Greed (1924)

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Film review of the silent movie epic directed by Erich von Stroheim starring Zasu Pitts as a woman who wins a small fortune on a lottery and whose life with her simple minded dentist husband McTeague (Gibson Gowland) and former beau Marcus (Jean Hersholt) descends into miserly obsession, madness and murder as she tries to retain every single cent of her winnings.

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Director: Erich von Stroheim. MGM, 239 minutes. (PG)

Silent

Cast & credits

Producer: Irving Thalberg.
Writers: Erich von Stroheim, June Mathis.
Camera: William Daniels, Ben Reynolds.
Music: Carl Davis (1986 reissue), Robert Israel (1999 reconstruction).
Sets: Erich von Stroheim, Cedric Gibbons.

Gibson Gowland, Zasu Pitts, Jean Hersholt, Dale Fuller, Tempe Piggott, Sylvia Ashley, Chester Conklin.

Synopsis

San Francisco at the turn of the last century: A simple-minded, but kind hearted dentist (Gowland) marries the love of his life, the precious and highly-strung Trina (Pitts), who also happens to be the apple of his best friend Marcus’ (Hersholt) eye. They settle down to a normal life until she wins a small fortune on a local lottery. As Trina’s initial prudence grows into selfish miserliness, the two descend into poverty and tragedy soon follows.

ReviewGreed poster

Having had enough of the frankly poor service offered by iTunes (films taking hours to download; the resultant movie generally stopping half way through, with no action on my part inducing it to continue) I was intrigued to see that Google Play appeared in my folder of applications when I created a Google account to manage the emails for this blog.

Movies to watch instantly? And slightly cheaper than the competition? Oh, happy days!

One of the first films I thought I would give a whirl to again was this ‘low down and fetid’ 1924 epic from the hand of Erich von Stroheim which I first saw as a teenager in it’s now famously truncated 2 and a bit hours version.

Spotting that the running time was a whopping 239 minutes and being up for some epic cinema, I deduced this was the Rick Schmidlin 1999 reissue which filled in the gaps left in that version with the stills and title cards, clicked on buy and settled in for the long haul.

Film restoration is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is right, proper and indeed important to repair, clean up and show off classic films and make them live for a new age and audience.

On the other, there is a case to answer for some films remaining lost forever. Like the dinosaurs and the dodo, they might not have been as evolved as their more glittering and well-remembered peers, that have stumbled on through the ages.

I feel more inclined to the latter train of thought with this heftier but not actually clearer edition of Greed, a work almost as epic as the original film. I reviewed Greed sometime ago and my thoughts on the shorter version of the film are underneath.

Immediately noticeable here is the gold-tint to key sections of each frame, originally hand painted onto the film, now reinstated. So, Leo the Lion from the MGM logo glows years before his technicolour heyday; the gold of the Big Dipper mine glitters tantalisingly within the muck and slime of life underground; the enormous tooth that hangs ominously outside McTeague’s dental parlours (a sign of his trade but also a cue to the dental authorities that he is unqualified and unprofessional and will soon lose his livelihood) looks like a beacon of wealth and even McTeague’s beloved canary is the same colour of the element which gradually rules his life (at least initially. Like everything, this is soon tarnished as the film progresses and we descend into monochrome).

On the whole though, what a reviewer has to look at in spruced up versions of classic films with extra scenes, is do those extra scenes add value to the original cut?

If so, what can we learn from them? Do we gain a deeper understanding of the director/producer/writers’ vision and objectives for originally making the film we have hitherto been left with? What extra levels of knowledge and appreciation thus follow?

With this version of Greed I think not overall and I found myself answering no to most of the questions above. It is with some reservation that I make the following statement as I was so keen to see this reissue, but this version is a bit of a waste of time.

Let me clarify this, for I certainly liked the edit and greatly admire the painstaking and highly professional work Schmidlin and his team put into Greed, but I gleaned a more vivid and arresting impression from the original MGM release cut than I did here.

Does the extra footage, cobbled together from what von was able to salvage from the cutting room floor and dustbin, embellish his commentary on the fetid and grim lives of the petit bourgeoise in turn of the century San Francisco?

