by Allan Fish
(USA 1924/1998 141m) not on DVD
A dentist’s tale
p Erich Von Stroheim, Irving Thalberg d Erich Von Stroheim w Erich Von Stroheim, June Mathis novel “McTeague” by Frank Norris ph Ben Reynolds, William H.Daniels ed Erich Von Stroheim, Rex Ingram, Grant Whytock, June Mathis, Jos W.Farnham m Carl Davis art Richard Day, Cedric Gibbons
Gibson Gowland (John ‘Doc’ McTeague), Zasu Pitts (Trina Sieppe), Jean Hersholt (Marcus Schouler), Chester Conklin (Popper Sieppe), Dale Fuller (Maria), Tempe Pigott (Mother McTeague), Silvin Ashton (Mommer Sieppe), Joan Standing (Selina),
No other film in the history of cinema fills us with such a sense of both awe and loss. Loss because of what the characters go through during the film’s duration, but even more for the loss of the director’s original intention. Greed was butchered like no other film was butchered, and unlike many such films of the modern era, there is no chance of a director’s cut ever emerging. Von Stroheim’s masterpiece was edited down from well over a hundred hours of stock footage to an original length of 8½ hours, from which it was cut to exactly seven for its premiere. When Irving Thalberg insisted he cut it down to a commercial length, Von Stroheim sent it to another artist on the MGM roster, his friend Rex Ingram, whose editor Grant Whytock helped him cut it down to 3¼ hours. Refusing to cut any more, Ingram handed it back, but it was then further cut by June Mathis to 2¼, as it survives to this day. It’s amazing it still stands as a masterpiece.
The story is made into a tragedy of human despair and greed worthy of Hugo and Zola, as we follow McTeague from his beginnings in a gold mine in 1908 to his being sent away by his mother to learn dentistry from a charlatan. Setting up in San Francisco, he comes to know Marcus, who introduces him to Trina, a delicate young girl whose teeth he fixes. Marrying her, their life is thrown into turmoil when Trina wins an illegal lottery and she hoards the money from husband and friend alike, while McTeague is slowly driven to madness and violent retribution.
Von Stroheim always said he could never cheat the audience, and so he sent crews out to film on location in San Francisco, even shooting the interiors on location. It certainly led to a realism that was rare for this period (as in the sequence where his dentist’s office looks out over the street and we see the trolley car taking Trina away from him go past the surgery window). More impressive still is his visual command, from the contrasts of the gloomy interior of the goldmine to the green splendour of the surrounding forests and to the final immortal sequences in Death Valley. Shot on location in temperatures pushing 125 degrees, with actors and crew alike almost driven mad, Von Stroheim gave us the most savagely ironic of endings, one ingrained on the psyche of American cinema itself. Yet this is only one of many great sequences; who can forget the incredibly dark, forbidding and almost funereal wedding ceremony, or the dissolves into glorious richness as Pitts dreams of her golden gains?
Much of the credit here must go to his crew, particularly the photography of Daniels and Reynolds, but the performances are equally grand in stature. Gowland’s Mac is one of the great silent performances, full of a repressed anger and horrific in the way he is slowly driven to domestic violence and murder, and Hersholt, too, was never better than as the ultimately treacherous and doomed friend Marcus. But topping all in the memory is Pitts’ Trina, refusing her husband sexual favours, hair rolled up like a turban, rolling her eyes and rubbing her hands with avaricious glee at her hoarded wealth, literally stripping off into bed to roll around naked, to feel the cold touch of the coins on her skin. As one caption says, “gold was her master”, and as long as such monetary lust exists in the world, Greed will continue to astound and amaze. A four hour versionwith two hours of still footage was released in the late nineties, and it only serves to whet our appetite for the lost masterpiece, the greatest film probably ever made and lost, slithered away like gold dust through a prospector’s sieve.