Friday, April 15, 2016

Film Review: Greed

*** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Greed is good." 
Gordon Gekko - Wall Street (1987)  

[Note: This review is in reference to the 1999 four hour version presented by Turner Classic Movies which features photo stills in place of lost footage.]

A woman wins a lottery prize of $5,000 and quickly those around her, friends and family, grow jealous and resentful. Why did she win, they ask themselves. Each of them believe they were more deserving. She didn't need the money. Oh Lord, they plead, I have worked and slaved to save money, I have struggled to pay my bills, why didn't you let me win?

You also may not say these things out loud but I'm willing to bet at one time or another you have thought these things when learning of someone's good fortune. Sadly it is human nature. It is difficult for people to take delight in the success of others.

Erich von Stroheim's silent drama "Greed" (1924) has been widely considered one of the greatest films ever made. For a movie more than 90 years old it contains a lot of universal truths about people and is still able to get a reaction out of viewers which only proves great movies never lose their power.

"Greed", based on the novel "McTeague" by Frank Norris, was originally conceived as a nine hour movie by Erich von Stroheim. Prior to its general public release MGM took the movie away from Mr. von Stroheim and edited it down to approximately two hours. As a result Mr. von Stroheim was deeply hurt by MGM's actions and disowned the movie, which he originally thought was his masterpiece. The original, uncut, nine hour version of "Greed" has been called the "holy grail" by film scholars and historians.

Watching the four hour version of "Greed" is something of a challenging experience. Half of the movie consist of the audience watching photo stills on-screen with inter-titles describing the scenes. This breaks the emotional flow of the movie and makes it difficult to judge the acting and directing of the movie. At four hours the movie goes in a lot of directions which weren't necessary which leads one to wonder what was in the nine hour version? MGM's two hour version was probably edited a bit too much. A shortened mixture of these two versions would have been the most satisfying. Unfortunately it will never be.

Erich von Stroheim made "Greed" during a decade which brought about great economic prosperity in America after the end of World War I and ended with the worst economic collapse in U.S. history. Was Mr. von Stroheim's tale a cautionary one concerned about high consumer spending? If anything "Greed" tells us an old universal truth. Who are the greedy in society? Only those that have are greedy not those that don't have. If I have nothing and you take half of it, half of nothing is still nothing. Now, if I have a million dollars and you want half of it, well, that's a different story.

And so it is in "Greed" as we follow John McTeague (Gibson Gowland), the son of a drunkard father who has abandoned his paternal responsibilities and abuses his wife. John's mother (Tempe Pigott) hopes for a better life for her son. When a traveling dentist (Erich von Ritzau) enters town Mrs. McTeague believes this would be a good, respectable profession for her son, who currently works at a coal mine. After his mother pleads with the dentist, John becomes his apprentice.

Learning all that he could, John sets up his own business and becomes friendly with Marcus (Jean Hersholt) a big-shot loafer. One day Marcus's fiancee, Trina (ZaSu Pitts) comes into the dental office for repairs on a broken tooth. For John it is love at first sight. Being all consumed by the thought of Trina, John tells Marcus of his feelings. In a sign of friendship, Marcus agrees to step aside and allows John to court Trina.

As Trina and Marcus waited in John's office, during their first meeting, Maria (Dale Fuller), a half-crazed destitute, asks Trina if she would like to buy a lottery ticket. The jackpot is $5,000. Trina hesitantly purchases a ticket.

John and Trina begin a courtship and soon John proposes marriage. Trina is conflicted by this. She doesn't love John enough to marry him. She feels he is slightly beneath her. John is persistent though and his persistence wins out as Trina agrees to marry him. It is at this point Trina discovers she has won the lottery and the jackpot. No one, except John, is happy for her.

Marcus feels cheated. He was engaged to Trina and if he still had been that money would have been his. Trina's neighbors each feel more deserving of the money, especially Maria and her friend Zerkow (Cesare Gravina), the local junkman. When will their ship come in?

With this new fortune in hand Trina becomes a different person as the vicious vice of greed has griped her. Now she has something and it is all hers and she will protect it at any and all cost. It is here we see the different mentality of the rich and poor. John believes the the lottery prize they can both lead a comfortable life. Buy a new home, go out for nice dinners but Trina doesn't want to part with her money and constantly says they simply can't afford it.

