Nether Regions 03.22.12: Greed
Posted by Chad Webb on 03.22.2012
This week’s article focuses on Erich Von Stroheim’s 1924 epic, the history of its butchering, the wild behind-the-scenes stories, and whether or not the film still holds up today…
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin in the movie-zone that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Starring: Gibson Gowland, Zasu Pitts, and Jean Hersholt Directed By: Erich Von Stroheim Written By: Erich Von Stroheim and June Mathis Running Time: 239 minutes Original Release Date: September 1, 1998 Missing Since: June 6, 2000 Existing Formats:VHS Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Extremely Rare
It has presumed that up to 75% of all silent films are lost forever. As the decades poke along, we tend to forget how impactful that statistic is, which is why film preservation spokespersons like Martin Scorsese are so important. Titles such as The Apostle (the first animated feature), Cleopatra 1917, and The Great Gatsby (1926) (just to name a few) will likely never be recovered. This is a tragedy, but many lost motion pictures are still being unearthed from all corners of the world. You never know where one will be discovered, like the rare Metropolis footage for instance. But perhaps the greatest cinematic tragedy of all-time belongs to Erich Von Stroheim's 1924 classic Greed.
Erich Von Stroheim & DOP Ben Reynolds shooting "Greed."
The tale is now Hollywood legend, and is almost as fascinating as the film itself. Greed is based on the novel McTeague by Frank Norris. Most people might not realize that William A. Brady completed a version of this in 1916, but wacky filmmaker Erich Von Stroheim set out to deliver the ultimate adaptation, one covering every single solitary detail. In fact, the majority of the intertitles display Norris' name or initials since they were copied from the text. But that's not all. When Von Stroheim delved into any project, he demanded to use genuine props and to shoot in the actual locations. For Greed, they filmed in San Francisco, the Sierra Nevade Mountains, and Death Valley. He didn't care if it could be replicated on a studio backlot without the harsh conditions. And if there was a scene involving characters eating caviar, he imported real caviar.
By the time he was finished, the final print was 42 reels and 10 hours long. The grand total for the budget was well north of $500,000, one of the most expensive pictures of the time, though second to another Von Stroheim epic, Foolish Wives, which was reportedly around $1 million. He knew it was too long, so the first cut was trimmed to 6 hours, with intermissions over 2 nights. Goldwyn producers then told him to cut it further, and with the aid of director Rex Ingram and editor Grant Whytock, it was knocked down to 4 hours, separated in 2 parts. In the middle of all this editing, Goldwyn was merged into MGM and Greed was taken from Von Stroheim. He had not control over it any longer. He had his share of enemies in the business. On January 12th, 1924 a small group at MGM viewed it one time in full, primarily due to contractual obligations, then the negative was handed to head scriptwriter June Mathis to hack it up more, to 2 hours and 20 minutes. Von Stroheim, not known for being the easiest person to deal with, was incredibly upset and reportedly broke down. Mathis had given to a routine cutter, who had not read the book and was not familiar with the script. Significant characters and sub-plots were removed, altering the scope of the picture and our perception of it. The result was a disaster. Von Stroheim was rumored to have said the following about this person: "The only thing he had on his mind was his hat!"
Mathis was listed as a screenwriter because of contractual requirements. To this end, she was technically given a co-credit for everything at the time. Her contribution to the butchering of Greed has long been disputed. We do know that Von Stroheim blamed her, but it has been said that she admired him, and had worked with him, so many feel that she would not have purposely sabotaged his effort. The snipped rolls were thrown into an incinerator by a janitor who apparently assumed they were unimportant. The cut released into theaters was disowned by Von Stroheim and panned by critics, though a few years later even this shortened form was listed among the greatest films of all-time. It took 2 years to shoot and complete post-production and was the first film to be filmed entirely on location.
McTeague's wanted poster, hopefully a future DVD cover.
The story chronicles the life of McTeague (Gibson Gowland), a rough around the edges guy who worked at the Big Dipper Gold Mine. He eventually learns dentistry from a man who was not qualified give him a license. He establishes a practice in San Francisco, and it is there he meets Trina Sieppe (Zasu Pitts), cousin to his best friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt). McTeague wins her from Marcus, much to his chagrin, and they marry. After the wedding, Trina wins the lottery for $5,000. Marcus becomes increasingly jealous knowing he stepped aside, so he reports McTeague's dentist office to the police, who promptly shut him down because he never went to school officially. Trina, who has grown obsessed with money and gold, has refused to spend any of the winnings even though now she and McTeague fail to make ends meet. Her fear of someone taking her gold away only gets worse. She even takes McTeague's paychecks whenever he gets them. With no job, no money, and being scolded for spending what little they have of necessities, McTeague is driven to leave Trina. He does return, desperate and angry, and commits an act that makes him a wanted individual, with Marcus hunting him for the reward.
