Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Greed (1924)

Greed (1924) ****
Directed by:
Erich von Stroheim
Written By: Erich von Stroheim & June Mathis based on the novel McTeague by Frank Norris.
Starring: Gibson Gowland (McTeague), Zasu Pitts (Trina), Jean Hersholt (Marcus), Dale Fuller (Maria), Tempe Pigott (Mother McTeague), Sylvia Ashton ('Mommer' Sieppe), Chester Conklin ('Popper' Sieppe), Joan Standing (Selina), Cesare Gravina (Zwerkow - Junkman)

Erich von Stroheim’s Greed is one of the most famous and most celebrated films of the silent era. Its fame is due at least as much to the story behind the making of the film as the film itself. Director Erich von Stroheim spent a year, and the then huge sum of $750,000 shooting his epic adaptation of Frank Norris’ novel McTeague. He delivered his cut of the film – which ran roughly 9 ½ hours long, and as far as anyone knows screened only once for the studio and some friends. The only report we have from that screening was by one on von Stroheim’s friends, who felt that every individual aspect of the film worked wonderfully, but there was just too damned much of it. The studio, led by Louis Mayer, apparently agreed, took the film away from von Stroheim and edited it down to roughly 2 hours and 20 minutes. The rest of the film was apparently destroyed, because in those days, film required valuable silver nitrate. The argument over the film got so heated that apparently Mayer even punched von Stroheim. For years, this 140 minute version was all we had of von Stroheim’s film – and it was still ranked among the best films of all time in poll after poll. The missing 7 hours of footage has been considered the Holy Grail of lost films (although I would rather get the additional hour of Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons back myself). But in 1999, working off a treasure trove of production stills, and a version of the screenplay by von Stroheim himself, they restored as much as the film as possible – giving us a four hour version – with still photos filling in as many gaps as possible. This is undoubtedly as close to von Stroheim’s original version as we will ever see.

Now that we have gone over the history, let’s move on to the film itself – which is a masterpiece in its current form. The film is about McTeague (Gibson Gowland), a hulking man who is working at a mine when we first meet him. His mother has always wanted more for him though, and shortly before her death, convinces a quack dentist to take him on as an apprentice. Slowly he learns his trade, and then starts his own practice. He seems happy – saving up to buy his beloved birds, drinking with friends, and generally being a nice guy. He does have a temper however, and if someone questions his manhood, watch out.

It’s then he meets Trina (Zasu Pitts), who is the cousin and girlfriend of his friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt). He is immediately smitten with her, and when he finally breaks down and confesses this to his friend, Marcus graciously steps aside – warning him not to hurt his cousin. Their courtship is awkward however, with Trina confused in her feelings towards McTeague. Depending on how you read the intercard “Please, Oh Please” it either implies premarital sex or rape – both about as shocking in 1924. Pressured by her family, Trina reluctantly agrees to McTeague’s marriage proposal. And then she wins $5,000 in the lottery. Despite the fact that Marcus had willingly stepped aside, and the fact that McTeague was already engaged to Trina when she won the lottery, this angers Marcus to no end – he becomes bitter and accuses McTeague of screwing him out of the money that was rightfully his. Later Marcus will leave the picture, but not before he ruins McTeague’s career.

After their marriage, Trina becomes obsessed with money. She invests the entire $5,000 in her uncle’s company, and although it provides her with a nice income, she wants more. She begrudges McTeague spending 5 cents to catch a car on a day it rains, buys spoiled meat because the good stuff is too expensive, and after McTeague has lost his practices, forces them to move to a rundown shack, that has only become available because Zwerkow, the junk man, murdered his wife, and then killed himself in a story of greed that should act as a warning to Trina and McTeague – but doesn’t. When her mother tells her she needs $50, because they have fallen on tough times, she convinces McTeague to put up half the money, and says she’ll put up the other half – and then just pockets his cash. She shines her coins until the sparkle, and is always saving for a “rainy day” – but even when they do come, she won’t spend her money.

You can imagine how all of this leads to murder – and to McTeague trying to cross Death Valley, with $5,000 in coins, and a posse – including Marcus on his trail. These final scenes in Death Valley – that end in the confrontation between the two men, where one winds up dead, and the other one waiting for death – are among the most famous in cinema history. There is a tragedy to them that cannot really be matched by most modern movies. The money, the thing that both McTeague and Marcus have lusted after the whole movie, is right there in their grasp – but now they are trapped in the desert, and the money is useless. McTeague, perhaps trying to make up for everything he does, release his bird so that it can survive – but it merely flutters for a few seconds before dropping dead.

It is easy to see why Mayer didn’t think anyone would want to see Greed. You watch most of the early silent movies, and comedy seems to dominate – after all, physical comedy doesn’t really need sound to play at all. At 9 ½ hours, with such a downer of an ending, it must have seemed like no one would ever pay to see the movie. At less than half the length it was intended, Greed can be a tough movie to sit through – there is so little joy here (only the scenes between two elderly people who finally find love with each, which is in stark contrast to the main thrust of the plot) provide any.

And yet, watching Greed today, you can see why it is considered one of the best of all silent films. Von Stroheim’s film has a realism that is pretty much unmatched in silent film – there are a few moments where the actors devolve into the typical melodramatic style common in silent films, but not many – and none of them involve Gibson Gowland as McTeague, who kind of reminded me of Lee Marvin, both in terms of his looks and his temperament. Von Stroheim’s camera captures the smallest details – details of which he was obsessed with. In its story, we see the roots of everything from Citizen Kane to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to There Will Be Blood and perhaps even The Social Network. The film is daring and frank in its depiction of sex and violence. Even at four hours, with almost half of that being made up of still shots intercut with title cards – I was never once bored. I was drawn into the story, and watched as it wound down to its inevitable, tragic conclusion.

Erich Von Stroheim was an uncompromising filmmaker – one of the giants of silent cinema, who never got the chance to make a sound film. His 1922 film, Foolish Wives (which I will also watch for this series at some point) was also taken away from him and recut. He was fired from his 1923 film Merry-Go-Round, had his 1929 film Queen Kelly cancelled half way through shooting, and was fired from the only sound film he was hired to make – 1933’s Walking Down Broadway. After that, he made his living as an actor – most famously in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. where he played the butler to Gloria Swanson. That film showed clips of Queen Kelly, the film Stroheim made with Swanson, and the butler glumly recounts his days as one of the greatest silent film directors in history, now reduced to his current work. No wonder Stroheim received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for that film – he was essentially playing himself.

The filmography Stroheim left behind is full of holes, and incomplete films. I’m not sure there is one of his films that survives today exactly how he intended it to. And yet, he still stands as one of the giants of the film history – and Greed it the primary reason why.

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