|GREED is perhaps the most famous lost film of the silent era. While most lost films disappeared due to the fragile nature of nitrate film stock or studio neglect, GREED was willfully butchered by the studio that made it, Metro-Goldwyn (soon to be Metro-Goldwyn Mayer).
Director Erich von Stroheim came to San Francisco to reproduce the epic tragedy of Frank Norris' 1899 novel McTeague: A Story of San Francisco. The raucous lower-class characters in the novel fascinated von Stroheim, who was himself of lower-class origins but passed himself off as an Austrian aristocrat.
Stroheim went to great lengths to reproduce the seedy ambiance of Polk Street. (Other people's) money was no object. But, by then, Polk Street had gentrified too much, so the location used was at Hayes and Octavia Streets, in Hayes Valley.
Stroheim originally submitted a nine-hour version of the film, then cut it down to 4 1/2 hours. The studio then eviscerated it, cutting it down to 2 hours. The two-hour version flopped at the box office.
Rumors persisted for years that the footage still existed in various secret vaults, though von Stroheim claimed that, in keeping with the theme of the film, it had been melted down for its silver content.
The four-hour reconstruction of GREED, which had its world television premiere on Turner Classic Movies on December 5, 1999, the 75th Anniversary of the premiere of the butchered GREED, is a remarkable glimpse at a film we will never see.
Producer Rick Schmidlin, who was also responsible for last year's re-edit of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, combined 650 production stills with the instructions contained in von Stroheim's continuity script to create the closest possible approximation of von Stroheim's vision.
The difference is startling. The two-hour version turned a tragedy rich with telling detail into a bare outline, stripping the narrative of all but its inevitable downward spiral.
In its simplest form, GREED is the story of McTeague (Gibson Gowland), an unlicensed dentist who has learned how to pull teeth from a travelling quack; his friend Marcus Schouler (Jean Hersholt), who works as an assistant at a dog hospital; and Marcus's cousin Trina Sieppe (ZaSu Pitts). Marcus is going out with Trina, and has vague plans to marry her. Trina is nervous and soft-spoken and her family a cartoonish German caricature; her father and mother speak with broad accents (in title cards) and wear funny hats. The portrayal of the German family is the most affectionate of the many ethnic caricatures in the film.
McTeague is a naive brute who when first seen in the film is holding an injured bird in his hand and kissing its head. A miner spitefully slaps the bird out of his hand, and McTeague throws him off the bridge. For McTeague, even his most tender moments are tinged with violence.
One day at a picnic, with Marcus pushing her, Trina falls from a swing and chips her tooth. Marcus asks McTeague to fill it. McTeague gasses her and kisses her as she sleeps, with her head wrapped in a white cloth, in a scene rich with implicit sadism. He observes her with the feverish gaze of a sexual fetishist and keeps asking her to return day after day, to pull more teeth.
Marcus seethes with joviality. His rube-like character reflected in his gestures: picking his nose, putting his fingers in his ears, spitting on the sidewalk. He gives Trina to McTeague as casually as he would give away a pen, regretting his loss only when Trina wins $5,000 in an illegal lottery. When she bought the ticket, he had lectured Trina that gambling is wrong, but only because he didn't have enough money in his pocket to buy a lottery ticket.
A funeral procession is passing by the window during Trina and Mac's wedding. Her family has moved away to Southern California and the two of them are left alone. Eventually, Marcus gains his revenge for losing the $5,000: he turns in McTeague to the state dental board for operating without a license. McTeague loses his livelihood and his dental parlor and must subsist on odd jobs.
Trina's stinginess leads her to buy three-day old meat and pocket the difference, keeping 60 cents in change from her husband. She refuses to give her husband any of the money she's hoarded, even refusing him a nickel for carfare when he's looking for work, even though he tells her it's going to rain.
By the end of the film, Trina is wraithlike with long, bony fingers, like an anorectic who denies herself money rather than food. Eventually she places her gold coins in the bed and climbs beneath the covers naked in order to be closer to the one thing she truly loves.
