Thursday, January 7, 2010

#399: Greed (1924)

Director: Erich von Stroheim
Cast: Gibson Gowland, Zasu Pitts & Jean Hersholt

McTeague grew up under the pressure of a mother who vowed he would have a real career, rather than continuing to dig in the mines. When an unlicensed dentist came through town, McTeague became his apprentice, and soon had his own office in San Francisco. When his friend Marcus came to the office one day to bring his girlfriend Trina for an appointment, McTeague instantly fell in love. While Marcus and Trina wait for the previous patient, the maid offers to sell lottery tickets. First Trina hesitates, saying they are illegal, but eventually buys one ticket. Later, McTeague tells Marcus that he kissed Trina while she was sedated, and Marcus selflessly offers to leave Trina so no tension exists between them. When Trina wins $5,000, Marcus fills with jealousy, Trina grows into the world’s worst miser, and McTeague suffers the consequences.

Stroheim’s directing led to what is undoubtedly the best silent drama of all time. Under his direction, no scene was filmed in a studio. Both indoor and outdoor scenes in San Francisco and Oakland were filmed on location, as well as scenes in Death Valley. In these scenes, which were filmed in August in 125-degree heat, it was required to lay wet towels over the camera. This approached resulted in some horrible casualties, including death, but the imagery is absolutely remarkable, and nearly unheard of in such an early year in film history. All of this is extraordinary as it is, but then it must be remembered that the film originally ran 9 hours, the remainder of which has been destroyed. This tragedy has caused this film to be dubbed as the holy grail of cinema.

The lighting in indoor scenes was nothing but brilliant, as well. Often requiring walls to be knocked down in real buildings to make room for the equipment, the scenes came out to perfection. The sight of a dark silhouette at the back of a room beating somebody unconscious is something nearly impossible to create in black and white, with less-than-perfect quality of the 1920’s, but the image came out flawlessly.

It’s hard to estimate acting potential in a silent film, but I’ve got to say, they did a pretty darn good job of it. Of course, some of it was a bit exaggerated, but that’s just a consequence of having no sound available at the time. Big props to Zasu Pitts, who was one of the biggest weirdos of all time.

The historical relevance is what makes this film absolutely incredible, but even aside from its production, it is a great film all-around.

Fun Trivia (Stolen from IMDB):

  • The original version was 42 reels, and ran for 9 hours at 20 fps. Von Stroheim then shortened it to 24 reels (just over 5 hours - the "Director's Version"). It was then cut again, not once, but twice. The first time by Rex Ingram, who cut the film down to 18 reels, and forbade Stroheim to let anyone cut it again. The final cut was performed by MGM editing department's Joseph Farnham acting on orders from Irving Thalberg, who without having read the book ("McTeague") or the script, cut the film down to 10 reels. This final version was released with a runtime of 2-1/4 hours. No copies of the earlier versions were made, and the entirety of the 32 reels that did not make the final release version were destroyed - along with all of the outtakes - so that the silver could be extracted from the film celluloid. It is in this way, that most of the movie was lost forever.
  • MGM's first feature-length movie.
  • Jean Hersholt was hospitalized after he lost 27 pounds during the filming of the movie's climax in Death Valley.
  • The only screening of the original complete director's cut was for a small group of reporters. One wrote a glowing review of it, using words like "wonderful" and "brilliant" to describe it, but lamented the fact that nobody else would ever see it.

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