... I WOULD LIKE to introduce to you my friend, my collaborator, Denise Vernac . . . [applause], ... It is always a very bad sign when a director has to speak before one of his own films . . . [laughter] . . . because he will be making excuses . . . and that is exactly what I want to do. I have many reasons for it and for asking your patience. In the first place, because I speak very poor French. Secondly, because this film, The Merry Widow, was made thirty years ago. It is a very long time. In those days we did not have the techniques and equipment we have today, for instance, lighting, color, sound.... And then, this film that you are going to see, this copy is a ... [Denise Vernac: “contretype” ...] a contretype from a completely different version. This is a 16mm. copy and it will be projected on a regular-size screen and for that reason the images will not have the sharpness of focus. ... Also, we don’t have music. It was necessary, this very afternoon, to arrange something during the last two hours. In the old days, the M.G.M. company had experienced composers who prepared scores for the theatres which had orchestras. The smaller theatres, naturally, had only pianos—that’s all. Tonight we have a very intelligent, extremely . . . [Denise Vernac: “able” ...] able musician who will do his best.
Naturally, I like drama . . . tragedy. . . . But the producers do not like it. .. . They like only what brings money, and in my youth I hated money, although today . . . [laughter and applause]. Therefore I never wanted to direct stories for infantiles like that . . . [laughter] . . . but because, before I embarked on The Merry Widow, I had made a great tragedy . . . when I say “great,” I mean in length .. . [laughter] . . . and a great story. ... It was not my story this time—it was one of the greatest stories written by an American, Frank Norris, a student of Zola. And this film was, as the company said, a complete, a complete . . . [Denise Vernac: “fiasco” . . .] fiasco . . . [laughter] . . . because it was not this company that gave me money to make the film but another one, which had supervised me during the shooting but which did not have a money interest in the film! It is very simple—the company did not give the film enough publicity and made it also into a financial fiasco, probably. However, for me, it was a great success artistically. I had always wanted to make a great film, a good film and a long one, too, with an intermission—at a psychologically suitable moment—to give the audience time for dinner as the great Eugene O’Neill did in . . . [Denise Vernac: “Strange Interlude” . . .] Strange Interlude. He did it several years after me. I wanted to do it in Greed.. . . And I made the film. But it was too long for the producer, because he did not think about screening it in two sittings, as I did. So, the company hired a man who had never read Norris’s book, did not know anything about my editing ideas, and was ordered to edit it... so he edited it. . . [laughter] ... he edited it. . . . When, ten years later, I saw the film myself, for the first time, it was like seeing a corpse in a graveyard. I found it in its narrow casket among plenty of dust and a terrible stink ... [laughter], ... I found a thin part of the backbone and a little bone of the shoulder. And, naturally, I became sick, it made me very sick, because I had worked on this film for two years of my life without any salary. Try to play this on your piano . .. [laughter] . . . two years with a sick woman, with a sick child, very sick, with polio—and me, working without a salary on this film, for two years! At the end of the two years, I thought: if this film comes out the way I made it, I will be the greatest film director living. . .. But, when it was edited like this. . . . And, after all this fiasco, imagine, a producer coming to me and asking me to direct for him a film called The Merry Widow! He bought the rights to it for a great sum of money, dollars, not Belgian francs ... and he had nothing for his money but the title, since the success of The Merry Widow was in its music. The story itself was ridiculous, or almost ridiculous. Naturally, I did not want to make it. And, besides, I had never had stars, because I don’t like stars—both men and women stars. Particularly women . . . [laughter] . . . because they have ideas. . . . When I direct, it is me who has the ideas. It is me who directs. So, to please me, the Company forced me to accept two stars, not one. Two! . . . [laughter], . . . 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 what his wife 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 the First World War. . . 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 bom in Czechoslovakia, but then I did not see much difference . . . [laughter] . . . and since my workers, my extras understood that this meant the end, they took off their uniforms and threw them on the floor. . . .
I want to tell you a very, very strange story. You will permit me to sit down [he sits down 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 already, 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 forget to tell you my story. . . . Since I am very superstitious and a mystic, I used to visit a certain voyeuse [Denise Vernac: “voyante” . . .] voyante . . . [laughter] ... so, before I started workng 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 adviser, 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’d given him a few words which he will 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 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. You will be continuing tomorrow morning.” And this was six o’clock in the afternoon. And she says to me, further, that now, 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, “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] . . . 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 with me, to ask me to continue work 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 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], ... At any rate, this film has made for its company four and a half million . . . though not for me. I had twenty-five per cent 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 color 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.
The text is a translation of Erich von Stroheim’s introductory remarks to the showing of The Merry Widow (1925) at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, November 28, 1955. Originally published in Hommage à Erich von Stroheim, February 1966.