I Wouldn't Cut A Frame of It...
In a certain manner, Greed was bound to fail. The idea that anyone would sit through an eight or nine-hour film, even one as astonishingly brilliant as Greed, is insane. It's a pity that director Erich von Stroheim isn't around today, for I think he would have found the limited series concept of television to have been more up his street: allowing him to tell his epic story in pieces where at the end it could be put together today. Greed a lost film in that the original-length cut of it is lost, probably forever. There was a four-hour reconstruction with stills, but at the moment we have a three-hour version that is probably as close as we will get to seeing what von Stroheim wanted.
Even in this 'short' version, Greed remains of the greatest silent films and among the Great Films in All Cinema, its visual impact and story of the corrupted nature of man still powerful and relevant today.
Based on the novel McTeague (which I suspect is pretty much forgotten save for Greed), the film is about John McTeague (Gibson Gowland), a gentle man with a violent nature when aroused to anger. He begins as a miner, but after seeing how successful and respected a visiting dentist is, Mother McTeague (Tempe Pigott) persuades her son and the dentist to take him on as an apprentice. While Doctor "Painless" Potter is a quack, he is successful enough to get McTeague set up as a successful dentist in his own right.
Enters Trina Semple (Zasu Pitts), the beautiful girlfriend of his best friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt). For the first time in his life McTeague is aroused by a woman, but he is also conflicted by the fact that she's with his bestie. Marcus graciously steps aside for McTeague, and Trina finds herself courted by the dentist. Eventually, they marry, and it is on their way to a celebratory dinner after the wedding that Trina and McTeague get a shock. Trina had bought a lottery ticket when she first went to the dentist's office, and now they are astonished to discover she has won $5,000!
This sudden fortune is a true misfortune for the McTeagues. Marcus becomes bitter and angry at the thought that if he had stuck with Trina, he would have had that $5,000 he believes are rightly his. Trina becomes obsessed with saving every penny to where she will not spend one cent of that $5,000 (and apparently won't put in the back). She polishes all the gold coins lovingly, treasures them, nurses them like a mother. McTeague at first isn't interested in all that: he's just generally happy to have Trina with him and a flourishing practice at something he loves.
However, before Marcus leaves to strike out on his own in the desert, he informs the state dental board that McTeague is not registered or licensed. They promptly send a 'cease-and-desist' letter, devastating him and enraging Trina. At this point, maybe breaking out that $5,000 might be a good idea, but Trina won't part with one bit of it. They are reduced to poverty, McTeague finding work hard to come by, and Trina becoming a toy whittler and even scrubwoman rather than use a single bit of her $5,000. Soon, she pushed McTeague past his breaking point when she refuses his request for a nickel to use public transportation despite his protests that he might get caught in the rain. Insisting a good walk will do him good and that it won't rain, she sends him immediately to look for more work less than an hour after coming home when he got fired.
It does happen that it does rain, and from there things go downhill fast. He leaves her and she goes to being the scrubwoman, but on Christmas he finds her at the school. He demands she give him her $5,000, but she in a mix of terror and defiance will not. In his rage he murders her and takes the money, fleeing to Death Valley. Marcus, out in the desert, learns of Trina's murder and McTeague's flight, and he goes after him, convinced he has that $5,000 he wants. In his mad search for McTeague, his horse dies and he runs out of water. However, he does catch up with McTeague, but by now both of them are at least 100 miles from the nearest water source, and while McTeague manages to kill Marcus, in the fight between them Marcus had handcuffed McTeague. With the gold intact but with no water, food, shelter, and condemned to die, McTeague sets his pet bird free, perhaps with the hope that it will find happiness...
The power of Greed, even in its 'disheveled' form, is still there, and for those watching it for the first time, we can marvel at the strengths of von Stroheim as a director. He is a brilliant director in terms of drawing astonishing performances out of his cast. I am particularly struck by Zasu Pitts, who is best remembered now as a comedienne. Her performance shows that she should rank with other great silent film actresses like Mary Pickford and Lilian Gish, or at least perhaps would be if she had done more dramas. Pitts goes from this sweet, innocent woman (so innocent that she becomes terrified by the wedding night) into this cold, hard, greedy woman consumed with passion for her gold and ends as this tragic victim of her own mania. It is such a totally immersed performance that one marvels how and why she wasn't given more dramas, even when she managed to transition to sound well.
