I am a classic movie fan, which on Twitter would be known as #OldMovieWeirdo. But only just now have I seen a legendary film of the distant past which is ranked among the greatest ever made. 1924 saw the release of the truncated, butchered, surviving version of Erich Von Stroheim’s – Greed.
Originally nine hours of footage was shot for this silent masterpiece. The director, Von Stroheim, managed to reduce it to around half that. The studio, MGM, had their hacks chop it down to about two and a half hours. This was the theatrical release, which the director disowned. Turner Classic Movies sometimes shows a version that runs four hours, utilizing still photos to fill in for the missing scenes. The Somerville Theater in Somerville, MA, ran the theatrical release, on the big screen, with live organ accompaniment!
All I knew going in was that it was called a classic of classics. I had seen mentions of it for as long as I had read about movies. Having no idea what the plot consisted of, I somehow assumed that it was about wheeler dealers in high finance. The actual film could not have been farther from that.
Greed is a gritty drama of workaday, street level characters, set in early 20th century America. Based on a novel called McTeague, by Frank Norris, it is a jarring display of human nature in tragic downgrade. Still, we don’t see the over-acting that characterizes so many films of the silent era. The acting is naturalistic, and is one of the great strengths of the movie.
“Mac” McTeague is a simple-minded giant of a man who labors in a gold mining operation in California. He’s not seeing much of the gold. His mother changes his life when, during the appearance of a travelling quack dentist, she arranges to have him learn the tooth-pulling trade from the guy. Before long Mac is passing himself off as a dental professional in San Francisco. Here he meets his first proper lady, and we have an eerie scene of him kissing her while she is knocked out from ether in his dental office.
He becomes obsessed with the woman, who is already involved with a good friend of his. In another strange juncture, the friend, Marcus, agrees that since she means so much to Mac, he can have her. Trina herself is never consulted on this!
Some aspects of the film seemed to stretch believability (like Marcus giving Trina to Mac) but I had to wonder if this kind of thing was more common in that era. If not entirely commonplace, did it happen? The story is set in 1918; I spotted a calendar in one scene that appeared to have that year on it.
The movie is a goldmine of human realism, with endless scenes of struggling denizens of planet Earth trying to make their way from day to day. Not that everybody is dirt poor. Trina wins five thousand dollars in a lottery, about eighty eight grand today. It changes her personality, making her miserly and obsessed with money, as she is determined never to dip into it. “Tightwad” might have been a better title than Greed, because real greed is not what I saw, just the terror of becoming impoverished, which becomes the fate of the characters anyway.
This movie was groundbreaking in its time for how it broke away from the conventional film fare and showed a darker, grimmer side of life. Mac becomes an abusive, violent person. Trina caves in to her lust for gold, even sitting up at night polishing her coins. Marcus betrays both of his old friends in a heartless manner. Despite some humorous scenes, Greed is a grim tale, but entirely absorbing and poignant, from its innocent beginning, to — one of the most gut-wrenching endings in movie history.