Thalberg dismissed Stroheim, for reasons which are not at all clear. Some say Thalberg saw Stroheim sipping from a flask during shooting late at night, and, being “puritanical”, had a fit. This is hard to reconcile with the famous bachelor party scene, in which we are to understand that real champagne is poured onto a naked girl in the loving cup, and sounds mythical. However, the perennial excuse is budget overruns, and here we have the Prater re-created in some brief scenes that must have inspired Lean.
The film is signed by Rupert Julian, but if there was any doubt, immediately after Greed it was remade by Stroheim as The Merry Widow, and then as The Wedding March (which some say, inexplicably, is in another class). Stroheim’s name does not appear in the credits of Merry-Go-Round, a fact which is both scandalous and absurd.
Like The Merry Widow, this is a comedy in the strictest possible sense, it has a happy ending. But it doesn’t matter whether the Prince marries for love or money, the theme is stated. The corrupt state (Austria or Monteblanco) is presented in a Chinese poet’s lament, as a woman forsaken by her lover. This is the general structure, and within it Stroheim has great scope for minute observations of situation and character. These, in a continuous stream of analysis, constitute the Stroheim film in essence, but there are several attributes in question besides.
Sets and costumes are famously prepared to a last degree of authenticity, the actor is placed amidst them, and the unmoving camera is applied to the ensemble. This, and Stroheim’s way of working with actors, explains the unparalleled effect achieved on film. No matter what the actor does, everything appears as a representation of character. You do not watch a performance but an enactment (perhaps Warhol intuited all this). The leading role (here played by the superb Norman Kerry) is a young man of the world in a dramatic situation. The girl (Mary Philbin) is innocent, whatever her experience or pretense. She is poor, unlearned, oppressed, and beautiful. The prince loves her, but is obliged to marry for money.
In Merry-Go-Round, the war intervenes (in The Merry Widow, it’s a duel and an assassination). Various obstacles are overcome, and the lovers are united, but not before a circus orangutan smites the oppressor in a scene midway between The Murders in the Rue Morgue and Every Which Way But Loose (Eastwood has acquired many of Stroheim’s abstruse subtleties, and so did Michael Ritchie).
Even in a 16mm pastiche diligently made from prints in various tintings and stages of dilapidation (one report says there is no 35mm print), Merry-Go-Round is a perfect masterpiece from first to last, hardly impeded by fairly disastrous conditions of exhibition.
The technique, once again, includes within its scope the whole range and variety of cinematic applications. A simple look conveying terribly much or little, an extravagant gesture out of pantomime, no matter what, it’s always revealing of the character and the situation, calmly and implacably.
The Phantom of the Opera
A deeply mysterious telling of the Orpheus myth, said to have been prized and then dismissed by Sandburg qua critic (Ebert reports this), presumably with reference to the 1925 version, as for a season only.
The tintings of pale green, magenta or yellow are continually refreshing. The naturalness of Lon Chaney’s performance is its real greatness beyond some exquisite posturing and the shock of the death’s-head he fashioned. It is not a commanding position but a leading one, among the other players, through the labyrinth of the amusing evocations and startling imagery of the film.
Later directors have educed certain more or less occult aspects. There is William Wellman’s Lady of Burlesque about murders in a converted opera house, and Rosemary’s Baby for the understudy turned star. Alvin Rakoff’s Hoffman (like Wyler’s The Collector, etc.) plays up the King Kong line, and this is a major influence on Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête. There is another line of Svengalis and Trilbys, and more remote echoes in Psycho and Mirage, and there is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
The 1929 version is said to have introduced Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, in Technicolor, with the Phantom as this personage on a rooftop statue of a trumpet-playing angel. His red cape billows over the lovers planning their escape to England.
The great bedchamber into which Christine is brought five cellars below the Opera has a boat-shaped bed, canopies, hangings, and a suite of articles for her comprising shoes, a bridal veil, a wedding dress, and a hand mirror bearing her name. This is the hallucinatory center of the piece, like something designed for Ludwig II (it’s reached from a dressing room by passing through a mirror like a door, which figures as a photographic effect in Orphée).
The black lake under the Opera, which is crossed in a sort of gondola, becomes in the end the River Seine in which the Phantom disappears. His remarkable appearance behind the placid mask might simply be the result of age, as he claims to have been tortured on the site of the present Opera in 1792, and it was not opened until 1874.
The directorial signature is hard to ascertain, but the Piranesi vistas underground, the line of ballerinas fearfully scurrying around backstage and ascending a stairway, the running theme of Gounod’s Faust (with a down-angle of the ballet), the opening scene of new management, and the general conscious appreciation of Hugo’s Notre Dame, all seep through the elliptical framework of this masterpiece and make it an indelible film.
The Punjab lasso (which figures somewhat differently in Pale Rider) is defended against by raising one’s arm to the level of one’s head. This gives a middle way not offered in Erik’s Choice: marry him or blow up the Opera. “You’ll walk the tightrope,” as Pinter says.