In the two-hour version, McTeague's descent is brutal and brief and Trina's transformation from neurotic to miserly nearly instantaneous. In the longer version, Mac is sometimes gentle and Trina is sometimes generous, helping her husband to furnish his dental parlors and buying him the one possession he treasures most: a giant gold tooth to hang in front his parlors.
GREED is a film that derives much of its power from a series of interlocking motifs, most of which are robbed of much of their power of repetition in the studio version. Birds reappear throughout the film, most vividly in the pair of lovebirds in a cage that Trina and McTeague own. Images of hands also recur: hands caressing gold coins, hands as elongated and skeletal as the hands in an El Greco painting. McTeague bites Trina's hands until two of her fingers are amputated. Trina and McTeague's wedding picture also changes in meaning from a symbol of their love to an object sold at the liquidation of McTeague's dental parlors to an object torn in half and left in the trash until it finally becomes an image on a wanted poster.
The most important object is gold: Each glimpse of gold is tinted, one of the few uses of color in an otherwise black-and-white film. The film begins with images of gold mined in Placer County. Mac puts a gold filling in Trina's mouth. Eventually the gold coins that Trina keeps with her are covered with drops of blood. However, money's value is always mutable: in the film at various times $5,000, $500 and even $1 or a nickel seem like a vast amount. When a person lusts for money, no amount is ever enough.
While the two-hour version concentrates solely on McTeague, Trina, and Marcus, the four-hour version includes two other couples: Old Grannis (Frank Hayes) and Miss Baker (Fanny Midgley) an elderly man and woman who live in the same apartment, subdivided by thin walls, as well as Maria Miranda Macapa (Dale Fuller), a Mexican woman whom Marcus dismisses as a "greaser," even as she sells Trina the winning lottery ticket, and Zerkow (Cesare Gravina), a Polish Jewish junk dealer whose sign says "Metals a Specialty." Maria collects objects for Zerkow, constantly inquiring of all the other characters: "Got any junk?"
The portrayal of Zerkow in the novel and the film verges on anti-semitic stereotype, even though the director himself was from a Jewish family. Norris describes Zerkow this way in the novel: "He was a dry, shrivelled old man of sixty odd. He had the thin, eager, cat-like lips of the covetous; eyes that had grown keen as those of a lynx from long searching amidst muck and debris; and claw-like, prehensile fingers--the fingers of a man who accumulates, but never disburses. It was impossible to look at Zerkow and not know instantly that greed--inordinate, insatiable greed--was the dominant passion of the man. He was the Man with the Rake, groping hourly in the muck-heap of the city for gold, for gold, for gold. It was his dream, his passion; at every instant he seemed to feel the generous solid weight of the crude fat metal in his palms. The glint of it was constantly in his eyes; the jangle of it sang forever in his ears as the jangling of cymbals."
Zerkow marries Maria because he believes that she has riches hidden away, a solid gold service of dishes worth an amount that varies each time she tells him. Maria gives birth to a deformed baby and her husband grows ever more insane, until finally he murders her and jumps into San Francisco Bay with the cheap metal plates that she had hidden away.
Grannis and Miss Baker stand alone in the film because all of the other major characters are grotesques, whose ugly outward appearance reflects their inner character. But Grannis is a kind man who buys back McTeague and Trina's wedding picture when Trina says she's mistakenly sold it. Eventually a door connects the wall between Grannis' and Miss Baker's room and finally, the lasting love of Grannis and Miss Baker is played out in a two-strip Technicolor sequence, shown only in stills.
The reconstruction of GREED is a remarkable achievement. It is astonishing to get an opportunity to see so much of a movie that film buffs have been wondering about for the past 75 years. The use of stills isn't jarring, in part because Stroheim's camera isn't particularly mobile; he prefers cutting between closeups and medium shots of the characters, an effect that is duplicated by panning across the stills and irising in and out of them at appropriate moments.
GREED will be released on video early in the year 2000.
If you'd like a copy of this film, please click here.
Michael Koenig is a writer, editor, and a graphic artist. He lives in Oakland, California, and is generally in need of a nap.
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