A Labor of Love Revives a Story of 'Greed'
Three-quarters of a century after its brutal butchering, Erich von Stroheim's
king of movies is partially restored to its throne
By Richard Corliss
TIME movie writer
"Greed" could be the name of any movie about Hollywood. Instead, it is the title of Hollywood's most famous doomed film -- a work that, from the moment of its making in 1924, was a code word for both the prideful extravagance of certain directors and the soul-destroying instincts of studio bosses. Erich von Stroheim's nine-hour adaptation of the Frank Norris novel "McTeague" was called a masterpiece by the few who saw it in its original version. Then Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer started cutting the movie, and kept cutting until the film was just over two hours. The other footage was destroyed. It was said that MGM melted the film stock down to reclaim the silver in the emulsion. Talk about greed!
In the trench warfare between Hollywood art and Hollywood commerce, the money men usually win. Win in the short run, anyway. Then history turns its long glance on the battle, and chooses a new victor. From the grave, the artist can smile, in a rictus of vindication. "Greed," which upon its release was described by one trade paper as "the filthiest, vilest, most putrid picture in the history of the motion picture business," was voted one of the three most important American films of all time in a 1976 poll of critics. (The others were "Citizen Kane" and F.W. Murnau's silent classic "Sunrise.") And in a sweet irony, a four-hour "restored" version of the picture will be shown this Sunday night (Dec. 5), at 8 p.m. and midnight, on Turner Classic Movies, the cable home of thousands of vintage MGM films. "Greed" is home at last.
"No matter if I could talk to you three weeks steadily," said the Austrian-born director after the gold dust had settled, "could I possibly describe even to a small degree the heartache I suffered through the mutilation of my sincere work." Von Stroheim might have been shocked by the heartlessness of the moguls, but he shouldn't have been surprised. In a 15-year directorial career, only one of the nine films he made was released intact. Others were shut down during production or handed to more pliable
fellows to finish. Yet throughout the silent era, studios kept employing von Stroheim. Maybe the bosses respected him, or thought they could reform him, or liked a good fight. Perhaps they hired him so they could fire him -- and could use his humiliation as a warning to any other director who spent too recklessly or took his credentials as an artist too seriously.
The typical von Stroheim movie ("Blind Husbands," "Foolish Wives," "The Merry Widow") was a Ruritanian romance, awash in decadence, sadism and the glamour of the evil rich. If you hated the characters -- and in von Stroheim's earlier days as an actor he was famous as "the man you love to hate" -- you could still fall in love with the costumes, the scenery, the aura of swank that was thick as a sultan's carpet. "Greed" was different. It was set in the grimy present, von Stroheim does not appear on-screen, and there are no stars. It was a naturalistic parable about small people whom fate would ultimately grind into cinders. And, when it was finished, it ran nine hours. You needn't be a mogul to see this as a recipe for box-office poison.
John McTeague (played by huge, Harpo-haired Gibson Gowland) is a simple,
decent coalminer who learns dentistry and opens a practice in San Francisco. His best pal is Marcus (Jean Hersholt), a surly sort who nonetheless declares that he and Mac are "friends for life or...death!" Marcus has a cousin he's sweet on, named Trina (ZaSu Pitts, who could pass as a sister to silent-screen queens Lillian and Dorothy Gish). But Mac loves Trina, and after a burly courtship, they marry, in his dental office. The jealous Marcus, who can hold quite a grudge, vows revenge. But there is another reason to guess that the union is cursed: through the window of Mac's office a funeral procession can be seen on the street; a one-legged boy hobbles after the hearse. That night, as Mac approaches the marital bed, Trina is hysterical with anxiety.
Trina has won $5,000 in a lottery; she invests it in her uncle's department store. But having money makes her a miser. She won't buy something because she has "no small change." (So Mac pays. He has small change. To the bitter Trina, he is small change.) She buys three-day-old meat to save a few
pennies. When Mac is discovered to have no dental degree and is told to close down his practice, he takes menial jobs because she won't break into her capital; she even frisks him of his last pay packet. He finally walks out, and she is alone with her rancor and an extra $450 she's saved. The movie links Trina's stinginess with sexual frigidity; she is unable to give. She loves money and money is her lover, as the film shows in one memorably stark scene: Trina rolls naked in bed over her pieces of gold.
It ends up in a face-off, in scalding-hot Death Valley, between Marcus and Mac -- one man dead, the other handcuffed to his corpse a hundred miles from shade, water or any sign of human life. An innocent fellow has been destroyed by a greedy friend and a miserly wife.
All right, "Greed" is not "Singin' in the Rain"; it's more like "Croakin' in the Desert." It was von Stroheim's intention to expose the viewer to the same parched existence that Trina made for Mac, and in that it is remarkably, artfully successful. We can say that with more assurance now that a fuller version of the film is available. Editor Rick Schmidlin, who worked on last year's prize-winning restoration of Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil," has interpolated more than 600 stills from the lost segments into the footage that survives. Subplots the MGM snippers jettisoned, including the long-deferred romance of two old neighbors who have never met, come to plausible life as the photographs flip by. (We could have done without the panning in to each photo, though --, it jars with von Stroheim's style, which has very little camera movement.)
The film is also handsomely tinted. A sickly yellow highlights pieces of gold, a ring, a watch and watch chain, two canary lovebirds -- all objects that engender greed or fall under its grasping spell. To bring a condemned film back to life was a challenge nearly as monumental as the one von Stroheim set himself to make his monumental movie. Fortunately, Schmidlin's noble project has a happier ending. And no one can say he did it for the money.
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