The answer here is most certainly in the affirmative. What MGM cut out with such horrific ruthlessness were the seamer, danker aspects of Greed, leaving a more ‘bleached’ version of the film. The excised scenes were certainly more ‘hardcore’ so to speak.

But do the extra stills and did, originally, the extra scenes of depravity, infanticide and insanity give us greater understanding of von’s milieu?

I think not. Enough can be enough at the end of the day. 9 and a bit hours of poverty, misery and negativity heaped endlessly on top of the other can be too much.

Money is the root of all evil, with roots deeper than a troublesome bicuspid and this bumper edition further pummels the message into us. Which is part of the problem; rather than clever satirical and sociological semiotics, we are bashed on the head too many times with the metaphorical hammer.

In hindsight, MGM’s decision to prune the film back to suit a more commercial palate was the correct one to take.

Someone once said that von was a genius but all he needed was a stopwatch. MGM was probably the best one he could have had looking over him.

Years later, rather than their actions being the most unkindest cut of all, they have actually left us with the most pertinent and coherent vision.

Review of the shorter cut of the film.

Sandwiched between his grandiose, million dollar budget busting European upper classes on the pull satires Foolish Wives  and The Merry Widow, this naturalistic drama of the American petite Bourgeoise stands out like a flea-bitten sore thumb in von Stroheim’s small but selective canon of work.

It has been hailed by some as the ‘Film of films’ (by such esteemed men as director Jean Cocteau). But at the time Greed was made, the film industry viewed it as a monstrously overlong waste of celluloid, a gutteral folly on the part of the director. A harsh perspective, but perhaps with good, financial meaning, one that resulted in this epic being drastically edited by fledgling studio MGM.

However, despite the lack of this coveted missing material, what remains is still an astonishingly assured piece. There is a masterly control of atmosphere, character and camerawork from a director who at this point was streets ahead stylistically of other American filmmakers.

Much has been written in the past about this film’s chequered production history, indeed it has long-since passed into Hollywood legend. Greed has the ignoble fate of being added to a small but cosy list of ‘lost’ or incomplete films (wikipedia has more detail on these here).

Originally this adaptation of Frank Norris novel McTeague was some nine hours in length (von planned to film the book page by page), the whole film was painstakingly cut down to a more manageable four. Stroheim more than likely wished to split this into two films, but further cuts ordered by the studio saw it hacked down to the current edit in circulation.

I form this review from the shrivelled stump that remains and if MGM did not adequately respect the production at the time, they have since lavished attention upon it including a spine-tingling and creepy score from composer Davis in 1986.

Norris’ source novel, with its unsparing mendacity and ugliness as he skewers the hypocrisy of the American petite bourgeoise, was an odd choice for von, but one he had wished to film for some years.

Casting for this type of drama would never be easy. Stroheim had a keen eye for who to work with, developing (as many director have done and continue to do so since) an unofficial ‘company’ of stock actors. Hulking, blank faced Gowland is therefore ideal in the lead role and manages to be both pathetically sympathetic and violently repugnant with equal skill. As Trina, Pitts fires on a full and impressive arsenal of physical tics and mannerisms to convey the downward spiral of monetary obsession and madness, rubbing her hands and interlocking rapidly vanishing fingers, narrowing her eyes in fiscal evaluation of everything and everyone around her. It is a performance of extraordinary physicality and may very well be the greatest ever given on the silent screen.

Of Stroheim’s gift for conjuring meaning with ironic, savage images, there is the following: a first kiss given on top of a sewer’s man-hole cover, a funeral procession marches underneath the window where McTeague and Trina marry, a cat and caged canary playing out the lead characters relationship, a murder is framed by Christmas tinsel and with the final scene in Death Valley, Gowland and Hersholt face up to an exhausting dual, the camera moving away in a series of cuts, reducing the protagonists to specks of sand.

With all this, von sought to create an entire world within a film. That he achieved this and then failed by chance and circumstance to capitalise on it is a crying shame. What we are left with is a relatively brief but mesmerising experience that all serious film afficianados should encounter at least once.

One last thing to note; in a film packed with unrelentingly cruel irony, the descent of Greed‘s characters mirrors the downward trajectory of von Stroheim himself; the box office success of The Merry Widow would be his last complete film as a director.

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