Reclaiming a Little of a Lost Silent Masterpiece
By Paula Parisi

August 8, 1999, N.Y. Times

LOS ANGELES -- Erich Von Stroheim never fully recovered from the mutilation of "Greed." The director's cut of his 1924 silent masterpiece ran nine and a half hours, but the studio executive Irving Thalberg scissored it to two hours and fifteen minutes.

Stroheim had been successful as an actor (mostly playing nasty, bootheel-clicking huns) and as a director (with sophisticated classics like "Foolish Wives" and "The Wedding March"), but the confrontation with Thalberg left him a broken man. Although he made more films, he was considered washed up by 1931. He is probably best known now as Gloria Swanson's monocled butler, Max, in the 1950 film "Sunset Boulevard," rather than as the creative visionary he was, a man whose uncompromising pursuit of realism forever changed the way films were made -- despite the disappearance of seven hours of his finest work.

"In many ways, they're the holy grail of cinema, its greatest mystery, greatest loss," Rick Schmidlin said of the missing reels.

But their story is about to get a slightly happier ending. Mr. Schmidlin, the man initially responsible for last year's critically acclaimed makeover of Orson Welles's "Touch of Evil," has done some restorative magic on "Greed." The reconstructed film, with an extra 45 minutes of material, will have its premiere on TCM, the Turner Classic Movies network, on Dec. 5. ("The economics of television made this project affordable," said Tom Karsch, general manager of TCM. The restoration, done on videotape for about $100,000, would have cost much more on film.)

Though the excised "Greed" footage is believed to have been destroyed, melted down to reclaim the silver in the emulsion, Mr. Schmidlin is using 650 still images to rebuild missing scenes. He has painstakingly reconstructed a blueprint of the director's intent, using the director's original 330-page continuity script, hundreds of documents and the source, Frank Norris's naturalistic 1899 novel, "McTeague."

Ostensibly the story of a simple dentist whose wife's lottery winnings lead to the couple's tragic undoing, the book is actually a meditation on the mysteries of heredity and the environment on human nature, particularly at the primal levels of sexuality, possession and fear. When McTeague falls in love with his best friend's fiance, Trina, the friend, Marcus Schouler, surrenders her with no complaint. The couple are happy enough with their modest existence, but when Trina wins $5,000, Marcus is consumed with jealousy and has the happy groom's "dental parlors" shut down by reporting him for operating without a license.

Terrified by this turn of events, Trina develops a pathological avariciousness, hoarding pennies and refusing to spend her winnings even as she and her husband spiral to the depths of squalor and despair. Trina, once pretty and cheerful, is reduced to a mutilated charwoman. Eventually, McTeague beats her to death in a fit of drunken rage, stealing her fortune and fleeing into the mountains, where he is hunted by his nemesis, Marcus. The role of McTeague went to Gibson Gowland, with ZaSu Pitts playing Trina, and Jean Hersholt as Marcus.

Though much was made of Stroheim's faithfulness to the literary work, which it was his intention to shoot "page by page, without a screenplay," Mr. Schmidlin's research reveals that the director did make some changes, reordering some scenes and adding his own visualizations. The reconstructed film opens with a 16-minute prologue that shows McTeague as a young man and establishes the character of his father, a shift boss at the Big Dipper Mine, a sequence inspired by only a few sentences in the Norris novel.

The original film also had narratives involving several fantastic characters: a half-mad cleaning woman, a vile junk dealer and, to offset the grotesques, a sweet and loving elderly couple.

"The character development was very, very advanced for its time," said Mr. Schmidlin. "I can't think of any other film that introduced this many characters, at this pace, at that time in film history." With the exception of the cleaning woman, those characters hit the cutting room floor when the film was reduced from 42 reels to 10.

"Scenes that took an hour to play out were replaced by title cards containing a few sentences," said Mr. Schmidlin. "These pictures will never be able to come alive, but we've been able to make them play."

