A Glimmer of 'Greed's' Riches

Bill Desowitz is a frequent contributor to Calendar

How do you reconstruct "Greed," the most notoriously mutilated masterpiece in film history, without the rest of Erich von Stroheim's grim tapestry of love, fate, heredity and lust for gold in San Francisco of the 1920s? Simple. You fill in the massive narrative gaps with more than 650 of the most striking production stills you've ever seen, hire a music video editor to animate them like a Ken Burns documentary, revive the original titles and special gold tint, and commission a brand-new musical score.

Actually, it's not so simple. But until someone miraculously discovers the mother lode of lost footage, this is the closest we're ever going to come to glimpsing Von Stroheim's enormous vision for his 1924 silent opus.

For Rick Schmidlin, who supervised last year's triumphant "Touch of Evil" reconstruction, getting his hands on "Greed" has been a culmination of luck and persistence. Like so many others fascinated by the director's faithful rendering of Frank Norris' naturalistic novel "McTeague," he has fantasized about solving the mysterious puzzle.

(Ardent Von Stroheim enthusiast Herman G. Weinberg published a pictorial account of the director's films in 1975, including 350 stills from "Greed," which served as inspiration to Schmidlin.)

"I thought it was time to tackle this monumental film and see how to make the entire narrative work," Schmidlin says. "It's not a pleasant film, but you become transfixed by it. I want to open up the viewer's eye to this kind of story presentation, backed with a new orchestral score, moving with the integrity of Von Stroheim's original intention."

However, it's too difficult and expensive to be done as a theatrical presentation, so a new digital video transfer of "Greed" will be created instead at less than half the cost of the "Touch of Evil" reconstruction. The enhanced "Greed" will premiere on cable television's Turner Classic Movies in December--just in time to commemorate the film's 75th anniversary.

Time has not only ingrained in us a truncated "Greed" but a mythology of what might have been. Still, what remains is remarkable for its visceral power. There is, indeed, something transfixing about watching this obsession with gold. McTeague (Gibson Gowland), the primitive dentist, who is capable of such tenderness and violence; Trina (Zasu Pitts), his wife, who starts out so sweetly only to become a loathsome soul who practically makes love to her gold coins; and Marcus (Jean Hersholt), the odd man out who relinquishes Trina out of friendship and then bitterly regrets it after she wins a lottery.

Even in its present form, Von Stroheim achieved an amazingly authentic evocation of a time and place. He had the exacting eye of a documentary filmmaker, taking us in and around architecturally rich San Francisco and deep into Death Valley for the grueling climax. He learned well from his mentor, D.W. Griffith, intercutting action with vigor, providing symbolic tropes and surveying a scene with incremental information. He had a gift for lingering on a ferocious or fragile face, and having us wonder what will happen next.

These are vulgar and volatile emotions on display, a battle between the beastly and the civilized within us all--the true essence of Norris' naturalism. And San Francisco shares in the duality, teetering between a Gold Rush town and a cosmopolitan city. Von Stroheim knew firsthand that this was the stark reality of the new century.

What a shame that the director's arch-nemesis from Universal, Irving Thalberg (who hired on as MGM's new production chief after the film had been shot), ordered it cut to the bone.

Judging from the stills, there is so much more to the story. A telling prologue in Mill Valley foreshadows McTeague's doomed existence, leading up to the death of his brutish alcoholic father; a charlatan dentist takes him under his wing. Later, in San Francisco, several characters are introduced before they all meet.

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Relationships and patterns are established in the best novelistic tradition. One ill-fated couple, an abusive junkman and his gypsy wife, could have an Expressionistic movie all to themselves. Another couple attains a twilight bliss. There's also a subplot about the travails of the immigrant experience. And just before the memorable Death Valley climax, McTeague takes a detour into his inescapable past.

While the stills can't possibly make up for what's lost, they are very expressive, conveying atmosphere and dramatic tension. They include numerous celebrations as well as a nightmarish cruelty, with characters sinking lower into the depths of depravity.

Schmidlin hopes to approximate the director's preferred four-hour work print, adding another hour to the current 2 1/4-hour running time. But he promises to make the stills come to life with a full array of motion control effects. "This isn't going to be a dull slide show," Schmidlin says. "That's why I've hired Jeff Richtor to be our editor. With his music video background, he understands how to cut on tape, how to utilize stills and cut to music."

Of course, none of this would be possible without Schmidlin's shrewd investigative skills. In addition to uncovering the momentous collection of stills and longer version of the shooting script at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he has located the original title sheets at USC and the only known surviving gold-tinted film clips at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

As with "Touch of Evil," Schmidlin will consult a host of scholarly and technical experts to ensure historical accuracy, including Von Stroheim biographer Richard Koszarski. (In spite of the meticulous work on "Evil," Orson Welles' sister filed suit against Universal for marketing the film as a "director's cut.")

"I want everything to be done just right, so I've surrounded myself with the best authorities," Schmidlin adds. "For instance, there won't be any guesswork with the tinting. We will be able to achieve an accurate representation of the stencil-colored Handschiegl process used at that time. The various gold objects--Trina's coins, the large tooth she gives McTeague as a present, the quartz he holds in his hand--are all integral to Von Stroheim's storytelling."

This archeological reconstruction is certainly a dicey proposition, with more scholarly appeal than cinematic certainty, which is why it's been greeted thus far with as much skepticism as curiosity. As one prominent archivist cautions, "It's problematic from a spectator's point of view to interrupt the viewing experience like that; it's not likely to enhance it." But it's not unprecedented. "Lost Horizon," the 1954 "A Star Is Born," "Intolerance" and Frank Borzage's "The River" have tested the waters with varying degrees of success. But nothing has been attempted on this scale.

"I keep an open mind," says esteemed historian-restorationist Kevin Brownlow, who pieced together a print of "Greed" several years ago and has recently done the same with Von Stroheim's "The Wedding March," currently screening in Europe.

"The stills are wonderful, but we'll have to see how they play," Brownlow says. "It's a rare opportunity to use the latest video technology to improve the quality. Let's hope the new millennium will spark interest in a notorious film about the early 20th century."

Koszarski, author of the book and documentary "The Man You Loved to Hate," believes the reconstruction will lead to an important reassessment of Von Stroheim's legendary style. "Scholars have known that he went in more than one direction, that he had Expressionistic concerns beyond the stark realism. This will confirm it. His stylized use of color was not approached as a realist. He used color in a very unrealistic manner. People were put off back then, but people today will get it in light of 'Pleasantville.' "

Schmidlin admits this is merely one continuous lab experiment: "Imagine if you could only see a quarter of the Sistine Chapel. Then you can understand how much is missing. I want to give 30 million viewers the opportunity to discover this great work of art, and what a great tragedy this butchery has been."

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