director Erich von Stroheim
Considered one of the Silent Era’s masterpieces, perhaps one of all-time cinema’s masterpieces, Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 film Greed is indeed a major film of note. It is also one of the epic masterpieces that was so sprawling in length (the original cut of the film was reportedly 7 to 10 hours long) that it was also ruthlessly edited down to a duration and form that the director, von Stroheim, ultimately utterly disowned. The original uncut version has been described as “the Holy Grail” of film preservationists, but what we have here is the 140 minute release that MGM went with and which tanked at the box office, leading to Hollywood infamy.
Really, though, it seems that a lot of von Stroheim remains intact in this film. Certainly, even at 140 minutes, Greed is still considered a masterpiece of cinema.
I had caught Greed at some point on public television. I’m not sure when this was exactly. I want to say it was in the 1980’s when I was first getting interested in film, because I remember hearing about it, its notoriety, and being interested, though daunted by the length. The luminous and terrific ZaSu Pitts struck me at the time as reminding me of my high school girlfriend. However much of the film I caught, I’m certain I didn’t catch it in its entirety. It has since been one of the films I’ve most wanted to see again.
TCM plays all kinds of great movies and last Sunday they offered two films that I had long harbored desires to see, Dave Fleischer’s Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941) and von Stroheim’s Greed. You never know with TCM, what films will be available on demand for a while after airing, or available on TCM.com for a while after airing, or which films will end up in rotation again in a few months. Such is their programming cycle, so I made it a point to watch the movies while I had a chance.
Greed is adapted from Frank Norris’s 1899 novel McTeague, which is a tale of vice and avarice, set in Polk Gulch in San Francisco. When published, McTeague was a tale of the times, a sociological parable, and a somewhat raw attempt at realism. I’ve read the novel, and it’s really quite something. But where the novel is interesting and well-worth reading, it’s certainly not “literature” at its highest levels, where arguably von Stroheim’s adaptation elevates the material to one of cinema’s most significant works.
Shot on location in San Francisco, Northern California, and Death Valley, the film stars Gibson Gowland as McTeague, the unlicensed dentist, Pitts as Trina, his wife and downfall, and Jean Herscholt as Marcus, Trina’s onetime boyfriend and villainous adversary turned by greed and envy.
The Greed we have is still remarkable. The ending is really quite amazing, quite a lot as in the novel itself, an escape into Death Valley, the hottest place on Earth, utterly desolate and doomed, two men fight to the death but become chained together in handcuffs, leaving them both to ultimately die alone and far from anything, except the corpse of a horse and a bag of money with no value to them at all.
There is too much to say, too much to comment upon, for me to blather on about. Besides, it’s been said and delved into far more deeply than I can with just one recent viewing. I’m cutting it short here. But what can I say, it’s an amazing film.