Blind Husbands

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Blind Husbands
Film poster
Directed by Erich von Stroheim
Written byErich von Stroheim
Produced byErich von Stroheim
CinematographyBen F. Reynolds
Edited by
Distributed by Universal Film Manufacturing Company
Release date
  • December 7, 1919 (1919-12-07)
Running time
91 minutes
CountryUnited States
Language Silent (English intertitles)
Budget$42,000[ citation needed ]
Blind Husbands

Blind Husbands is a 1919 American drama film written and directed by Erich von Stroheim. [1] The film is an adaptation of the story The Pinnacle by Stroheim. [2]



A group of holiday-makers arrive at Cortina d'Ampezzo, an Alpine village in the Dolomites. Among them are an American Doctor who does not pay much attention to his wife and an Austrian Lieutenant, who decides to seduce her. He manages to befriend the couple so that, when the Doctor has to leave to help a local physician, he asks the Lieutenant to look after his wife. When the Lieutenant becomes too pressing, she promises to leave with him but asks him to give her more time. During the night, she puts a letter under the door of his bedroom.

The Doctor goes on a climbing expedition with the Lieutenant, who had been bragging about his exploits as a mountaineer. In fact, he is not in very good shape and the Doctor must help him to reach the summit. In the process, the Doctor finds his wife's letter in the pocket of the Lieutenant's jacket, but before he can read it, the Lieutenant throws it away. He asks the Lieutenant whether his wife had promised to leave with him and the Lieutenant gives a positive answer. The Doctor decides to leave him on the summit and starts his descent, despite the Lieutenant now saying that he has been lying because he thought the Doctor would not believe the truth. On his way back, the Doctor finds his wife's letter, in which she had written that she loved only her husband and asked the Lieutenant not to bother her any longer with his attentions. While pondering whether he should go back to get the Lieutenant, he loses his balance and falls down. When the Doctor is finally saved by soldiers, he asks them to go and help the Lieutenant. Before they can reach him, the Lieutenant, attacked by vultures, falls to his death from the precipice. [3]



Von Stroheim entered the Hollywood film industry in 1914 as an extra and horse handler on the greatest cinematic spectacle of the period, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). [4] Von Stroheim made persistent, but futile efforts to find work with the Griffith production unit after filming was completed. By chance, he had an encounter with Broadway director John Emerson, impressing him with his sartorial knowledge of formal military dress. This led to a small role in a film adaption of Ibsen’s Ghosts with Mutual Film productions, followed by his first screen-credited feature later that year in Farewell to Thee (1915). Emerson soon enlisted von Stroheim to serve “as actor, assistant and technical advisor” on the 1915 production of Old Heidelberg (1915), beginning a two-year professional relationship and “the single most important influence on von Stroheim’s early career.” Von Stroheim’s fortunes rose with those of Emerson when the producer obtained a contract to direct a number of features starring Douglas Fairbanks. [5] [6]

While working as production manager on an adaption of Shakespeare’s Macbeth for the Triangle Fine Arts studio, von Stroheim was impressed into service as one of several assistant directors on Griffith’s massive production Intolerance (1916). Von Stroheim may have set up a number of shots in this so-called “modern” episode of the epic production. [7] [8]

Though never one of Griffith’s inner circle, von Stroheim apprenticeship imbued him with the director’s—his obsession with linking settings with his players character development. The “fussy perfectionism” and attention to detail displayed by von Stroheim in his own films is a legacy of Griffith’s profound influence. [9] [10]

With the United States’ entry into the First World War in 1917 against Germany, the Hollywood studios and distributors became anxious about presenting audiences with “Teutonic” figures. Von Stroheim name was dropped from cast billings, then he was discharged entirely from Douglas Fairbank’s production company. When the studios turned to pro-American, pro-war and anti-German propaganda films, opportunities arose for actors who could convincingly portray Prussian military villains. Von Stroheim “took advantage of his looks, name and reputation, and carved out a new career as a professional Hun.” [11]

As an expert in German military uniforms and paraphernalia, Von Stroheim returned to Paramount Pictures to serve as advisor to D. W. Griffith on Hearts of the World and at Famous Players-Lasky on The Hun Within , both 1918. [12]

When von Stroheim was hired by Universal Studios to star in The Heart of Humanity (1918) opposite Dorothy Phillips, he came prepared to contribute his “eagerness and proficiency” to every aspect of the production. Possessing directorial expertise acquired under Griffith’s influence, Von Stroheim “honestly felt himself to be Griffith’s true heir.” His inflammatory portrayal of Prussian lieutenant Eric von Eberhard, von Stroheim made his screen image notorious to the American public, particularly a scene in which he snatches an infant from its cradle and casts it from a two-story window. [13] [14]


Erich von Stroheim (as Lieutenant Eric Von Steubenand) and Sam De Grasse (as Doctor Robert Armstrong) struggle in the film's climax Blind Husbands (1919 film), publicity still. Universal Pictures. Erich von Stroheim, director.jpg
Erich von Stroheim (as Lieutenant Eric Von Steubenand) and Sam De Grasse (as Doctor Robert Armstrong) struggle in the film's climax

At the peak of the Spanish Influenza in late 1918, von Stroheim attempted to interest film studios in his script-in-progress entitled The Pinnacle, concerning an American couple and an Austrian Lieutenant in a ménage à trois.

