"Greed" was probably Erich von Stroheim's greatest achievement. It was also his greatest disappointment.
This seminal example of silent filmmaking, one of a short list of movies that defined the medium during the '20s, was a trial for Von Stroheim from the start. In adapting Frank Norris' popular novel, "McTeague," Von Stroheim spent hard months shooting in San Francisco, the desert and mountain locales. Capturing the famous and climactic Death Valley scene was especially tough; it was so hot (temperatures reached 125 degrees) that the director had to wrap his cameras (and actors) in wet towels to keep them from breaking down.
The first cut of "Greed," which closes the Newport Harbor Art Museum's "The Beginnings" series Friday night, was more than eight hours long. Von Stroheim thought it should stay that way, but his bosses at MGM ordered it be made more theater-ready. Von Stroheim reluctantly pared away three hours.
Then, to the director's way of thinking, the worst happened. Mogul Irving Thalberg, whom Von Stroheim hated and left Universal studios to escape, joined MGM. Thalberg now controlled Von Stroheim and "Greed." He immediately had the movie edited again, shaving it to just over two hours.
Von Stroheim disowned the film upon its 1924 release. But even in its abridged form, the movie pleased critics. Although some found its unromanticized characters disgustingly flawed (one called the movie "vile"), most were impressed by both its technical ingenuity and its emotional force.
Von Stroheim said the reduced version eliminated subplots and minor but important characters. Worse, he believed that the three main figures in "Greed" were left undeveloped and only glancingly realized. It's impossible to know if his fears were justified; the first and second cuts are presumed lost.
What is clear is that, even in the shortest version, Von Stroheim's characters come alive, digging into our brains. "Greed" offers three of the most remarkable character studies ever presented on film.
The film revolves around McTeague (Gibson Gowland), a hulking, slow-minded man in a constant struggle to control his bad impulses.
When we meet him, McTeague is working in a gold mine and emerges to pet a wild bird. He shows the animal to a fellow miner who slaps the bird away, enraging McTeague. He throws the miner down a ravine, and the following title card says simply, "such was McTeague." From gentle to terrifying, in an instant.
McTeague eventually becomes a dentist in San Francisco, where he befriends the coarse Marcus (Jean Hersholt) and Trina (ZaSu Pitts), Marcus' fey girlfriend. The three form a tragic triangle.
In one of many disturbing passages--captured with a perverse eroticism by Von Stroheim--McTeague kisses and fondles Trina while she is unconscious in his dentist's chair.
It's creepy, but from there McTeague expresses his love for Trina. Marcus, in his one magnanimous gesture, steps aside so the two can marry. But after Trina wins $5,000 in the lottery, she begins to go insane. Trina becomes obsessive about money, stealing from McTeague and hoarding every coin and bill she can find. Trina actually strips to nothing and rolls around in the gold she's scattered on her bed.
In the meantime, Marcus' fury has been building. It's not Trina he covets, but her money. Marcus conspires to get McTeague to lose his dentistry practice and watches as the marriage disintegrates. McTeague becomes increasingly violent (he has a habit of sadistically biting Trina's fingers to force her to do things), and the relationship ends with a brutal act. McTeague and Marcus are fated to meet one more time, in the center of Death Valley.
As with most silents, the acting is melodramatic. But the stylizations don't distract; they only reinforce the darkness of the characters. Gowland is particularly absorbing. With his huge, woolly head and crude features, he looks the part of the fool, the innocent primitive. His self-conscious smile sets us at ease, but his eyes--settled on in penetrating close-ups--tell the truth, revealing how menacing McTeague can be.
Arthur Taussig, an Orange Coast College instructor and author of The Film Analyst newsletter, will discuss "Greed" before and after the screening.
What: Erich von Stroheim's "Greed."
When: Friday, March 17, at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach.
Whereabouts: Take Pacific Coast Highway to Jamboree Road. Head north on Jamboree to Santa Barbara Drive, then east to San Clemente Drive.
Wherewithal: $5 general; $3 for museum members, seniors and students.
Where to call: (714) 759-1122.