A copy of Erich von Stroheim’s “Paprika” inscribed to Hugo Balin has been listed on EBay as Buy It Now for $1,250.
Famed director/actor Erich von Stroheim faced financial disaster in the mid-1930s. After directing such visual powerhouses as “Foolish Wives,” “Greed,” “The Merry Widow,” “The Wedding March,” and “Queen Kelly” in the 1920s, as well as others, and sometimes stealing films in which he co-starred, the Austrian auteur couldn’t land a job. Twentieth Century-Fox had savagely re-cut and remade his 1932 film “Walking Down Broadway” and changed the title to “Hello, Sister!” Directing opportunities vanished. Von Stroheim found acting roles in low-budget/poverty row films, but found himself frozen out of big budget studio films.
Financial disaster loomed. The great filmmaker took whatever opportunities came his way. The March 18, 1934, Los Angeles Times noted that Von Stroheim had announced he would organize a screenwriting course at Sawyer School of Business in Westwood, presenting a series of lectures as well as an academic study of scriptwriting. The course would also analyze the type of scripts employed and shot by the studios, as well as discussing the technical terms and techniques of directing. The article also mentioned that Von Stroheim had dictated synopses as well as scripts to students at Sawyer’s earlier that year.
By December, Von Stroheim was virtually broke. The December 20, 1934, Los Angeles Times reported on a hearing in which his first wife May sued him for back support. The article stated he had no job and less than two dollars in the bank, from his humiliating testimony at the hearing. The Times claimed, “He has prospects,” from braggadocio statements uttered by Von Stroheim. The director claimed that he would soon have five weeks of work in Paris, that he was supposedly negotiating with Benito Mussolini to collaborate on a film, and that he was talking to Serge Einstein (most probably Sergei Eisenstein) about producing a film on Soviet life. Because of these future prospects, auteur Von Stroheim agreed to pay his former spouse five dollars a week to support his eighteen year old son, Erich Von Stroheim, Jr.
Famed producer David O. Selznick attempted to help provide for the Von Stroheim family that year at Christmas, sending a letter around the MGM studios asking people to donate to a fund for the family.
During the long fall, Von Stroheim hit on an idea both to make him some cash as well as hopefully land another directing opportunity, writing a novel called “Paprika.” Thomas Quinn Curtiss in his book “Von Stroheim” states that the book was based on memories of gypsy life that Von Stroheim observed during a military campaign. As typical for the fanciful director, the story features a passionate, tempestuous romance, along with licentious and irresponsible characters indulging in every manner of sensuous action.
The March 17, 1935, Los Angeles Times details the hot blooded aspects of the book in its review. “Hungarian gypsies, gay, irresponsible, thieving, dancing, sensuous, and sadistic, move from camp to camp under the brutal leadership of Gabor Zoltan. But hanging over this giant’s head is an ancient threat. And against him is the real queen of the tribe and her half-white daughter, the passionate Paprika.
…One tragedy follows swift on the heels of another. Every moment is dramatic, and the temperature and tempo are such that the readers will require ice packs and other consoling and cooling agents before the grand climax sweeps them through unsanguined fields to the ultimate.”
In a short column in the February 17, 1935, Los Angeles Times, Philip Scheuer noted that the book featured a parade of “typically Von Stroheim figures.” As usual, the work was decadent and over the top, what Curtiss calls basically a script in novel form, in that scenes were incredibly detailed, ready to be filmed. This overabundance of facts weighed down the story and sometimes made it unreadable. As biographer Arthur Lennig reveals in his book “Stroheim,” the MGM reader assigned to read the submitted work called it, “A trashy story, written for sensationalism only. Long and dull.”
While producer Samuel Goldwyn displayed lukewarm interest in making a film of the novel, no directing jobs came Von Stoheim’s way. He continued to wander pillar to post over the next several decades, trying to get films made, while appearing in roles both on stage and screen.
Los Angeles Times writer Harry Carr in December 31, 1922, captures the strange dichotomy of a man wonderfully talented but often his own greatest enemy. “The genius of Von Stroheim is absolutely unique. There is no one else like him on the stage or screen. He is a tree who grew alone.”
It is the terrible fate of the Von Stroheims of the world to see things as they really are, whereas we who are of a younger and cruder civilization see things all wrapped up in Christmas tree ornaments and tell about them with maudlin sobs.
Von Stroheim is the man in the old music hall song, who said that life consisted of, “Fashions, follies, sins, regrets, struggles, strife and cigarettes.”