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adam-troy castro
Posted on Saturday, July 24, 2004 - 06:02 am:   

GREED (1924) directed by Erich Von Stroheim, is one of the great tragedies
of American film, and I'm not just talking about the storyline, but about
its fate. The original cut was nine hours long, which Von Stroheim hoped
to exhibit in two parts. When the studio refused, he tormented himself by
cutting it to six hours, and then to four, and then to three; the studio
took it out of his hands and reduced it to a little over 90 minutes, turning
a multi-levelled character-based melodrama into a shell of its previous
self. The trauma basically ruined Von Stroheim's directorial career and
reduced him to an actor playing a caricature of himself in other movies,
notably as the washed-up great director in Billy Wilder's SUNSET BOULEVARD.

Most horrifically, the studio melted down the raw footage for its silver
content, destroying any chance of the film ever being exhibited in its entirety.

The missing footage, long rumored to exist somewhere, is one of the holy
grails of film preservationists; indeed, I put fully restored copies in
the hands of the villains Kang the Conqueror, and Mysterio, in my various
Marvel Universe novels.

The ninety minute version, as crippled as it is, is already one of the classic
films. It was the only version available for more than seventy-five years.

The story, based on the novel McTEAGUE by Frank Norris, is about a simple-minded
coal miner, son of an alcoholic, who learns dentistry from a travelling
quack and sets up his own practice in San Francisco. His friend Marcus plans
to marry his own cousin, Trina, but relinquishes claim to her out of friendship
when McTeague expresses his own love for her. But when Trina wins five thousand
dollars (at that point, a small fortune) in a lottery, Marcus feels that
he's been robbed of both the girl and the money. The two men become enemies.
And Trina develops an obsession with the money that extends to not spending
a cent of it, even though the interest on it would be capable of supporting
the couple in comfort when financial reversals reduce them to penury.

Judi and I just watched a version restored to Stroheim's four hour cut.

It's not a complete restoration even at that length; though there's plenty
of new footage, restoring important subplots and entire supporting characters,
at least one-fourth, maybe one-third, of the restoration exists only as
a series of stills, filling in the missing parts of the story. It works
fine, and is itself sufficient to reveal one great performance (by the actress
playing Maria) that the 90-minute version reduces to a mere one-minute cameo.
EVEN IN STILLS, she's magnificent. The restored four hour version is slow
going in the early sections (Judi, who hadn't seen the short version and
had never seen a synopsis, wondered a few times when the story was going
to start), but is deeper, richer, funnier, and more horrific, with many
more layers of hammering irony.

I may discuss some of the restorations in further posts.

In the meantime...if you don't happen to catch the 4-hour version on Turner
Classic Movies, then please look out: sooner or later, this will be released
to home video. And it really is one of the greatest movies ever made, with
one of the most memorable fade-outs ever.

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Posted on Saturday, July 24, 2004 - 09:14 am:   

I need to correct myself here: relied on memory from my previous viewing,
23 years ago.

The version available for 75 years was 2 hours, 20 minutes long.

Not ninety minutes as I previously reported.

So, essentially, an hour-forty of story has been restored.

But what an hour and a half!

It makes a difference.

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