond. Murray, a silent movie superstar long forgotten to an era represented by only a few icons to even most film buffs, is a spicy dash of American spunk in this world of high manner and base impulses, a mix of urban worldliness, romantic innocence and American practicality, with a snap of sass reminiscent of Ginger Rogers. When she notices the ravenous attentions of the wolfish European officers whooping it up as she adjusts her stocking (if this film is anything to go by,  the tease of ankles and calves are the most arousing zone of female anatomy for this crowd), her response is wonderful: a flash of embarrassment quickly replaced by exasperation and resignation to the nature of man-boys the world over.

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