Trina is perfectly willing to have them struggle, living in a cheap apartment, buying old food because it is cheaper, always suggesting splitting her expenses and sometimes lying about the amount of money she has so John can pay. All the while she saves her own money, fondling and caressing it. This of course perpetuates an old cliche about married life. Whatever is the husband's belongs to the wife. Whatever is the wife's belongs to her.

To serve as a counterbalance to these characters Mr. von Stroheim created two sub-plots, all of these scenes were edited out of MGM's version and are believed to be lost, which follow Zerkow marrying Maria because he believes she has a hidden fortune and an elderly couple, Mr. Grannis (Frank Hayes) and Miss Baker (Fanny Midgley) who love each from afar. These scenes are presented in the four hour version by showing photo stills. They were intended to serve as a moral compass. Zerkow, like Trina, is consumed by greed. Maria used to ramble on about a gold dinning set her family owed, that is now lost. After they are married Zerkow repeatedly asks her about it. Maria denies ever mentioning it, which leads Zerkow to believe Maria is holding out on him. Their story ends tragically.

On the other hand, Mr. Grannis and Miss Baker are not consumed by greed. They are content living the life they lead and do not pray for more fortune but instead seek love. The moral being, love should motivate people not greed and a thirst for wealth. Remember what the bible tells us in 1Timothy 6:10 - "the love of money is the root of all evil".

These sub-plots and much of the imagery in "Greed" feels a bit too on the nose. It is obvious what Mr. von Stroheim's intentions were and the message the audience should come away it. Take for example a scene in which Marcus, still filled with resentment and hatred, visits John and Trina pretending to make amends. Marcus says he will be leaving town and would like to say his goodbyes. This sequence is crosscut with an image of a cat preying on two caged birds. It is clear who is suppose to represent the cat and who are the caged birds. In another scene Mr. von Stroheim makes dramatic use of a broken smoking pipe. Marcus for the first time expresses his resentment towards John, who is smoking a pipe. The two have a physical encounter which leads the smoking pipe to fall to the ground and break. Marcus and John's friendship, like the smoking pipe, is now broken.

Finally there is a famous 30 minute ending sequence which takes place on location in Death Valley. The shooting location alone foreshadows events, which is only further cemented by a final image that all at once feels sarcastic, poignant and in a twisted way humorous. Only a fool would reveal more.

Stories of the filming of the ending sequence are legendary with reports claiming the weather hit more than 120 degrees during shooting causing members of the cast and crew to become ill. Jean Hersholt says he lost 27 pounds during the shoot and spent a week in a hospital. The camera even needed to be protected and was cooled with iced towels

Still there is no way to deny the artistry of Mr. von Stroheim's film. With "Greed" alone Mr. von Stroheim established himself as a major figure in the history of silent cinema alongside other distinguished filmmakers such as D.W. Griffith and King Vidor. "Greed" was a movie only a artist with a unique, confident vision could have made. "Greed" was Mr. von Stroheim's greatest achievement, a film I prefer over his other acclaimed silent film, "The Wedding March" (1928), which features much of the same cast, including a role for Mr. von Stroheim himself.

One interesting note about the casting of the film was the choice of ZaSu Pitts as Trina. ZaSu Pitts, while perhaps best known for her appearance in this movie, was actually a comedian, who worked at the famed Hal Roach studios, where she was teamed with Thelma Todd, in Mr. Roach's attempt to create a new comedy team ala Laurel & Hardy. She didn't play greedy characters in her career instead usually playing absent-minded, flustered women. If you are familiar with Ms. Pitts, her appearance in this movie will seem strange yet she proves herself to be a capable actress.

For as great a cinematic accomplishment as "Greed" is the movie has been treated very poorly. Not only is seven hours of the movie missing and forever lost. Not only do audiences have to watch a version with photo stills taking up half of its running time but the movie has never been put on DVD! This is an outrage. Why hasn't this movie been properly transferred to DVD?! Why deny the public the opportunity to see this highly regarded film? What exactly is MGM or Turner Classic Movies waiting for? The movie's 100th anniversary?!

There are three ways to guarantee you are able to see this movie. One is to buy a VHS copy, if you still have a VCR. Two is to buy an unofficial copy of the Turner Classic Movies version which is on DVD but with German subtitles. And three is to watch the two hour version on youtube. There is a fourth option but no guarantee. TCM might play the movie on television as they have done in the past.

However you see "Greed" it will be worth your time and effort. All serious movie lovers would agree this is one of the landmarks of cinema.