So, putting aside the crazy history behind this production, does Greed warrant all this discussion? Well, "Greed is good" as Gordon Gekko might say, but I think he was referring to the other meaning of the word. Sorry, I couldn't help myself. Eric Von Stroheim's Greed is not only among the top silent films, but is still one of the greatest films of all-time, period. The reason you will not see it on many lists, or hear about it on documentaries or AFI TV specials is that availability of this title is scarce. For whatever reason, Turner Entertainment (the current right's holder) has decided to keep this one locked in the vault. To date only a VHS has been released for public consumption, which is a damn shame. Now, for Best Picture winners, their status because of the Academy gives fans a jumping off point to push for a DVD/Blu-Ray release. Greed did not win any of those prestigious awards because it was pre-Oscar obviously. It's also quite long, which means that not as many people have seen it. Make no mistake, sitting down to view Greed is an event. You can't just pop it in on any old Saturday night. Nevertheless, it is a crime that Greed has not been released. Until Criterion picks it up, or Turner gets off their butts, it will remain a rarity.
It is important to understand what version I own and am reviewing here. In 1999, Turner Entertainment decided to recreate Greed as closely as possible to Stroheim's vision by combining the existing footage with still photographs of lost scenes. Rick Schmidlin produced this restoration, and it is breathtaking. A heartfelt new score from Robert Israel was also welcomed. The result is more than a film, and that is not meant to sound like a critic cliché, but describing it as just a cinematic experience would not be entirely accurate since the still photographs take up so much of the running time and add a distinct depth. Because of this re-edit, Greed develops into the epic is rightfully is. I have trouble imagining this as 2 hours and 20 minutes. Relationships are expanded upon, resurrected sub-plots accentuate Von Stroheim's targeted themes, and it accumulates into an exceedingly profound and detailed piece of artistry.
There are numerous types of directors. You have those like Woody Allen, who do not necessarily push the actors, but make them feel comfortable and allow them to find their own strength. And at the opposite end of the spectrum are merciless taskmasters like Erich Von Stroheim, who will do anything to obtain the performance he desires. Gibson Gowland stars as McTeague, and even though he is not a household name, Gowland appeared in a previous Von Stroheim offering, Blind Husbands, not to mention D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. I would not say he is a scene-stealer because the trio of leads are all equally as dynamic, but Gowland is amazingly expressive. The action revolves around his character arc, and Gowland exhibits this with such control and heart. His eyes stand out, and since his speech is not a factor, Gowland's most memorable moments occur when he is shocked, dismayed, or angry. These emotions are examples of how silent pictures tended to exaggerate, and that is true to an extent with Greed as well, but it's not nearly as prevalent in Von Stroheim films. I've seen all of the entries from his resume I could find, and no silent filmmaker with the exception of Chaplin balanced subtlety with overstatement so masterfully.
Crazy Trina with her gold.
But Gowland is outstanding for the relaxed exchanges also. Take his courting of Trina for instance, or the period when he is a newly rich husband. He is restrained, yet vivid enough to be an iconic character. Jean Hersholt, who portrays Marcus, wrote bluntly about his memories from Greed, talking about how strict Von Stroheim was and the fact that when he was making a film, "everything else was subservient to the picture, all personal feelings came last….the results justified the means." But he acknowledged that from Von (as his friends called him) sprouted what is arguably his finest turn on the screen. Von took a gander at Hersholt the day he arrived on set and said he wasn't right for the part! But Hersholt returned with a new personality, appropriate Marcus attire, and suitable makeup to change the director's mind. Marcus is a surly individual, and Hersholt depicts his wickedness with such conviction that every time Marcus appears you know it's a bad omen. This is volatile, explosive acting.
Zasu Pitts was primarily known for one-reel comedies prior to her Von Stroheim era. He called her "the greatest dramatic actress" and she would go on to be featured in four more of his pictures. Her fame would continue to skyrocket in the 1930's as she starred frequently in B-movie comedies with Thelma Todd, all of which are fantastic by the way. But without Von, the world would not have realized her potential and range. Observing her transformation as Trina from a naïve, reluctant young woman to a maniacal, obsessed shrew is wondrous to behold. In fact the silliest scenes in Greed are those which show her as a protective psycho over her stash of gold, but the message is very pertinent and Pitts is a superb joy to watch. She illustrates how a woman could win the lottery and not want to spend any of the winnings.
What struck me most about Greed was how poignantly relevant it still is to this day. The major theme is in the title, and even though certain aspects are dated for the decade, the manner in which the characters act is timeless. Trina and McTeague have two different philosophies on spending money. Trina would prefer spending as little as possible and keeping it to herself to cherish, whereas McTeague enjoys throwing it around, but always wants more. This is not unlike many marriages all across the globe. Obviously Trina becomes a bit kooky with her lottery stash, but the notion that wealth and excess can drive a couple apart, and even to violent crimes is hardly preposterous. Around them you have friends and acquaintances that are envious, and this too is an normal occurrence, but the intriguing fact is that what others desire from them, they have failed to obtain. The idea that money brings happiness is the illusion, and if anything, the lottery made the relationship between Trina and McTeague worse, doomed for destruction.
