Monday Editor’s Pick: Greed (1924)

by on December 27, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Mon Jan 2 at 8:15 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

 

Film Forum’s ongoing Monday-night screening series, “The Silent Roar: MGM 1924-29,” continues this week with Erich Von Stroheim’s famously ambitious and infamously butchered morality tale, Greed.

 

Originally shot and edited as a nine-hour magnum opus, the director’s epic was eventually hacked down to a mere 140-minute release version by MGM studio-czar Irving Thalberg. Greed has since become the historical exemplar of Hollywood philistinism and, er, corporate greed; the go-to example for anyone arguing that the studio system is a sausage grinder turning fine art into uniform product. But as David Thomson writes:

 

You can talk of Greed as a ruin. If you are inclined. That means despairing of a commercial system that would let a nine- or ten-hour monster survive as more than 140 minutes of rare sensation. [Then] there is Greed itself, quite plainly a masterpiece.

 

Alt Screen contributor Cullen Gallagher has a good rundown on Von Stroheim’s film for Our Town Downtown. And make sure to read Imogen Smith’s fabulous feature on the series; while it doesn’t touch on Greed specifically, it’s still broadly relevant and, more importantly, it’s a great read.

 

 

Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

Originally planned to run around ten hours but hacked to just over two by Thalberg’s MGM, von Stroheim’s greatest film still survives as a true masterpiece of cinema. Even now its relentlessly cynical portrait of physical and moral squalor retains the ability to shock, while the Von’s obsessive attention to realist detail – both in terms of the San Francisco and Death Valley locations, and the minutely observed characters – is never prosaic: as the two men and a woman fall out over filthy lucre (a surprise lottery win), their motivations are explored with a remarkably powerful visual poetry, and Frank Norris’ novel is translated into the cinematic equivalent of, say, Zola at the peak of his powers. Never has a wedding been so bitterly depicted, never a moral denouement been delivered with such vicious irony.

 

Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 silent classic is more famous for its original eight-hour version than for the cut that MGM carved out of it (though apparently there were several prerelease versions, which Stroheim screened privately for separate groups). The studio junked the rest of the footage, and apart from a reconstruction cobbled together recently with production stills and the shooting script, the release version is all that remains today. But even in its butchered state this is one of Stroheim’s greatest films, a passionate adaptation of Frank Norris’s great naturalist novel McTeague in which a slow-witted dentist (Gibson Gowland) and the neurotic woman he marries (the great ZaSu Pitts) are ultimately destroyed by having won a lottery. Stroheim respected the story enough to extend it imaginatively as well as translate it into cinematic terms, and he filmed exclusively on location (mainly San Francisco, Oakland, and Death Valley). Greed remains one of the most modern of silent films, anticipating Citizen Kane in its deep-focus compositions and Jean Renoir in the emotional complexity of its tragic humanism. Essential viewing.

 

Rosenbaum, who wrote the BFI Classics book on the film, also has a great account of the its complete history and various versions for The Guardian.

 

 

Kevin Thomas for the Los Angeles Times:

Even in its present form, Von Stroheim achieved an amazingly authentic evocation of a time and place. He had the exacting eye of a documentary filmmaker, taking us in and around architecturally rich San Francisco and deep into Death Valley for the grueling climax. He learned well from his mentor, D.W. Griffith, intercutting action with vigor, providing symbolic tropes and surveying a scene with incremental information. He had a gift for lingering on a ferocious or fragile face, and having us wonder what will happen next.
 

These are vulgar and volatile emotions on display, a battle between the beastly and the civilized within us all–the true essence of Norris’ naturalism. And San Francisco shares in the duality, teetering between a Gold Rush town and a cosmopolitan city. Von Stroheim knew firsthand that this was the stark reality of the new century.

 

 

Here’s the full context for the David Thomson quote at the top of the page (from Have You Seen…?):

You can talk of Greed as a ruin. If you are inclined. That means despairing of a commercial system that would let a nine- or ten-hour monster survive as more than 140 minutes of rare sensation. There is Greed itself, quite plainly a masterpiece, a model of a kind of psychological realism that shocked and horrified most people, because it gave them no one in the film to like.
 
There is the point: Greed proposes a movie that might read and feel like the great realist novels until Stroheim used the visionary trigger in film to show he characters’ inner states – and then, as they became more dependent on loneliness or madness, greed or desire, fear or violence, as they became more like us, we shrank back from them even more forcefully. All that is there still. And even if hardly a single Stroheim film is intact – do you see a strategy there? do you feel he was not responsible for it if he is responsible for everything else? – what does that mean except that he made ruined films? That is his comment on the film industry. That is his lesson. Learn to regard so many films as ghosts of themselves.
 
All one can say about Greed is that it is essential, frenzied yet under control, and one of the great indicators of film and its future. It is still very hard to make pictures about people the audience does not like – but, remember: at the movies, the audience is afraid of the dark. It wants comfort.

 

 

Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

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, simpleminded soul. One of the scenes cut out by MGM is reconstructed by Schmidlin; it shows McTeague buying theater tickets for his engagement party. He wants the tickets on the right side of the theater. “As you face the stage, or the audience?” asks the ticket seller. “The side away from the drums,” says McTeague, confused, and after he becomes convinced the man is toying with him, he explodes.
 
