Prince Nikki, Lieutenant of the Guard in pre WWI Vienna, is flat broke, but the only advice he gets from his parents is either to shoot himself or to marry money. During the Chorpus Christi parade his horse accidentaly hurts poor Mitzi, the daughter of inn-keepers in a Viennese suburb, who is, according to the wishes of her parents, going to marry the butcher Schani. When Nikki visits her at the hospital, they fall in love, much to the dislike of her parents and Schani. Nikki's parents, meanwhile have arranged a prospective marriage with Cecilia, the limping daughter of a very rich non-aristocratic industrial. Due to the fact, that Nikki's father is a general in the Austrian-Hungarian Army, resitance is useless. When Mitzi, after hearing of it, is still refusing Schani's proposal, he vowes to shoot Nikki when he leaves the church. Written by
Stephan Eichenberg <email@example.com>
Erich Von Stroheim's stylized elegy for Pre-War Vienna
"Let others make films about gay old Vienna," announced filmmaker Erich Von Stroheim, "I will make films about sad old Vienna, not because Vienna is sadder than any other city but because the world is sad." During his brilliant, erratic, maddening career as a director in Hollywood Stroheim twice attempted to make a movie about the city where he was born, a city devastated and changed forever by the Great War of 1914-18. His first attempt, Merry-Go-Round, was taken out of his hands and finished by studio hacks, whereas production on the second, The Wedding March, was halted before filming was complete. The film we see today is only a portion of the epic he planned. Still, it's a beautiful and stirring piece of work that conveys at least a glimmer of what its creator intended: an elegiac work that is, paradoxically, both nostalgic for a lost world yet unsentimental about that world's injustices.
Given the man's grandiose and tragic vision, his belief in the power of cinematic art and his uncompromising temperament, it's no surprise that Stroheim ran into so much difficulty with the moguls who controlled Hollywood, who fired him repeatedly and butchered his work; the surprise is that he was ever granted any creative leeway at all. Then as now, Hollywood preferred escapism, straightforward plotting and happy endings. There was little tolerance for such an exacting artist as Stroheim, who wrote, directed and usually acted in downbeat and sometimes sordid films that were unlike those of anyone else. Still, for about ten years beginning in 1919 he was permitted a limited amount of artistic freedom and was able to give the world a tantalizing hint of his talent in several of these films, although not one of them survives in the form he intended. In 1926, fresh from the box office success of his biggest hit, The Merry Widow, Stroheim worked out a deal with producer Pat Powers to produce an epic set in Vienna just before the First World War. Stroheim believed he could complete the film for $300,000, a reasonable budget for the time and only slightly more than his previous film had cost.
The Wedding March as it survives today tells only about one-third of the story Stroheim wrote. The action takes place during the spring and summer of 1914, and concerns a "noble" family, the Wildeliebe-Rauffenbergs, who have a title, property, servants, and a dissolute son -- but no money. Stroheim does not bother with nuanced characterizations in this film, preferring to draw his figures with broad strokes. Our first sight of the parents, awakening to face the new day, is appalling: the Princess Maria wears a chin strap and her face is slathered with cold cream, while Prince Ottokar is bleary-eyed and obese. They bicker immediately. Their son Prince Nicki (played by the director) at first seems little better, stealing kisses from the servants and hitting up his parents for cash. Nicki appears to be the decadent product of a decadent line, itself the product of a decadent society. But today marks a turning point for the wastrel heir: it's Corpus Christi, a major holiday of religious and political significance, and while he is on maneuvers with the other soldiers at the Cathedral Nicki sees a beautiful girl in the crowd who has a profound impact on him.
The girl is Mitzi, played by 19 year-old Fay Wray in her first major role, and it's easy to see why she turns his head. (Seen here with her natural brunette hair, Fay Wray is as pretty as any woman who ever graced the screen.) Mitzi comes from a working class background and is being forced by her mother into a relationship with a coarse butcher, Schani, whom she detests. The flirtation between Nicki and Mitzi quickly grows into a genuine passion. Unbeknownst to Nicki, his own parents are meanwhile arranging a match for him with a shy, club-footed girl, Cecelia (ZaSu Pitts), heiress to a corn-plaster fortune, a match as inappropriate as the one Mitzi is resisting. Both sets of parents care only about money, while Mitzi and Nicki seem to be the last persons in Vienna who believe in love. Ultimately, they are each forced to abandon the relationship and marry against their wishes.
It's not the story but the manner of its telling that makes all the difference. In bare outline the plot sounds as melodramatic as a paperback romance, but what makes the movie special are the director's bold and beautifully stylized flourishes: the ornate detail of the Wildeliebe-Rauffenberg town house; the pageantry of the Corpus Christi processional, filmed partly in two-strip Technicolor; the abandoned carriage where Nicki and Mitzi meet for their assignations, and where a steady supply of apple blossoms tumble onto their shoulders. These love scenes, certainly the most romantic the director ever made, are brutally inter-cut with the wildest orgy sequence of the silent screen. And only this director could get away with such motifs as the mythic Iron Man who carries off maenads from the Danube (a vision said to portend tragedy), or the unforgettable sight of the organist's hands turning skeletal at the keyboard as Nicki and his club-footed bride, Cecilia, make their way down the aisle at their grim wedding.
This last image was meant to foreshadow events in the second part, "The Honeymoon," but this portion of the story was never completed and no longer exists in any form. After seven months of filming Stroheim had spent almost $700,000 and wasn't done yet. Producer Powers pulled the plug and had the many hours of footage winnowed down to the film that now remains. Once again, Stroheim's vision was thwarted, but at least the fragment that survives tells a complete story and concludes on a satisfying (albeit painfully dark) note. Even in truncated form The Wedding March is a triumph, one of the great silent dramas and a testament to the unique talent of its creator.
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