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30 June 2011

[Silent Film Marathon] 22# Greed (1924)


Directed by: Erich Von Stroheim
Written by: Erich Von Stroheim & June Mathis 
Based on the novel by: Frank Norris
Genre: Drama, Mystery & suspense
Runtime:  140 Minutes (Extended/Restored version 239 Minutes)
Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold…the very thing that can destroy a soul, overtake a person’s life and alter their personality. It is the very thing that can bring happiness into a person’s life with treasures and good living, but can also destroy someone with greed. Showing exactly what money can do to a person in a very surreal but semi-truthful way, Greed is the biggest silent film story there is spanning four hours (for this version at least), but four great hours they are. With the original being cut tremendously, this version is a recreation of how director Erich Von Stroheim wanted it to be. It is a compelling drama that has great truth, character and excitement all over in it’s four hours, and in those hours a lot happens. 


Director Stroheim was very close to this project, and also dedicated it to his mother as one of the opening titles say. It is good that the extended version was created because it truly shows the transformation of the characters in this huge drama about the destruction money can bring. In it’s original run, footage was cut and what was lost was considered the greatest tragedy in cinema history. In this version the company have tried to reconstruct the story narrative of how Stroheim wanted it. So in great dedication they did it, and thank goodness they did. It is undeniably a dramatic story, filled with the spirit of its film title, without a hero or a heroine.



Mac and Trina when they first meet
Stripped to its bare essentials, McTeague tells the story of a brutish, but basically good-natured, miner named McTeague (played by Gibson Gowland), who finds his true calling in life by taking over the practice of a travelling dentist. Setting up shop in San Francisco, McTeague falls in love with Trina (ZaSu Pitts), the daughter of German immigrants. It happens that Trina is the girlfriend of McTeague's best pal Marcus (Jean Hersholt), who is mildly resentful, but ultimately forgiving, when McTeague and Trina are married. Always seeking out an opportunity to better herself, Trina buys a lottery ticket. 

When the ticket pays off and she wins a fortune, the previously even-tempered Trina undergoes a complete personality change, metamorphosing into a grasping, greedy, miserly shrew, hoarding huge sums of money while her husband must get by on his meagre earnings as a dentist. Trina's sudden windfall sparks a change in both McTeague and Marcus, as well; driven to distraction by his wife's avarice, McTeague turns into a violent beast, while Marcus boils with jealousy over losing the now-prosperous Trina to McTeague. The rest of the story has so much that happen it would be illegal of me to tell you the rest of the story. Towards the end, it is a battle for the money, with murder, deceit and hatred all over.

Greed shows such a huge transformation with all of its characters it is simply one of the greatest character developments in any motion picture. Starting with McTeague, a man who was once a happy dentist with his new wife who he loved dearly soon becomes a complete wreck. Soon into the relationship the two of them get worse because of the money that his wife, Trina keeps holding out on him. In the first hour of the film we meet most of the characters including Mac McTeague, Marcus, Trina and her family. All because of this great fortune, being a sum of $5, 000 (which at the time was a huge amount) the family is destroyed. Marcus was once McTeague’s great friend. Understanding the love McTeague has for Trina, he gives her up to him with no hard feeling. In this scene Marcus seems like one of the nicest friends you could ask for. Soon into the film it changes when that lottery ticket brings the money to Trina. Now Marcus hates McTeague, feeling he was cheated out of the money. The story is so big it’s what makes it exciting, so many characters, so much enriched story, and the best thing is, it is irresistibly easy to follow.
The Sieppe family (Trina's family).
Captivating the acting definitely is, and powerful too. Using expressions and movement, Stroheim has brought to the screen characters that are so convincingly powerful it creates pure drama. Gibson Gowland played Mac McTeague like a saint. Such powerful and convincing acting came from him and his performance was remarkable. The next to my attention is Zasu Pitts. Her performance was equally astounding and the look on her face in her maddened ways with her money was psychotically gripping. She has proven herself to be one of the best actresses of the silent era; although I have only seen one of her films this one spans out long enough to say she is one of the best. Marcus was played by Jean Hersholt who also gave a great performance to the screen with his character. His character Marcus was once a good friend, soon a mad hot head who feels cheated out of money. Everyone in the film gave great performances, from McTeague to Trina’s eccentric father; everyone did a darn good job.

I must say the music was superb in it’s length and several of the songs gave such edge to the scenes. One scene that is my favourite because of its music is when Trina is out looking for McTeague one night and there is this beautiful lullaby kind of music playing in the background. All the music in the film was extremely well done and supports it’s great set designs, scenes and acting.
The confrontation with Mac and Marcus.
The original film spanned at an unbelievable 10 hours, covering 40 reels. Realizing it was far too long to be shown; Stroheim cut it down to six hours, to be screened with intermissions in two nights. However, Goldwyn producers told him to cut it to a more manageable length. With the assistance of fellow director Rex Ingram and editor Grant Whytock, von Stroheim trimmed the film to about four hours, to be shown in two parts. However, during production, Goldwyn was merged into MGM. After screening it at full length once to meet contractual obligations, MGM removed Greed from von Stroheim's control despite his protests. The negative was given to MGM's head scriptwriter, June Mathis, with orders to cut it even further. Mathis gave the print to a routine cutter, who reduced it to 2.5 hours.
The scene when Trina tells Mac to find a job, not even giving him money for a cab.
So simply, Greed is the most famous lost film in cinema history, and just thinking that over 5 hours of the footage is lost is pretty tragic. In this 4 hour version of the film, several of the scenes are narrated using images and intertitle cards and is clearly to pick up the pace of the story and if I am wrong there, then it is because the footage was damaged. The story is so huge; I wouldn’t have minded an extra hour because it would be worth it.  This version was recreated by Turner Entertainment (who currently hold rights to the film) in 1999 and I am glad they dud, because Greed is certainly an important piece of cinema.


It is clear that director Stroheim put his heart and soul into getting this film made, and being inspired from the book called McTeague he captured word for word, page for page. From filming in a real desert in 120 degree weather to filming in real goldmines, Strohheim was dedicated to making this film. At the beginning of the film a title card appears with a message from Stroheim himself saying, “No matter if I could talk to you three weeks steadily could I possibly describe even to a small degree the heartache I suffered through the mutilation of my sincere work”. The message just shows how his great talents have been conjured into this production, and it's outcome was magnificent.

The surviving "Greed" is an uncompromising exercise in naturalism, capturing the rough working-class lives of the new U.S. cities, where saloons doubled as living rooms. And there is a real poignancy in the plight of McTeague, who may by the end be a double murderer but is essentially a gentle, simple-minded soul. The film is historically significant, aesthetically brilliant and most of all, it is entertaining. Many people will not be able to sit through a 4 hour picture, but Greed has to be an ultimate exception. It’s full of drama and story enough to keep you satisfied for it’s length and is definitely worth it all. Overall Greed is one of the largest scaled films to date becu the tragic loss of footage and it is one of the greatest silent films of all time. Not many audiences today would sit down and watch 4 hours of black & white silent footage, but if you can, be sure to see this. This is Stroheim's butchered masterpiece.
My Rating: 10/10

2 comments:

  1. A great lost epic. We commend you for a very fine review.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wonderful review. I've never seen a silent film but you're making me want to. -Kyle, CinematicMethod.com

    ReplyDelete

 

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