HAIRCUT 100: Day 61, No. 61. Erich von Stroheim (1885–1957): director, producer, screenwriter and actor, and one of the first great auteurs of the ‘Hollywood Babylon’ era. A lower-middle class Viennese Jew, von Stroheim emigrated to America in 1909, claiming to be an Austrian nobleman when he arrived at Ellis Island. He began his Hollywood career as an uncredited bit-player in 1914, working on D.W. Griffiths’ epic Intolerance (1916) as an actor and an assistant-director. During the Great War he often played German villains.
Von Stroheim’s best-known work as a director is Greed (1924), but his insistence on artistic freedom, and the resulting costs of his films, meant that as the industry became more corporate he received fewer directing opportunities. He is perhaps most familiar now as an actor, most significantly as Rauffenstein in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937) and as Max von Mayerling in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), a dark parody of his directorial self, alongside fellow silent icon Gloria Swanson. The pair had worked together before, in Queen Kelly in 1929, a project from which von Stroheim was dismissed as director for disagreements with his star and the producers over the alleged introduction of indecent material. ‘There were three young directors who showed promise in those days: D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and Max von Mayerling!’