It takes a little knowledge of film history to appreciate fully the richness of Billy Wilder's decision to cast Erich Von Stroheim as the ex-husband and former director turned butler to Gloria Swanson's faded silent-era star in Sunset Boulevard. It wasn't the first time they'd taken turns bossing each other around. In 1928, Swanson hired Von Stroheim to direct what was intended as a self-produced masterpiece called Queen Kelly, the story of an innocent convent girl (Swanson) who falls for a seductive European prince (Walter Byron) engaged to insane queen Seena Owen, and eventually ends up in an East African brothel. For Von Stroheim, it could have been a chance to redeem his reputation as an egomaniacal spendthrift. Had history and its star's whims not gotten the better of him, it might have done just that. But Swanson reportedly got squeamish as the film grew more lurid, and, with the assistance of lover and silent financial partner Joseph Kennedy, she fired Von Stroheim just in time to have its commercial viability squashed by the advent of sound. For Swanson, who cobbled together a hasty ending and released the film in Europe several years later, it was the beginning of a long fade from the spotlight. For Von Stroheim, it was, aside from a couple of half-hearted stabs, the end of his directing career. A 1985 restoration of Queen Kelly reconstructed from outtakes, stills, and Von Stroheim's screenplay spearheads a three-DVD set of his films, and confirms the folly of shutting the production down. As visually stunning as any movie he made, it presents a lush, sensual world in which bottomless depravity and innate virtue overlap, and frequently resemble each other. Queen Kelly was only the final conflict for a director who saw none of his films survive in their intended form, but with Von Stroheim, it's hard to separate the martyr from the tyrant. Born in Austria, he remade himself in America, masking his Jewish heritage with tales of his aristocratic birth and working his way up through the ranks as a stuntman, actor, and assistant director under D.W. Griffith. By the time he made Blind Husbands in 1919, he was already famous as "The Man You Love To Hate," playing evil Germans to a WWI audience hungry to despise the enemy. One amazing bit of footage from a Griffith propaganda film (included in the 1980 documentary The Man You Loved To Hate, one of the DVD set's many special features) has Von Stroheim throwing a baby out a window for interrupting his concentration as he tries to rape a Red Cross nurse. For Blind Husbands, he reprised that persona's look–uniform, monocle, scarred eye, preposterously long cigarette–but made the violence moral. Directing from his own novel, Von Stroheim stars as a decadent officer eager to seduce a neglected wife. It's peerless melodrama carried out with a pioneer's visual imagination, and it made Von Stroheim's name as a director. It also gave him the chance to work on a bigger scale, a chance he ran with until it destroyed him. Foolish Wives re-creates Monte Carlo in a Hollywood back lot, reprising the themes of Blind Husbands while upping the perversity. Playing a fraudulent aristocrat, in a touch that echoed his own biography, Von Stroheim dupes the gullible, lusts after a retarded teenager, and attempts to undo an innocent American. It's like a Henry James novel as dreamt by a pornographer, and it illustrates what makes Von Stroheim such a problematic genius: Is it nascent post-modernism or egotism run amok that made him prominently feature a character reading a novel called Foolish Wives, credited to Erich Von Stroheim? If this is the studio-trimmed version, why does it still feel overlong? Sadly, such questions remain entirely academic: Like the all-day version of his masterpiece Greed, entire, completed Von Stroheim films have been lost, alongside most of his extra footage. But what survived contains brilliance, as well as the lingering echo of an even more thundering genius. Someone involved with Sunset Boulevard (whether Wilder, Swanson, or Von Stroheim himself) decided that only one film could symbolize the faded glories of Swanson's character, and with her the glories of an entire age, in Sunset's famous screening-room sequence. That film: Queen Kelly.

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