He decided his best prospect for funding would be Carl Laemmle at Universal studios, where von Stroheim had recently completed the profitable The Heart of Humanity. Laemmle, of German birth and ethnicity was known to hire German-speaking countrymen, an important consideration for von Stroheim when post-war “anti-German hysteria” briefly persisted in the United States. [15] Unlike other established studios such as Paramount and First National Pictures that often produced elaborate and expensive features with top-rank stars, Laemmle’s vast Universal operation churned out relatively low-budget movies and offered parsimonious contracts for its actors and technicians, ensuring a high turnover. [16]

Considering Universal’s frequent need for experienced staff, Von Stroheim approached Laemmle confident that he could enlist the producer in the project with two enticements: von Stroheim would hand over the story and script, gratis , and waive all wages for directing the picture. The only caveat was $200 per week to star in the film. After a short, intense interview, von Stroheim won the support of the movie mogul. The budget for the film was initially estimated at $25,000, and von Stroheim immediately began casting the production for The Pinnacle began on 3 April 1919. [17]


Like Griffith, von Stroheim was averse to hiring theater trained actors and established screen “stars”, preferring to assemble a stock company from “untrained talent” whom he would mentor to achieve his cinematic goals. [18] Actors Francelia Billington and Sam de Grasse would play the American couple on vacation in the Dolomite Alps, both who had been Mutual players. British actor Gibson Gowland would play the mountain guide, Silent Sepp Innerkofler, and later star as McTeague in von Stroheim’s Greed (1924). Von Stroheim played the meddling lover Lieutenant Eric Von Steuben. [19]

An indication of Laemmle’s determination to assure a commercially impressive production, he provided von Stroheim with their top cinematographers Ben Reynolds, and assistant William Daniels, both of whom would serve with the director until he moved to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924.

By the time shooting of Blind Husbands was completed on 12 June 1919, the costs had far exceeded the initial budget estimate. Combined film stock and advertising expenses had reached over $250,000. As such, Blind Husbands emerged as a critically important project. Universal’s response was to deepen its commitments to success of the production. [20]

Promotional articles were planted in movie magazines that were careful to counter any residual anti-German prejudices. Von Stroheim's personal character was praised and readers reminded of his American citizenship—a citizenship he would not possess for almost seven years. Press releases assured moviegoers that he had relinquished his royal title of Count and dropped the nobiliary particle “von” . [21]

The methods von Stroheim used to extract impressive performances from his actors were effective, but it required immense amounts of raw footage. Key scenes were performed and re-performed again and again until an “ideal” was provoked, often at the price of frustrating the cast and crew. Von Stroheim was then confronted with the task of sifting through this dross-like footage to discover the gems he had elicited on the set. [22]

By mid-summer studio executives, wishing to expedite its release, submitted the partially edited footage to Grant Whytock, who prepared the final cut for distribution. Universal was sanguine about the prospects for a commercially and critically successful film. A press screening elicited fulsome praise for Blind Husbands and director von Stroheim, including one accolade that anointed him “a direct descendant of [D.W] Griffith.” [23]

When the completed film was delivered to Universal’s New York City sales department to arrange distribution in August 1919, Universal’s vice-president, R. H. Cochrane, emphatically rejected the title of the film The Pinnacle. (n.b. The movie’s climax and denouement occurs at the top of an alpine peak). Film titles, then strictly within the domain of sales and exhibition personnel, initiated a search for a new title. Von Stroheim, outraged, placed a full-page protest in Motion Picture News , without effect. Blind Husbands opened at Washington’s Rialto Theater on 19 October 1919. [24]

Critical response

“Until the coming of Orson Welles, Blind Husbands was the most impressive and significant debut film in Hollywood history.”—Film historian Richard Koszarski, 1983 [25]

In an effort to maximize anticipated profits for Blind Husbands, Universal launched a massive promotional campaign. Nationwide, the picture grossed over $325,000 in receipts during its first year when typical five-reel feature films averaged $55,000. [26]

Blind Husbands is an apprentice work, exasperating in its infantile narcissism, its unleashing of the director’s wish-fulfillment fantasies. But it launched a career that was soon to emerge as one of the most brilliant in pictures.” —Biographer Charles Higham , in The Art of the American Film (1973). [27]

