MERRY-GO-ROUND (Erich von Stroheim, Rupert Julian, 1923)
Life's merry-go-round goes full tilt for Agnes, a virtuous carny at Vienna's Prater just before the Great War. Her father is abused by their cruel boss, Huber, who may force himself on Agnes. A Count who's engaged to the daughter of the minister of defense chats up Agnes one night while he's slumming; she thinks he's Franz, a necktie salesman, and she falls in love with him. Is he using charm and guile to seduce her? Plus there's Bartholomew, a hunchback who's a barker at the Prater; his love for Agnes is unrequited. Are the fates blind or is there reward for virtue?
Starring Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry and Dale Fuller
Irving Thalberg was Erich von Stroheim’s nemesis; he decimated Stroheim’s work first at one Hollywood studio and then at another. Thalberg, in my opinion, did not die young enough.
Fate, equipped with gleeful abandon, determines the merry-go-round of life. Disparate status and power, including victimization and sadistic cruelty; romance and also unrequited love: everything falls under Fate’s sway; everything is attached to its wild carousel. In such a universe, here set in pre-Great War Vienna, even an orangutan can emerge as an instrument of justice.
Like any true nemesis, Thalberg as much loved as hated the man he was driven to destroy; his was a textbook case of pathological jealousy. This production head fired Stroheim from Merry-Go-Round under the cloak of sparing Universal Stroheim’s meticulous care and prodigious costs. He substituted Rupert Julian, the future director of the tawdry Phantom of the Opera (1925), whose flat-footed contributions to Merry-Go-Round pale beside Stroheim’s dynamic, expressive work.
The film proceeds from Stroheim’s own (and, to be honest, melodramatic) original story, but this isn’t credited; despite the fact that he directed whatever is of high value in the film, Stroheim isn’t credited as director, either. Thalberg kept the work and attributed it to someone else, thus brandishing his own ugly power and, without irony, extending the theme of the film.
It is facile, I suppose, to stress the innate “nobility” of a commoner (Mary Philbin, as innocent Agnes, has none of the complexity of Stroheim’s future Zasu Pitts), but I am especially moved and dazzled by Stroheim’s intricately active long-shots in palatial interiors, which beautifully contrast to the rough, brooding atmosphere permeating the carnival at night: life as a game, a hoax (like Jewish Stroheim’s own claims to European nobility); life as dangerous, deadly—a curse.