St. Stephen and the Iron Man are the guardians overseeing Vienna, but with Erich von Stroheim surveying the city, it's the latter, a malevolent behemoth in medieval armor, who has the upper hand. The year is 1914, imperial pageantry continues at full bloom (and in two-strip Technicolor) even as the Hapsburg reign nears its demise; behind the royal fašade lies rot, exposed in the morning light as an aristocratic couple gets roused out of bed, Maude George seemingly with five o'clock shadow and George Fawcett with mustache protector strapped to his mug. In the other room is their "love child," Stroheim himself as Prince Nicki, strapped for cash -- "marry money" comes as paternal advice, with Zasu Pitts, the limping heiress to George Nichols' corn-plaster fortune, as a solid bride. The Corpus Christi procession before that, where the Prince's horseback saber-rattling catches the eye of Fay Wray in the plebeian crowd; her loutish beau (Matthew Betz) sees the flirtation while munching sausage, and the montage of glances and lip-curling builds up to a fever, the heroine fittingly rushed away in an ambulance. Stroheim seeks purification through romance, him and Wray riding through falling apple blossoms petals, love declared at the full moon; an orgy erupts elsewhere, chained Africans and champagne ejaculations, a dissolve from the writhing bacchanal in long shot to a medium shot catching a pair of sloppy-drunk male revelers trading kisses. Fawcett and Nichols belch out a "gentleman's agreement" on the floor; nature, tender and lyrical around the lovers, darkens as the deal is sealed. The plans of Stroheim the auteur were equally thwarted: only a third of the epic originally planned got finished, for dealing with Hollywood producers is just as much of an impossible search for love. Wray prays in church while the janitor scrapes the crust from melted candles and broken dreams -- she gets a bucket of rain water dropped on her as her beloved settles in for loveless marriage, the wedding march turning funeral via some choice seconds of macabre stop-motion. Without love, goes the intertitle, a wedding is "a sacrilege and a mockery"; for Stroheim, the same applies to filmmaking. With Dale Fuller. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce