The Wedding March

1928, Movie, NR, 113 mins

Review

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The legendary Erich Von Stroheim directed and stars in THE WEDDING MARCH, an astonishing portrait of decadent Imperial Austria that's one of the greatest of all silent films, even in its butchered extant version.

In 1914 Vienna during the last years of the Hapsburg dynasty, Prince Nicki (Erich Von Stroheim) falls in love with a beautiful commoner named Mitzi (Fay Wray), who is also coveted by a vulgar butcher named Schani (Matthew Betz). Schani is arrested and put in prison after threatening Nicki, and when he gets out, he learns that Nicki has been courting Mitzi. During a drunken orgy at a bordello, a wealthy corn-plaster tycoon (George Nicholls) offers Nicki's money-hungry father (George Fawcett) a million kronen in exchange for a royal title, and proposes that his lame daughter Cecelia (ZaSu Pitts) marry Prince Nicki. Nicki tells his parents that he's already in love with Mitzi, but his mother (Maude George) talks him into going through with the marriage because they need the money.

Schani shows Mitzi a picture in the newspaper with a story that announces Nicki's marriage to Cecelia, and he tries to force himself on her, but she rejects him, and he swears to her that he'll kill Nicki. Nicki and Cecelia are married and after the wedding ceremony, Schani and Mitzi wait outside the church in the rain. Schani pulls out a gun and prepares to shoot Nicki, but Mitzi stops him by saying she'll marry him. Nicki stares at Mitzi as he walks out of the church, then gets in his carriage with Cecelia and rides away as tears run down Mitzi's face. Cecelia asks Nicki who that girl was, and he tells her he never saw her before. The image of "The Iron Man," a symbolic legend of the Middle Ages representing doom and tragedy, appears on the top of the cathedral, looking down and laughing.

Like most of Von Stroheim's magnificently extravagant films, THE WEDDING MARCH is a mutilated masterpiece. It was originally intended to be a five-hour, two-part epic, but after two years of production and more than a million dollars, financing ran out while he was in the middle of shooting the second part and only the first half was released in the US, albeit in a truncated version. The second half--THE HONEYMOON--depicted the honeymoon trip to the mountains, the death of Cecelia, and Nicki's eventual murder at the hands of Schani, and was only released in Europe in a butchered version, and even that was later lost in a fire at the Cinematheque Francaise. Still, what remains is an incredible film that's filled with unforgettable moments of both great beauty and terrifying ugliness: the gorgeous soft-focus photography of the love scenes with Nicki and Mitzi in the glistening apple orchard, as birds sing and the blossoms drift down onto their faces; the grotesque first appearance of Nicki's mother, with stubble on her face and smoking a cigar; the lavish and stately procession of horses and soldiers during the Corpus Christi ceremony, made even more striking by the use of two-strip Technicolor; the crude and disgusting Schani dragging pig carcasses and trying to paw Mitzi; and the skeleton hands playing "The Wedding March" on the organ as Nicki and Cecelia walk down the aisle.

The amazing bordello-orgy sequence, where Nicki's father makes the deal for him to marry Cecelia, is quintessential Von Stroheim, and one of the great set-pieces in film history. Beginning with a montage of empty champagne bottles and smashed glasses, scantily clad prostitutes ride on the backs of fat, drunken men in tuxedos, as black servants in chains and chastity belts pour them drinks. Even in its censored version, this scene is a mind-boggling display of decadence and debauchery. Dominating everything is the specter of "The Iron Man," and Mitzi's superstitious fear that he will come to take away her happiness, which, of course, proves to be true. Stroheim's pitiless portraits of moral rot extends even to his own character, as Nicki is depicted as a philandering scoundrel who truly does fall in love with Mitzi, but just as easily gives her up when his mother tells him how rich they will be if he marries the corn-plaster king's limping daughter. Von Stroheim may have been a prodigal egomaniac (as indicated by the hilarious opening credits which state that the film is "An Erich Von Stroheim Creation in its Entirety"), but he was also an undoubted genius, and THE WEDDING MARCH brings to mind the classic line Von Stroheim delivered when Billy Wilder was directing him in FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943) and tried to compliment him by saying that his silent films were 10 years ahead of their time, to which Von Stroheim replied "20 years, Herr Wilder." (Sexual situations, adult situations.) leave a comment

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The Wedding March
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