There are three significant portions that were excised from the theatrical cut, the shortened version if you will. All of these are relegated to the still photographs, but those pictures are so eloquent and resplendent that the viewer will have no trouble following along as if you're watching a regular film. The first is earlier in McTeague's life, footage of his parents, which I've read was all original Von Stroheim substance. According to various articles, several engrossing scenes are now lost in these chapters, but if there is any part of Greed that I would justify being cut, it's this because it merely lays the foundation for what is to come. The other two sub-plots I consider vital to appreciating the central story thread. Integrated with Trina and McTeague's descending marriage, you have two couples. One is the junkman Zerkow and Selina, who are intended as a grotesque parody of Trina and McTeague. The other reminded me of The Godfather Part II in a strange way. As Trina and McTeague sink deeper into oblivion, that is paralleled with an elderly man and woman falling in love. Seeing these two lonely people slowly find each other at the tail end of their lives is sweet, and crucial because we're immersed in the sad, depressing existence of the McTeagues.
Erich Von Stroheim above all else, strove for naturalism, and the lengths at which he went to attain this goal would rival even today's filmmakers. Knowing that he graduated from the D.W. Griffith (The Birth of a Nation) school of directing, it's not hard to see where his methodology was born. But his aim was to "one up" his mentor, even if that meant hauling his cast and crew to Death Valley to film the finale. He could have captured the desert scenes elsewhere, but in the book they transpire in Death Valley, so he convinced the studio to travel there. Accuracy was fundamental for Von. He wanted the audience to feel this climactic confrontation, and he wanted his actors to realistically clash like they hated one another even if this meant shooting in up to 140 degree heat. Crew members were collapsing left and right, having to be carted back to the one small area for water and medical attention. The cameras had to be wrapped in ice towels for safety from the temperatures. Von Stroheim slept with a pistol in fear of mutiny and attack. Jean Hersholt lost 27 pounds and was stuck in the hospital with a fever when it was all set and done. As his character Marcus and McTeague engage to fight, Von Stroheim shouts at them to "hate each other like you hate me!" His strategy astuteness was clear, and he knew what needed to be done to how to get what he wanted. When the dust settled he crafted an unforgettable conclusion, and though it might have been hazardous, it is incomparable.
Marcus vs. McTeague at Death Valley.
Calling this lengthy is an understatement, but when it's a silent film, any sitting could seem like more of a chore. Now, I am a fan of long films, but I did not get restless while watching this. The pacing is smooth and consistent throughout; even with the still photographs acting as a fanciful art gallery montage. I was struck by how Von Stroheim placed his characters in locations and backgrounds that are contrasting to their current status. Like a poor, uneducated McTeague in the gold mine, the wealthy Trina and McTeague living in a small shack, and finally the showdown at Death Valley, where money is not a factor. I also found the color tinting of the gold objects to be fascinating. Obviously the money is meaningful, but the cage of McTeague's pet canary also is gold, as it no doubt holds a special implication for him. Scenes of the creepy symbolic hand from the poster above did not survive, but you will see people scooping up the gold coins. Both underline the satirical elements of the plot and the monstrous nature of humanity Von wanted to convey. It was a trademark that permeated his entire catalogue.
Von Stroheim utilizes a vicious irony in exposing the faults of his characters, and demonstrates how money incites evil and hypocritical actions. From the claustrophobic portrait of marriage to the cynical attitude towards riches and the American way of life, Greed is still fresh and momentous. However, in the 1920's, this was not exactly an upbeat picture you would rush to the theater for. Tack on the reality that it cost MGM a hefty amount of dinero, and you might understand the position of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, neither of whom were not fans of Von Stroheim. Mayer and Von Stroheim even famously got into a fistfight, one more of the legends that have merged from this debacle. Mayer and Thalberg thought they were handed a film that not only surpassed its budget and then some, but one which was near impossible to release because of the content and the length. When it finally did reach theaters, they allowed it to sink with a weak-willed marketing campaign and carry all the negative publicity.
Would the public flock to the theaters if the lost 7 hours of Greed were found? Hard to say, but I'm sure the film buffs of the world would rejoice and line-up in droves. I suppose it would have to be shown over two nights with intermissions separating each 5 hour stretch. While I would love to see all of this footage, I hope it is discovered more to eclipse Greed's reputation as a fortunate hatchet job. The history of the production is gripping, but this film is great to the bone no matter what, from a controversial, spectacled personality who paved the road for naturalist filmmaking. His efforts are among the most indelible from the silent era. I have seen Greed only once, but a plethora of its images have left permanent imprint on my mind. If one wanted to carp, there are some minor issues with the story, but Von Stroheim has saturated his most personal accomplishment with so much genius, that any nitpicking fades away. This title deserves so much more, and taking its struggling lifespan into account, it's about time someone give it the proper DVD treatment.