Grim-faced Austrian-born actor, director, military expert and general all-round megalomaniac. In today's cinema, it is quite possible that Stroheim could make his 30- or 40-reel films, running some eight or 10 hours, and get away with it, with patrons clamouring for tickets at all-day (or all-night?) art house showings. Alas, the backcloth against which von Stroheim chose to stage his orgiastic epics of love, lust, hunger, seduction, cruelty and passion was the Hollywood of silent days, and in one man, Irving Thalberg, Stroheim, who boasted a (bogus) military background as an Austo=Hungarian army officer, met his Waterloo.
In his later years, he became a familiar character star, once more known, as in World War I times as 'The Man You Love to Hate'. But he never again regained the power of those heady early years, when he strode likea colossus through the corridors of Universal Studios, had people scurrying to his every command and spent millions of dollars of studio money.
Born in Vienna, though his mother was Czech and his father Silesian (from a town that is now part of Poland), Stroheim soon tired of working as a manager at his father's factory and emigrated to America in 1906.
His early years there are (perhaps deliberately) cloaked in mystery, but in 1913 Stroheim emerged in Hollywood, wangling himself jobs as military adviser on war films, and attracting a few acting roles from 1914.
He worked extensively for D.W. Griffith, playing roles in such Griffith productions as The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, which may have given him a taste for his own extravagance so soon to follow. His first films for Universal, Blind Husbands and The Devil's Pass Key, are basically sordid little tales involving unlikeable people. But they are full of erotic undercurrents, brilliant details and hypnotic performances from Stroheim himself.
By 1922, however, Stroheim was already crossing swords with Thalberg, then the studio's general manager. His third film, Foolish Wives, with hiself as a fake nobleman conning and blakmailing his way across the Riviera, was hacked from 32 reels to 14 (still well over two hours). Largely through Thalberg's offices, Stroheim was fired half-way through the next film and went to Goldwyn and started work on his masterpiece, Greed. It was Stroheim's misfortune that Thalberg had gone to Metro, for the two companies merged to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and consequently Greed was pulverized from 42 reels to 10! There are still many powerful and memorable moments in its story of the decline and death of a San Francisco dentist and his wife through greed for gold. Stroheim drove his actors unmercifully, especially in the heat of the Mojave Desert, where he filmed the climax in which the two male protagonists, chained to each other, fight together and die together. Hardly surprising, the film in its castrated form was not a commercial success.
But Stroheim thumbed his nose at Thalberg by making a tremendous box-office hit out of The Merry Widow, although it was hardly the film M-G-M expected, with its hints of sadism and perversion. It was, however, last triumph as a director. There were abortive or half-completed projects to follow, then a long career as an actor, which lasted until his death at 72 froma spinal ailment.