Merry-Go-Round (1923 film)

Merry-Go-Round is a 1923 American feature film directed by Erich von Stroheim (uncredited) and Rupert Julian, starring Norman Kerry and Mary Philbin, and released by Universal Pictures.[1][2] A copy of the film is held in a collection[2] and it has been released on DVD.

Merry-Go-Round FilmPoster.jpeg
Directed byErich von Stroheim
Rupert Julian
Written byFinis Fox (scenario)
Irving Thalberg (scenario)
Rupert Julian (scenario)
Erich von Stroheim (scenario)
Story byHarvey Gates
Produced byCarl Laemmle
StarringNorman Kerry
Mary Philbin
Edith Yorke
Dale Fuller
CinematographyCharles Kaufman
William H. Daniels
Ben Reynolds
Edited byJames MacKay
Distributed byUniversal Pictures
Release date
  • September 3, 1923 (1923-09-03)
Running time
110 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageSilent (English intertitles)
Lobby card


As described in a film magazine,[3] Count Franz Maxmilian (Kerry), a happy-go-lucky, irresponsible count, is attached to the Austrian court of Emperor Francis Joseph (Vaverka) and by the Emperor’s mandate is affianced to Gisella (Wallace), the daughter of the Minister of War and a woman he does not love. Having by chance met the innocent little organ-grinder Agnes (Philbin), a peasant toiling in Vienna’s amusement park, representing a type of womanhood with which he is totally unfamiliar, he experiences a strong attraction. By the dictates of court etiquette, the hated union is solemnized. The organ-grinder, not knowing that the admirer is a member of royalty, believes he has deserted her. War is declared, and the unhappy remorse-stricken count goes to the front. During hostilities, his unloved royal spouse dies. The count later returns, renounces his title, and marries the little organ-grinder.



Paul Kohner, Universal’s manager for overseas publicity approached von Stroheim following the success of Blind Husbands (1919) with several proposals for the director’s next project. The 20-year-old Kohner, a highly literate and sophisticated Bavarian émigré shared a nostalgia for Europe with the working-class von Stroheim, The topic of pre-war Vienna stirred von Stroheim’s memories of his childhood and youth. A story began to take shape with the central themes built around the Prater, Vienna’s world famous amusement park and its main attraction, the Merry-Go-Round, from which the film’s title is taken.[4][5]

Producer Irving Thalberg encouraged von Stroheim to proceed with writing the script, but with a caveat fully establishing Thalberg’s oversight: von Stroheim was not to be part of the cast in the production, a condition that would provide Thalberg and Universal with the option of replacing von Stroheim as director in the midst of filming, without the expense of recasting and reshooting his character. Von Stroheim and his agent consented to this provision reluctantly.[6]

Thalberg carefully vetted von Stroheim’s screenplay submissions, ultimately paying the director $5000 for the collaboratively written scenario. In order to circumvent von Stroheim’s excessive use of film stock in a script calling for almost one thousand scenes, Thalberg insisted that each scene be limited by pre-timed estimates in continuity, to ensure the picture emerged at “an acceptable length.”[7]


Merry-Go-Round went into production on 25 August 1922. On 6 October 1922, after six weeks, Universal removed director Von Stroheim from the project and immediately replaced him with director Rupert Julian. Shooting was completed on 8 January, 1923.

The production, from the beginning, was fraught with internecine struggles pitting Universal executives against Von Stroheim and his technical assistants over content, scheduling and budgetary control of the film. [8] Universal unit production manager for the film, James Winnard Hum, serving as proxy for head of production Thalberg, was daily on the set and in direct communication with Von Stroheim and his advisors. Mutual recriminations and accusations of bad faith abounded on both sides. Von Stroheim cultivated a “them vs. us” atmosphere among his staff and workers, most of whom were loyalists enlisted from the his recently completed Foolish Wives. [9] Production manager Hum felt that von Stroheim was “stalling” on portions of the filming in order to assert his control over the shooting schedule.[10]

Von Stroheim felt confident that an appeal to Universal president Carl Laemmle would resolve the matter in his favor, curbing Thalberg’s authority, an expectation of which he was quickly disabused.[11] After a number of delays in filming, including the derailment of a prop streetcar, the overloading of the studio electrical system due to excessive night shooting, an inebriated lead man (Norman Kerry), the general disaffection of the extras, and delays caused by a search for an appropriate orangutan, the upper echelon at Universal mobilized against von Strohiem. Thalberg was authorized to terminate von Stroheim as director. Biographer Richard Koszarski offers an excerpt from Thalberg’s notification to von Stohiem:[12]

“The fact that more productions have not been completed is due largely to your totally inexcusable and repeated acts of insubordination, your extravagant ideas which you have been unwilling to sacrifice in the slightest particular, repeated an unnecessary delays occasioned by your attitude in arguing against practically every instruction that has been given you in good faith, and by your apparent idea that you are greater and more powerful than the organization that employs have time and again demonstrated your disloyalty to our company, encouraged and fostered discontent, distrust and disrespect in the minds of your fellow employees, and have attempted to create an organization loyal to yourself , rather than the company you are employed to serve...”[13]

Upon von Stroheim’s departure, Universal instantly replaced him with Rupert Julian. The production proceeded with most of von Strohiem’s crew and cast intact but some expressions of discontent at von Strohiem’s departure. [14]