Universal’s productions, which usually exhibited in less exalted venues, arranged for Blind Husbands to run at New York’s “palatial” Capitol Theater though this required a months-long delay. [28] Blind Husbands inspired fulsome responses from American film critics and “almost without exception” both director and his cinematic creation were hailed as an advance for the art form. [29]

Agnes Smith of the New York Telegraph wrote:

“If we are not very much mistaken, Blind Husbands will introduce to the industry a new ‘super director’- Erich von Stroheim. Unlike many other directors who aspire to the ranks of the fortunate, he is not a near-Griffith, a near-DeMille or a near-Tourneur. His work is quite in a class by itself. It has individuality and originality...The atmosphere is deeper than mere realism. The details are truly remarkable. The interiors of the Alpine inns, the wayside shrines, and the peasant types were all the work of a man who knew very much what he was doing.” [29]


Blind Husbands, set amidst a tourist resort in the Austrian Dolomites, opens with the arrival of an upper-middle American couple, Dr. Robert Armstrong and his wife Margaret. The story examines their reaction to the strenuous efforts of an Austrian military officer, Lieutenant Eric von Steuben, to seduce Margaret. Von Stroheim’s characterization of an unscrupulous yet sophisticated sexual predator was a refined variation of his role of “the man you love to hate” that he had cultivated in his post-WWI roles, most recently in Universal’s The Heart of Humanity (1918). Here, however, von Stroheim seeks sexual conquest through low cunning, rather than with psychological terror and physical violence. [30]

The original title of the movie, The Pinnacle, was based on von Stroheim's original screenplay and served as a metaphor that resonated physiologically with the picture’s climax, in which Dr. Armstrong and Lieutenant von Steuben struggle for dominance on a lofty alpine mountain peak. Von Stroheim, outraged at Universal’s substitution of the title with Blind Husbands, provoked a public denunciation from the director, defending The Pinnacle as “a meaningful title, a title that meant everything to the man who created [the film].” The title Blind Husbands invokes the “aristocratic American visitors” and Dr. Armstrong, who “fails to exhibit any signs of romantic affection” towards his attractive wife, a failure that the “lounge lizard” von Steuben expects to exploit. The complacent doctor, preoccupied with his alpine hiking, is slow to discern his wife’s conflicted response to the officer’s advances. [31]

Blind Husbands is the only film in which von Stroheim submits members of America’s leisure class to artistic analysis. This is the same social stratum that the young von Stroheim had serviced as an expert equestrian and a resort guide in Northern California during the years before World War I and before his arrival in Hollywood, a venue where “he seems to have had particular success with the ladies.” [32]

Whereas von Stroheim’s scenario for Blind Husbands required that his “alter ego” suffer a spectacular death, his subsequent autobiographical representations avoid similar fates. [33]

A religious component appears in the film to reinforce the film's central metaphor that culminates in a contest on the “pinnacle”. Informed by von Stroheim’s recent conversion to Catholicism, Blind Husbands’ romantic triangle unfolds during a local celebration of the Gala Peter and the reenactment of Christ’s transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, an unambiguous reference to the film’s central theme. [34]

The most striking element in von Stroheim’s thematic scheme is the presentation of a young married woman who seriously contemplates engaging in an extramarital affair, which constitutes “a daring break with tradition” in cinematic treatments of the topic. [35] The realism that von Stroheim brings to the first encounter among the principle characters establishes the “psychological complexity” of this theme. According to film historian Richard Koszarski:

“The very first sequence of the film, as the three principals travel in the coach to Croce Bianca, announces the arrival of a new master of psychological realism [in which] von Stroheim never hesitates to use Griffith’s analytical editing techniques to telegraph certain points directly. A series of close-ups establishes an immediate tension among the travelers, and the attraction of shifting glance to a well-turned ankle is demonstrated with considerable wit...the level of professionalism seen here puts most films of the period to shame, a fact quickly recognized in the first reviews.” [36]

That the film and its theme arise from von Stroheim’s own life experiences is “beyond question’: the characterization of Lieutenant Eric von Stuben “is a direct projection of von Stroheim himself.” [37]


The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Survival status

A copy of Blind Husbands is in the Museum of Modern Art film archive and in several other collections. [1]

