Erich von Stroheim stars in the 1922 silent film “Foolish Wives,” showing Jan. 4 at the Historic Everett Theatre. (Universal)

Erich von Stroheim stars in the 1922 silent film “Foolish Wives,” showing Jan. 4 at the Historic Everett Theatre. (Universal)

See the ‘million dollar movie’ of 1922 at Historic Everett Theatre

“Foolish Wives” was notorious for director Erich von Stroheim’s foolish spending on its production.

In 1922, “Foolish Wives” was billed as “the first million-dollar movie” because it was budgeted at over $1.1 million — about $16 million in today’s money.

The silent film will be shown at the Historic Everett Theater for Silent Movie and Pipe Organ Night on Jan. 24. Organist Sharon Stearnes will accompany the film at the theatre’s pipe organ.

Every other month, the 117-year-old theater shows films that made Top 100 Silent Movie of All Time lists. One such list found online has “Foolish Wives” at No. 96. In 2008, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

“Foolish Wives” tells the story of a con man who pretends to be a count in order to charm and swindle married women for their money. But he soon finds he has double-crossed too many women.

Theater owner and manager Curt Shriner said he likes to show comedies from the silent era starring Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. The dramas “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1920), “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923) and “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925) also were well-received, he said.

Shriner especially likes to show movies in which the silent film stars you see on the screen — such as Mack Sennett and John Barrymore — actually played the Everett theater after it was built in 1901.

“You’d be surprised how many parents bring their kids to see what it was like back in the day,” Shriner said. “These movies were really well-made.”

Organist Stearnes will perform the accompaniment spontaneously as the movie rolls. She’ll play the Kimball theater pipe organ on stage, which was reinstalled back in 1997.

She doesn’t play the movie score — instead she improvises, playing music she already knows that goes along with what’s happening on screen. If it’s a funny scene, she’ll play a funny song. If it’s scary, she’ll play creepy music.

“I make it up on the spot,” said Stearns, who is the music director and organist at Gig Harbor United Methodist Church, and played organ at Mariners games at the old Kingdome for five years. “You could call me an improviser, a cheater. I wing it.”

When released in 1922, “Foolish Wives,” starring and directed by Erich von Stroheim, was the most expensive film made at that time, and billed by Universal Pictures as the “first million-dollar movie” to come out of Hollywood.

Von Stroheim, who also wrote and produced the picture, turned over a cut of the film with a running time of six hours, 24 minutes, to be shown over two evenings. Universal executives opposed this idea, and the studio bosses cut “Foolish Wives” to 73 minutes.

Initially budgeted at $250,000, the film’s production soared above $1 million, thanks to von Stroheim’s excesses.

He ordered lavish Parisian evening gowns, silk stockings and monogrammed underwear for his actors. He decorated his sets with real porcelain, tapestries and crystal chandeliers. For banquet scenes, he insisted on using real champagne and caviar.

As the film’s production costs skyrocketed, Universal Pictures attempted to garner some publicity for it. The studio erected an electronic sign on a rooftop overlooking Broadway in New York City. The sign read “Universal Pictures and Erich von Stroheim will spend $XXX,XXX to entertain you with ‘Foolish Wives.’”

Each week, the numbers were updated on the electronic sign, telling how much more the movie had cost.

The picture wound up costing $1,104,000.

Sara Bruestle: sbruestle@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3046; @sarabruestle.

If you go

The 1922 film “Foolish Wives” is showing on Jan. 24 for Silent Movie and Pipe Organ Night at the Historic Everett Theatre, 2911 Colby Ave., Everett. Show time is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. More at tinyurl.com/EvSilentMovie.

The next Silent Movie and Pipe Organ Night is scheduled for March 27. See Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lodger” from 1927.

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