In a small gesture, in an angry glance, in a terror-filled face, Pitts goes through all the emotions and has us feeling them to, from warmth to near-hatred for what Trina has become and turned McTeague to.
Gowland's McTeague is not as strong as Pitts, but he still manages to convey the duality of McTeague: at times gentle and innocent, at times fury-fueled and murderous. We see that early in the film, when he gently takes a bird with a broken wing from the ground and begins to tend to it. When another miner brusquely knocks the bird out of McTeague's hands, McTeague responds by lifting that miner and tossing him down into the river. Again and again Gowland is asked to make us sympathize and be repelled by McTeague, and he does it so well that it ends up being a strong performance.
I think Hersholt, with a certain validity, can be accused of giving a performance that can be considered stereotypical for silent films (broad and over-acted). However, in some of his better moments, the happy-go-lucky nature of Marcus makes that slow shift to a man consumed by his own greed all the more effective.
Von Stroheim was also a great director visually. He tells us so much with his visual style instead of spelling it out for us, trusting the audience to figure things out. Von Stroheim uses all sorts of symbolism that highlights the story. There is now Marcus shifts visually into a cat who looks with hunger at the two golden canaries, obviously symbols of Trina and John. The cat is there, waiting to pounce on them.
As a side note, the canaries, along with certain other symbols (the dentist's tooth symbol, the wedding ring, and the coins) are all color-tinted in the black-and-white film, pointing out the promise and peril of the gold in the characters' lives.
One of the best and most brilliant shots is at the wedding, where von Stroheim manages to show the wedding ceremony in the foreground while in the background passes a funeral procession. The score also intercuts brilliantly between Felix Mendelsohn's Wedding March and Fredric Chopin's Funeral March, underscoring the fact that this wedding will lead to several funerals. The final moments in Death Valley, with blood splattered on the golden coins that have led to the ruin of three lives, also serves as symbolism to the tragedy we have seen.
We also see how brilliantly von Stroheim uses symbolism with the wedding photograph of John and Trina. We see it shift from beautifully framed above their beds, to eventually discarded, torn in half (symbolically separating McTeague and Trina) and unframed (like an old poster), to tossed in the trash, to serving as part of McTeague's wanted poster. Here, we see through the wedding picture how the McTeagues have come undone.
Von Stroheim's use of focus, of symbolism, of location shooting, and intercutting between real and symbols (such as when Marcus sees an ocean taking the place of people at the pier, symbolizing his overwhelmed emotions of losing either his girl or his friend) are as revolutionary as something from The Birth of a Nation, Battleship Potemkin, or Citizen Kane (even if Greed preceded the last two).
Any virtue taken to extremes can become a sin. Trina's virtue of saving was taken to an extreme, and it became the sin of greed. Marcus' virtue of giving something up for a greater good was taken to an extreme, and it became the sin of jealousy. McTeague's virtue of kindness was taken to an extreme, and it became the sin of wrath. Erich von Stroheim's virtue of creating a thoroughly faithful adaptation and of something brilliant was taken to an extreme, and it became the sin of arrogance, creating a feature-length film of unmanageable length. The studio's virtue of wanting a commercial film was taken to an extreme, and it became the sin of ignorance, tearing apart a brilliant piece of art.
Despite all that, what we do have, this version of Greed, still astounds one with its brilliance, with its insight into the darkness of man, and should rightly rank among the greatest films ever made, up there with Citizen Kane, with Vertigo, with Metropolis, with Sunrise, and with Seven Samurai. Whether the complete, massive eight-hour cut of Greed will ever be found is unknown (I think the answer is no). Mercifully, title cards help pull a silent film together and can cover things lost now, and more merciful, this version of Greed, the one we have now, is enough.
No need to be greedy.