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  1. 1 2 "Progressive Silent Film List: Blind Husbands". Silent Era. Retrieved 2008-11-04.
  2. The American Film Institute Catalog Feature Films: 1911-20 by The American Film Institute, c.1988
  3. Review, synopsis and link to watch the film: "A Cinema History" . Retrieved 17 February 2015.
  4. Koszarski, 1983 p. 14: Stroheim “a trained rider and expert horse handler...had little trouble finding work on this lavish production [with] costly spectacle sequences...This was the film that introduce Erich von Stroheim to the movies.”
  5. Koszarski, 1983 p. 18
  6. Gallagher, 2009: “Rumors of Austrian nobility and military greatness surrounded von Stroheim from the beginning and were seemingly corroborated by his on-set behavior, which included self-proclaiming himself an expert on both military regalia (in order to become wardrobe supervisor to Henry B. Walthall on Ghosts in 1915). The latter secured him a position on John Emerson’s adaptation of Old Heidelberg, for which von Stroheim was responsible for the casting and costuming of the “student corps.”
  7. Koszarski, 1983 p. 22-23
  8. Gallagher, 2009: “Von Stroheim’s education on the sets of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Intolerance formed the basis for his own understanding of cinema. “I worshiped D.W. Griffith the way that someone can worship the man who has taught him everything.”
  9. Koszarski, 1983 p. 23-24: “The emphasis on ‘correct’ relationship between character and setting made a tremendous impact on von Stroheim. Griffith’s other assistants never quite grasped the reason for D.W.'s ‘fussy perfectionism’. Von Stroheim saw and learned...he never chided Griffith as a romantic dreamer, for he, too, shared the same dream.”
  10. Gallagher, 2009: “Traces of Griffith’s signature style are present throughout von Stroheim’s work. The presentational mise-en-scene that privileges both the actor’s expression and the obsessively, painstakingly detailed sets; poetic (sometimes excessively so) title-cards; idyllic, romantic interludes that off-set an otherwise realist aesthetic; close-ups that reveal the character’s soul (for Griffith often signs of purity, for von Stroheim corruption); and a dexterous use of montage to maneuver around a set, or to cross-cut different scenes for dramatic effect. Von Stroheim often takes Griffith’s stylizations to their furthest extreme, strictly adhering to montage and rarely moving the camera (defiantly against-the-times, as filmmakers were more and more employing expressive lighting and tracking shots).
  11. Koszarski, 1983 p. 24-25
  12. Koszarski, 1983 p. 26-27
  13. Koszarski, 1983 p. 27, p.29: “...the scene were von Stroheim throws the baby out the window...”
  14. Gallagher, 2009: “There is an honest depravity to his characters, none of whom shy away from, or apologize for, their amoral desires. The philandering wife of Blind Husbands and the duplicitous seducer of Foolish Wives are certainly a world away from the True Heart Susies of D.W. Griffith or the Pollyannas portrayed by Mary Pickford.”
  15. Koszarski, 1983 p. 32-33
  16. Koszarski, 1983 p. 33
  17. Koszarski, 1983 p. 34-35
  18. Koszarski, 1983 p. 22: “...Griffith’s use of untrained talent, molded by the force of the director’s will…” And p. 35: “...the cast would be old friends and associates, the beginnings of a stock company system, learned from Griffith, which he would continue through all his later films.”
  19. Koszarski, 1983 p. 34-35. And p. 44: Koszarski see quote.
  20. Koszarski, 1983 p. 37: “If von Stroheim was counting desperately on the film’s success, so was Universal.”
  21. Koszarski, 1983 p. 37: “Not surprisingly, the more cash the studio sank into the production, the more eager they were to ensure its success by any means possible.”
  22. Koszarski, 1983 p. 37-38: Von Stroheim’s technique “invariably resulted performances of incredible power and conviction. It also resulted in huge amounts of footage [which he was] agonizingly slow to reduce to manageable length.”
  23. Koszarski, 1983 p. 38
  24. Koszarski, 1983 p. 38-39
  25. Koszarski, 1983 p. 32
  26. Koszarski, 1983 p. 41
  27. Higham, 1973 p. 72
  28. Koszarski, 1983 p. 39: “Universal’s products were seldom seen in the best Broadway houses, and the studio jumped at the booking.”
  29. 1 2 Koszarski, 1983 p. 40
  30. Koszarski, 1983 p. 41: “The lieutenant’s part was an extension of ‘the man you love to hate’, the Prussian villain created by von Stroheim in films like The Hearts of Humanity...the film concerns itself with how the overly civilized [Armstrongs] react to the intrusion of this disturbing element.”
  31. Koszarski, 1983 p. 41-42: The two men engage in a “sexual duel” on the mountain peak.
  32. Koszarski, 1983 p. 44-45: “...his experiences in the resort hotels of northern California…”
  33. Koszarski, 1983 p. 45: “When [von Stroheim] came to rewrite this script of a proposed [sound film] in 1930, he made only one major change: the lieutenant no longer had to die.”
  34. Koszarski, 1983 p. 42: Von Stroheim “incorporates the rituals of [his] adopted Roman Catholicism [and] the combination of sexual and religious imagery.”
  35. Koszarski, 1983 p. 42-43: “That Margaret stops to even consider the attentions of von Steuben was daring break with tradition, and has long been noted as the film’s most innovative plot element.”
  36. Koszarski, 1983 p. 43-44
  37. Koszarski, 1983 p. 44
  38. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-18.