A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Greed (Erich von Stroheim, 1924)

Gibson Gowland and Jean Hersholt in Greed
McTeague: Gibson Gowland
Trina: Zasu Pitts
Marcus: Jean Hersholt
Maria: Dale Fuller
Mother McTeague: Tempe Pigott
"Mommer" Sieppe: Sylvia Ashton
"Popper" Sieppe: Chester Conklin
Selina: Joan Standing
Zwerkow: Cesare Gravina
Charles W. Grannis: Frank Hayes
Miss Anastasia Baker: Fanny Midgley

Director: Erich von Stroheim
Screenplay: June Mathis, Erich von Stroheim, Joseph Farnham (titles)
Based on a novel by Frank Norris
Cinematography: William H. Daniels, Ben F. Reynolds
Production design: Erich von Stroheim

One of the legendary mutilated masterpieces, Greed isn't one film but several, most of which are lost. The gravest loss would have to be the original 42-reel cut (about eight hours) of the film, which was seen only by a handful of people, several of whom were the first to call it a masterpiece. What we're most likely to see now is the 1999 reconstruction of the film, gathering the scenes that remained after various hands cut it down to about 10 reels (about an hour and 50 minutes) before its 1924 release, which was a critical and commercial flop. After that, the footage deteriorated or was trashed, so the four-hour restored version is pieced out with what remained in various archives along with stills and other archival material. I doubt that anyone other than professional film historians would be willing to sit through more of Greed than that: It's an exhausting experience, not only because of the length but also because Erich von Stroheim's dedication to telling as much of the story in Frank Norris's novel as he could led him into some extraordinarily bleak places. The bleakest of those places is of course Death Valley, where the climactic standoff of McTeague and Marcus takes place -- a sequence that still has the power to astonish even when seen independently of the rest of the film. But much of the bleakness also lies in the characters of McTeague and Trina, especially the latter, whose transformation from sensitive, shy virgin to monster of greed is harrowing -- a reminder that Zasu Pitts, now best known as a comic character actress, was a performer of real skill. The restoration also includes the sordid subplot of the greedy junk dealer Zwerkow and his half-mad henchwoman Maria, which ends in murder and suicide. Balancing that was a sentimental subplot involving the McTeagues' rooming-house neighbors, the elderly bachelor Grannis and the spinster Miss Baker, who don't meet for a long time, even though their rooms are separated by a partition so thin they can hear each other's every move. If the junk dealer subplot serves to indicate the depths of degradation that threaten the McTeagues, the story of the lonely elders helps sweeten the film as they meet and fall in love, using a monetary windfall in constructive ways -- a counterpoint to Trina's miserly hoarding of her lottery winnings. Greed is a fascinating film, but I suspect that the story of its mishandling outweighs any significance it might have had if it had remained intact and coherent.

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