The question as to the relative contributions to Merry-Go-Round from von Stroheim and Julian remain in dispute. Based on testimony by Hum, Louis Germonprez (von Strohiem’s business manager) and von Stroheim agreed that about a third of the scenes had been completed by von Stroheim. Thalberg and Julian reported that about 25% had been completed (271 scenes). Though Julian’s contribution appears to have closely followed the original script, few of the von Stroheim-directed scenes were incorporated into the picture.[15]


Merry-Go-Round represents the earliest appearance of a female protagonist as the center of interest in a von Stroheim film, a significant departure from the centrality of the male Prussian officer and pseudo-aristocrat that von Stroheim himself had made infamous as “the man you love to hate.” Though not fully realized in this film, his “tentative shift in focus from the seducer to the victim marks a new phase in von Stroheim’s career.” The character of Count Maximilian (Norman Kerry) is presented as less a caricature of a nobleman than an individual capable of “dramatic maturation”, another shift that distinguishes Merry-Go-Round. Heroine Agnes Urban’s (Mary Philbin) emotional struggles are examined with empathy, marking the first time von Stroheim creates “a dramatically successful female, an indication of a general shift in his interest.”[16]

Von Stroheim’s nostalgic recreation of Vienna’s Belle Époque serves as a sentimental tribute to the Hapsburg monarchy and its ancien regime, both of which suffered social and economic collapse during World War I. Despite acknowledging the decadence and abuses of the Austrian ruling class, Merry-Go-Round presents their decline and fall with regret.

Von Strohiem’s obsession with “minute details and rituals” reveals more than von Stroheim’s concern with the precise cinematic depiction of props, but a tribute to Austrian aristocratic social order, whose military echelon he portrayed with dignity and fidelity. Von Stroheim arranged for the transportation of the original royal carriage of the deceased Emperor Franz Joseph to Hollywood for use in the film. More than a relic from the Hapsburg dynasty, it serves as a tribute to the lost Austrian Empire.[17]


Despite the fact that von Strohiem’s name had been expunged from the credits, viewers who attended the premiere at New York’s Rivoli Theater were well aware that he had conceived, if not executed, Merry-Go-Round. Reviews were mixed, but the picture was ranked the year’s second best film by The Film Daily.[18]

The film was the eighth most successful that year at the box office in the United States and Canada.[19]


  1. ^ Koszarski, 1983 p. 110: “Universal had removed [von Stroheim’s] name from all credits.”
  2. ^ a b Progressive Silent Film List: Merry-Go-Round at
  3. ^ "Harrison's Review on Merry-Go-Round". Universal Weekly. New York City, New York: Moving Picture Weekly Pub. Co. 17 (25): 30. August 4, 1923. Retrieved September 20, 2021.
  4. ^ Koszarski, 1983 p. 91: “Von Stroheim knew exactly what he wanted to do next: rebuild the Vienna that had disappeared forever” after World War I.
  5. ^ Kindley, 2009
  6. ^ Koszarski, 1983 pp. 90-91: “...Thalberg was implicitly threatening his with removal from the production if things began to get out of hand” as had occurred during the filming of Foolish Wives. And p. 92: Thalberg’s ability to remove him as director “must have been a chilling blow to the confidence” that he had established with Universal since 1919.
  7. ^ Koszarski, 1983 pp. 91-92, p. 93: “...a 976 scene version…” of the script approved by von Stroheim.
  8. ^ Koszarski, 1983 p. 92: The film preparations went forward “in an atmosphere of uneasy truce…”
  9. ^ Koszarski, 1983 pp. 101-102: “The von Stroheim production unit was carried over directly from Foolish Wives…” And: Thalberg sent down his unit production manager Hull “and gave him full authority over all expenses and details of physical production…[von Stroheim] never took [Hum’s authority] seriously [and] ignored the manager’s presence.” And p. 104: Von Stroheim’s “general air of disrespect for...the studio hierarchy” and referring to Hum as a “stool pigeon” while on the set.
  10. ^ Koszarski, 1983 p. 103: Koszarski reports that Hum suspected von Stroheim of conspiring with his costume man Ned Lambert delayed delivery of uniforms to stop filming.
  11. ^ Koszarski, 1983 p. 104: “Von Strohiem kept promising wholesale retribution” against production managers after consultation with Carl Laemmle. And p. “...Laemmle had already made his decision” to remove von Stroheim from Merry-Go-Round. And p. 107: Von Strohiem “confronted” Laemmle with his arguments, but “now it was Thalberg who was irreplaceable.”
  12. ^ Koszarski, 1983 pp. 103-105 And p. “...practically the entire top echelon of the studio… [personally] announced “von Stroheim’s departure to the cast and crew.
  13. ^ Koszarski, 1983 p. 106
  14. ^ Koszarski, 1983 p. 109: “...few of von Stroheim’s people” abandoned the film when he was dismissed. And: Director Julian reported “varying degrees of antagonism” from von Stroheim sympathizers who stayed with the production.
  15. ^ Koszarski, 1983 p. 108-109: “How much of the film [is von Stroheim’s, in concept if not in execution] has long been debated…” And p. 110: “...a look at the script shows that Julian followed von Strohiem’s continuity like a blueprint.” And p. 110: “...few von Strohiem-directed directed scenes remain in the picture…[but] Julian stayed remarkably close to von Stroheim’s original ideas.”
  16. ^ Koszarski, 1983 pp. 97-98
  17. ^ Koszarski, 1983 p. 99
  18. ^ Koszarski, 1983 p. 108: “concept” was von Strohiem’s And p. 110: Von Stroheim’s name had been removed “from all credits.”
  19. ^ Rentals in US and Canada - see Variety list of box office champions for 1923


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