Thursday, February 23, 2017

Gray Market Cinema: The Wedding March (1928)


During the brief period The Great DISH Austerity Program was in effect here at Rancho Yesteryear, I was kind of bummed missing out on one particular “Summer Under the Stars” presentation on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™.  Their August 4 daylong tribute to Fay Wray was going to yield a pair of rarely screened movie goodies, one of which was 1929’s Thunderbolt—the first talkie directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring his leading man from The Docks of New York, George Bancroft.  (I really wanted to see Thunderbolt…but I know a guy who can sell me a copy.)

The other gem I wanted for the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives was the TCM premiere of The Wedding March (1928)—which I have seen, though it’s been over twenty-five years since I sat down with it.  Back when I was toiling at Ballbuster Blockbuster Video, we had a eenie weenie teeny tiny section with silent films, most of them Paramount releases like Old Ironsides (1926) and Running Wild (1927).  March was in the inventory, too (it was released to VHS in 1987), and I was tres impressed with the film considered to be one of director Erich von Stroheim’s supreme achievements.

The film’s setting is Vienna—“the home of waltzes, laughter, and pure, sweet love,” per a title card—and since the year is 1914, The Wedding March is going to have to get to its plot soon before the war breaks out.  Prince Ottokar von Wildeliebe-Rauffenburg (George Fawcett) and his wife Maria (Maude George) are the type of aristocracy that is long on pomp and short on circumstance, and their son Nicholas (Von Stroheim) is a philandering wastrel and inveterate gambler in need of funds to shore up his miserable financial situation.  His parents advise him to “marry money,” and his ma is eyeing Cecelia Schweisser (ZaSu Pitts), the daughter of wealthy industrialist Fortunat Schweisser (George Nichols).  Granted, Cece is a little on the gimpy side…but when your prospective bride-to-be has a fortune worth twenty million kronen, beggars can’t be choosers.

At a drunken party (and by party, I mean orgy) underway at a brothel, Schweisser proposes to Prince Ottokar a merger between Nicki and Cecelia…and sweetens the deal with the promise of one million kronen.  The problem for Nicki is he’s fallen head over heels for Mitzeri “Mitzi” Schrammell (Fay Wright), a peasant girl who has been betrothed by her mother Katerina (Dale Fuller) to butcher Schani Eberle (Matthew Betz).  Schani, not to put too fine a point on it, is the dictionary definition of the word “lout”…but since the caste system dictates that Nicki and Mitzi will not be sashaying down the aisle to the titular tune anytime soon, the audience is left to ponder a title card that states without love, “marriage is a sacrilege and a mockery.”

The critical and financial success of MGM’s The Merry Widow (1925) enabled actor-director Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim to attract the attention of independent film producer Pat Powers, who agreed to finance the movie ultimately released as The Wedding March.  (Stroheim and MGM “boy wonder” Irving Thalberg did not get along—a carryover from their days at Universal, where Thalberg had the autocratic director fired from 1923’s Merry-Go-Round.)  Sadly, Stroheim’s obsession with detail during the making of March—he had a fondness for constructing opulent sets and shooting extensive footage, which producers thought unnecessary—would balloon the budget from $300,000 (a little over $4 million in today’s dollars) to $1,250,000 (over $17 million today).  The production, which began in June of 1926, was shut down by Powers the following January.

After running the footage for Powers, Stroheim proposed that the movie be released in two parts, to be screened on consecutive nights.  A problem soon set in that was similar to the troubled history of the director’s 1924 Greed; Part 1 of his new film ran a little over four hours…so Powers took control of the film (after Stroheim refused to cut any further) and handed it off to Paramount, who had agreed to distribute the film.  The studio asked Josef von Sternberg to try and make something out of the movie in the editing room, and when all was said and done the first part of Stroheim’s opus was premiered as The Wedding March.  A second film resulting from all of Stroheim’s footage—a sequel entitled The Honeymoon—had been slated for a preview but would ultimately be released only in Europe (and South America a few months later).

The Wedding March was a box office dud, and received good notices from only a handful of critics.  It was not until 1950 that both March and The Honeymoon resurfaced, when Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française allowed Stroheim to reassemble his work from the prints in Langlois’ collection.  A fire at the Cinémathèque in 1959 destroyed the last known copy of Honeymoon (Langlois later observed the movie “died voluntarily”), but the critical reputation of March began to grow after Stroheim’s death, and in 2003 it was selected to be on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

Erich von Stroheim’s reputation as one of silent cinema’s finest directors has always suffered from the sad truth that so many of his projects were released in an unfinished state.  But despite its incompleteness, The Wedding March is an amazing film—reaffirming the director’s recurring themes of decadence among the elites and nostalgia for pre-war Vienna…not to mention his penchant for the bizarre and exceptional use of close-ups (he learned from the master, D.W. Griffith).  I thought I had become a bit jaded by all those years of watching pre-Code films but the brothel sequence in March really made me sit up and say “What the…front yard?”  The scene establishes that despite being the leading man, Stroheim’s Nicki has a few character flaws; he tells the young working ladies (they were real prostitutes—the champagne was real, too) fawning all over him that he only has time for a kiss from each of them before he goes off to his rendezvous with a “nice girl” (Mitzi).  Nicki doesn’t even seem fazed that his dad is at this shindig; I know I was always surprised whenever my father turned up in the local whorehouse…even if he was only playing piano.  (Okay, I am kidding about this.)

The title card about “marriage is a sacrilege and a mockery” without love is continually reinforced throughout The Wedding March.  Nicki’s royal parents are aristocratic in name only; the film opens with the couple being awakened by a maid (it’s Corpus Christi day, and they’re scheduled to attend a parade) and the two of them look like a pair of horses that were rode hard and put up wet.  (The Princess refers to her Prince as an “ugly old fool.”)  Not only are Nicki and Cecelia marrying without love (it’s purely a financial arrangement) but Mitzi reluctantly agrees to be manacled to Schani only to keep him from shooting Nicki as he leaves the church after his and Cecelia’s nuptials.  (It’s a bittersweet ending, and the story concludes in the now-lost The Honeymoon.)

The Wedding March is the film that made leading lady Wray a star (she was 18 at the time), and though I’m more familiar with her classic “scream queen” turns in films like The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and King Kong (1933), Fay is positively luminous in this movie.  As you are aware, I’m also carrying a torch for ZaSu Pitts, who was quite the dramatic actress before establishing herself in talkies as a comedic character actor with her fluttery gestures and trademark “Oh, my…”  In addition, March is a fine showcase for its director-star; “The Man You Loved to Hate” pulls off the impressive feat of convincingly playing a leading man, warts and all.  March is accessible through the Wonderful World of YouTube, but I grabbed my copy from Finders Keepers…and you know what?  It’s the same VHS copy I watched so many years ago—it even has the 2-strip Technicolor sequence of the Corpus Christi celebration.

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