Greed (Erich Von Stroheim, 1924): USA

Reviewed by Byron Potau.  Viewed on TCM.

Perhaps, more than any other film, Erich Von Stroheim’s mutilated masterpiece, Greed, is considered cinema’s greatest tragedy of studio interference and lost footage.  Originally clocking in at ten hours, Von Stroheim was forced to cut the film, which he did, to a still lengthy four hours.  Still not satisfied, MGM then took the film from the despondent Von Stroheim and cut it to two hours and twenty minutes.  As the story goes, the hours of film that were cut were destroyed by cinema fan’s most hated janitor who simply thought the footage was unimportant.  Ggrrhh!  The version reviewed here is an attempted recreation of the four hour version using still shots and existing footage, and following director Von Stroheim’s outline.

McTeague (Gibson Gowland) is presented to us as a sort of gentle giant.  He is a simple man with a love of small birds, but with incredible strength and a temper that can get out of hand if he is pushed too far.  He becomes the apprentice of a traveling dentist and soon has his own dentist’s office.  He becomes smitten with his friend’s cousin, Trina (Zasu Pitts), and when his friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt) steps aside, McTeague marries her.  When Trina wins the lottery, Marcus has serious regrets about his decision to let McTeague have her, and Trina turns into an unconscionable miser for the ages.

The recreation of Von Stroheim’s second cut of the film has varying degrees of success.  While it is great to get a sense of the film Von Stroheim intended, the use of still photographs does not carry the same power and it becomes more curiously interesting than it is magnificent.  This version is recommended more for the hardcore cinema fans, but should be thought of more like a DVD extra as it is too cerebral a viewing experience and the real power of the film comes through better in the two hour and twenty minute version.

The film itself is very powerful and Gibson Gowland has a great presence as the big curly blonde haired McTeague.  Zasu Pitts creates an incredible, unsympathetic portrait of the miser Trina, and Jean Hersholt shows no hint of the humanitarian as the greedy, bitter Marcus. 

Based on Frank Norris’s novel McTeague, Von Stroheim shows no fear in taking on a literary classic and shows us a very ugly side of humanity expressed through his fierce and maimed vision.

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