Here is a man who only wants to be a dentist and inhale Trina’s lovely fragrance, and his bones end up in Death Valley. His last act is to set free his pet canary, which flutters a little, and dies. No wonder Mayer and Thalberg thought the Jazz Age wasn’t ready for this film.

 

 
Dave Kehr for the Chicago Tribune:

Conceived at nine hours and released at two-the title change was also the inspiration of the uncomprehending studio-“Greed” remains the most famous ghost in film history, the specter of a masterpiece that might have been. And yet, the film [as it stands] acquires a power and majesty through its sheer compulsiveness – Stroheim`s willingness, or rather, Stroheim`s need, to follow every element of his story to its absolute endpoint, every quirk of his characters to its final explosion, every detail of his naturalistic aesthetic to its obsessive, microscopic realization. Naturalism becomes, in Stroheim`s hands, something staggeringly close to an exact replication of the world; he seems unable to admit, or perhaps even to understand, the role of abstraction, ellipsis, metaphor. Nothing can be left out. It has even been said that the original version included all of the bridging material between scenes-characters leaving the room, closing the door, walking downstairs, crossing the street, entering another building, etc., etc.
 
There is something at once profoundly primitive and profoundly modern about Stroheim`s method. On one hand there is a sense of a return to the very beginning of narration, a rediscovery of the first steps involved in telling a story. On the other, there is a rejection of all that is idealistic, romantic, and spiritual that would please the most rigorous of contemporary Marxist materialists.
 
Hope persists that the missing reels of “Greed” still exist-buried in the MGM archives (now the property of Turner Entertainment) or mislabeled in some musty corner of an Eastern European cinematheque. Today, of course, a running time of nine hours poses no particular problem. Erich von Stroheim`s genius, and his tragedy, was that he invented the miniseries 60 years before its time.

 

 

Excerpts from a series of columns Carl Sandburg wrote for the Chicago Daily News:

Greed is to be to motion pictures what Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson were to politics – either wildly praised or viciously condemned. Only two ways about it. It is the best picture made to date – or the worst. It will be weighted with the heart and with the emotions, and people will argue over it in the same way they argue about politics and religion.
 
Greed was written by an artist and filmed by a director who in this picture shows he is in artist. It will be remembered. A tale told with skilled technique of photography, posing and acting, von Stroheim points his camera from curious angles, interacts the action with symbolism, varies tenement scenes with mythical, dreaming fantasy.
 
Neither this country nor any country has produced a long-range story that more ably grips the biblical text, “Money is the root of all evil,” and works therefrom a fabric of life, with overtones or implications bordering on the allegorical.
 
Yes, it it gives some of us the shivers to look at this picture; it is as terrible as money is at its worst.
 
Yet we noticed, through a large part of its showing, that people laughed.
 
Some scenes and flashes and subtitles are comic as first-rate two-reel stuff.
 
The comedy is of the flavor of low life in Shakespeare.
 
Though the tragic high spots are fierce and relentless, the comic relief is superb.
 
One of the few grand instances of a movie without hokum, without a happy ending.

 

 

Ian Johnston for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

Stroheim’s realism entails much more than the dour record of social decline you might expect from a bald plot summary of Greed. There’s a constant mixing of tones, with Stroheim frequently switching between comedy, irony, and satire (e.g. the Sieppe family’s July 4th outing) and indulging in his taste for the grotesque. Then there’s the issue of von Stroheim’s overt use of symbolism. Both contemporary reviewers and later critics have been uncomfortable with the gold colour-tinting that’s used selectively to highlight motifs (gold, coins, teeth, canaries) which then acquire symbolic significance (greed, ambition, kind-heartedness, and so forth). But really this symbolism is central to the artistic project at work in Greed and a sign of how much aesthetically von Stroheim is of the nineteenth- rather than the twentieth-century. There’s no reason to think that the Victorian-flavoured moralistic endings that he gave Blind Husbands and Foolish Wives were not intended by von Stroheim right from the start rather than studio- or censor-imposed. Indeed, the Charles Dickens of Our Mutual Friend, with its moralism, symbolic dust-heaps and grotesques like Silas Wegg, seems a truer model for von Stroheim’s brand of realism than the naturalism of Zola and Norris.
 
The symbolism at work in Greed finds its apotheosis in the final sequence in Death Valley. The social world that has been given to us in such fine detail is now left far behind. On the empty stage that is the desert floor there now plays out the final struggle between Marcus and McTeague, all reduced to the bare essentials. It’s also where Greed in spirit leaves the nineteenth-century and projects itself into the despairing modernity of the twentieth. You have to go into the seventies to find an equally bleak ending to an American studio film (Night Moves, perhaps). With the blood-spattered gold coins scattered around him, chained to a dead man, and inevitably to die himself, McTeague’s one act to reassert his essential humanity — the release of his caged canary — turns to naught. The film’s final long shot, where McTeague and Marcus are almost lost in the heat haze, only serves to underline (notwithstanding the attempt at a comforting moralism in the final title-card) the hopeless, empty meaninglessness of that gesture.

 

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