1920s, 4/4, Drama, Erich von Stroheim, Review

Greed

“Can you tell me what the movie Greed is really about?” asked no one ever. I’m going to be honest, I hate the title Greed for this film. A film that could have been marketed as the story of the rise and fall of a man gets limited to just the most basic of thematic ideas from the start. Honestly, McTeague, the title of the source novel by Frank Norris, was a much more appropriate title. That being said, I wonder if anyone ever told Erich von Stroheim that no, no studio was ever going to release a ten-hour film. Ever. Well, not for about a century. I think I saw the abbreviated version of this film many years ago, but apparently all of my memories I attribute to it are actually memories of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. For this screening, I set out to watch the Reconstructed Cut that used recovered still images from Stroheim’s estate to attempt to rebuild as much material as MGM had cut during the initial battle over the length of the film in 1924. The added material turns what had been a tale of obsessive greed into an epic tragedy, and it’s easy to see why some of the twelve people who watched the original 24-reel version would have considered it one of the greatest films ever made at the time. Greed is a wildly ambitious project from an exacting mind and talented filmmaker who went as far as he possibly could to tell a large story in all the detail required.

John McTeague (Gibson Gowland) goes from a miner of gold to a dentist’s apprentice, setting up shop in San Francisco while escaping the shadow of his drunken father. He meets the cousin and betrothed of his best friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt), Trina (ZaSu Pitts), and he falls for her when Marcus brings her to his office to fix some damage to her tooth. There, she buys a lottery ticket from the junk woman Maria (Dale Fuller), and Marcus, once he hears of John’s love for Trina, decides to back away and let John court her. One of the joys of the early part of the film is Trina’s family. She’s one of five children to two German immigrants, and we get several scenes of them picnicking and being together, the most interesting being on Washington’s birthday when the whole family is decked out in American flags to celebrate their adopted country. The intertitles detailing the dialogue of the parents is thick with accented speech which provides a very fun air to it all.

The crux of the film is that Trina’s lottery ticket wins, and it wins a lot. With a prize of $5,000 (roughly $100,000 in 2020 dollars), everything begins to change. Marcus hates that he gave up Trina to John out of kindness, thinking that the money could be his, but aside from one event where he throws a knife at John in a fit of anger, he behaves himself. Everyone slightly changes their attitude towards her, though, and a lot of that everyone are the tenants of the apartment building John lives in. This is where the film really gains its sense of being a novel on film, and it’s where a lot of the footage that was restored through still images comes from (John’s rise to his dentistry at the beginning, as well as his parents, is another). There’s an old man, Grannis (Frank Hayes) who shares a partitioned room with an old woman Miss Baker (Fanny Midgley). The two never spoke before John and Trina’s wedding, having fallen in love while learning each other’s habits through the thin wall that separates them. There’s also Maria, the junk woman, and Zerkow (Cesare Gravina), who was completely cut from the MGM version. Maria entices Zerkow with tales of a collection of golden cups that he decides to marry her for, but she invented the whole thing.

What gives the film its understated but ultimately very strong emotional weight and power is in the intricate detail that it paints its characters, and part of that is these minor side characters that MGM cut out. The two couples act as potential contrasts for where John and Trina could go as they deal with the fallout of winning $5,000. Giving them life of their own is key to that, and the reconstruction does a fair job of really giving them life, especially Grannis and Miss Baker, even if only through still images.

Marcus, though, decides that he has to move on with his life, and a parting shot against the man who stole a small fortune from him is to report John to the official licensing board of dentists of the state of California, shutting down his ability to make a living. Steadily, John and Trina descend into poverty with Trina having invested the entirety of her winnings in her uncle’s business (a detail removed from the MGM cut), and Trina becoming obsessed with simply having the other money that she squirrels away as John goes from job to job, often with long periods of unemployment.

Their destruction is their own, and it feels very Greek in that way. These are flaws in their character that we watch play out in other, minor ways early in the film, like Trina’s indecisiveness around which man she wants to marry and even John’s father’s drunkenness (which was completely removed from the MGM cut), a hereditary detail that’s vital to the potential flaws in John’s character. It also becomes where I really begin to dislike the title of the film because it reduces their characters to that simple trait. Yes, it’s the common trait, but that’s the sort of thing you do in any well-written fiction, drawing all characters together under the umbrella of a single idea. You don’t have to call it out explicitly from the title card. Let it play out on its own.

There’s a split in the relationship, and things just get steadily worse until John does something that he can’t take back, running away to Death Valley to escape and maybe even find a new fortune. He’s consumed by both his own guilt and his own unyielding desire for more gold, and when Marcus tracks him down, it ends the only way it really could. The inevitability of what’s going to happen, which feels obvious from the moment Marcus reappears in the narrative, is only enhanced by the intricate character detail that Stroheim had built into the narrative up to that point.

The reconstructed cut is very long at four hours, but like the best of long movies it never feels like its wasting time. We get a lot of time dedicated to characters to make them breathe, and it all pays off in the end. The side characters like Grannis and Miss Baker provide that contrast to John and Trina, and they work so well because they are fully fledged characters with their own lives, wants, and needs. When they make their own decisions late in the film, it feels like the right thing for them.

Greed is a dense novel of a film, but it’s expertly constructed and wonderfully filmed by Stroheim who proves himself to be the kind of filmmaker who should be allowed to do whatever he wants…as long as his movies could make their money back. That’s a tall order for a long melodrama that Stroheim wanted to release in two parts, so I also completely understand the studio’s reticence around the whole enterprise once they got it. I’m glad we at least have the reconstruction, though. It gets us quite close to the full power of Greed.

Rating: 4/4

6 thoughts on “Greed”

  1. Was it really 10 hours, or is that some hyperbole? Even 4 hours would be a long one for a silent movie, or a talky. The first thing I thought of when you said 10 hours is that could and would be done now – a 10 hour series on Netflix or Apple tv.

    Frank Norris died at the way too young age of 32. Even at that he left behind 3 very good novels. You have to think quite a lot was lost by his early death.

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    1. What was screened, I believe, was 8 hours, but no one, not even Stroheim, seriously thought it would release at that length.

      I think Stroheim wanted to cut it down to no lower than 5 or 6 hours and then release it in two parts in a two-night engagement where people would come over subsequent nights to see the whole thing.

      This was the mid-20s. The whole “feature film” thing was just about a decade old, and people were trying to figure out the limits. 2 hours is really the standard that fairly quickly came to be agreed upon as a decent length (with some longer films coming along like Griffith’s Intolerance in 1916 which was over three hours long), and that’s what the studio’s orders were to its editor. Get it down to 2 hours.

      Stroheim really just was working in the wrong era for what he wanted to do. If he had figured out the limits better, he might have had a longer directing career.

      Liked by 1 person

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