Building on the techniques developed by Ken Burns, in documentaries like "The Civil War," and the historian Kevin Brownlow, who restored Abel Gance's 1927 film "Napoleon," Mr. Schmidlin and Glenn Morgan, the editor, have come up with an effective technique for making the stills "play." Their cuts blend with the filmed footage and are imbued with a sense of motion through panning, close-ups and the use of special effects like irising and colorization.

Stroheim had planned to hand-tint all the gold items in the film: coins, a canary, the garish tooth that hangs in McTeague's window. Mr. Schmidlin will tint the reconstruction to the director's specifications, using computers to simulate the process that would have been used at the time.

Stroheim, who began his career as a bit player and apprentice to D. W. Griffith, began directing in 1918. As his film budgets climbed, profit margins decreased, putting Stroheim under the increased scrutiny of a newly installed Universal lieutenant: Thalberg. Incensed by the director's propensity for numerous takes and writing in extra scenes, which he perceived as wasteful, Thalberg appointed a corporate lawyer, Edwin Loeb, as Stroheim's fiduciary guardian on "Foolish Wives." Thus the modern producer was born.

In the middle of shooting his next film, "Merry-Go-Round," Stroheim was dismissed and relocated to the Goldwyn Company, where he immediately began his pet project, adapting the novel "McTeague."

"He was tired of making exploitative, sensationalist films," said Mr. Schmidlin. "He wanted to do something real, to make serious drama that provoked thought. In his opinion, people were ready for a more sophisticated cinema." Carol Littleton, a film editor who was a consultant on the project, said: "He took film far more seriously than his contemporaries. He explored beneath the surface, where most films of the day were simple melodramas."

"McTeague" was subtitled "A Story of San Francisco," and Stroheim determined that he would shoot entirely in real locations. He combed the city looking for the perfect tenement backdrop and commandeered the corner of Hayes and Laguna Streets, using civilian passers-by in crowd scenes. Stroheim also packed his actors off to Death Valley, where the temperatures regularly reached 120 degrees, so he could capture the true agony of sweltering to death in the desert. By August 1923 he had wrapped 10 months of shooting, at a cost of $750,000 -- expensive at the time, but not exorbitant ("Foolish Wives" had cost $1 million).

But in the spring of 1924, Goldwyn merged with a studio called Metro, creating Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In a twist worthy of any Hollywood melodrama, Stroheim's old adversary, Thalberg, was hired to run the new operation, taking charge of production as Stroheim finished editing his project. Stroheim urged Thalberg to release his 42-reel film simultaneously in two parts. Thalberg refused, and at his insistence Stroheim cut it to 24 reels, roughly four hours of material, "not much longer than 'Gone With the Wind,' " Mr. Schmidlin points out. But Louis B. Mayer, the studio chief, was positioning MGM as a dream factory for glamour, stars and soothing optimism. He saw "Greed" as a looming flop. Why would audiences want to immerse themselves in grit and despair? Further cuts were ordered. Stroheim asked his friend, the director Rex Ingram, to make the trim. Ingram turned in an 18-reel version. Thalberg then had a house editor cut it to 10.

Among film academics, there is much speculation as to whether Stroheim would have been able to prevail on the old Goldwyn regime to release his two-parter had Thalberg and Mayer not entered the picture. If so, the course of cinema might have been changed.

"When Thalberg cut 'Greed,' it was a conscious shift from the artistic creative freedom of the director to the new studio power," said Mr. Schmidlin. "The administrators took charge." Of course, one of the most enigmatic things about "Greed" is that it remains, even in its compromised form, a cinematic masterpiece. Roger Mayer, the chief operating officer of Turner Entertainment, said: "There's always been a curiosity on the part of film buffs as to the history of the film, and that's one of the reasons why. The studio didn't really destroy the picture."

Though direct testimony is hard to find, the few friends and associates who saw Stroheim's nine-hour cut of "Greed" were reportedly dazzled. (The 1975 book "Mayer and Thalberg: Make-Believe Saints," by Samuel Marx, recounts the experience of Dale Eunson, then an MGM office boy, who recalls "the daylong showing as one of his greatest experiences.")

Those who view the reconstructed version are likely to be moved, too. Seen in the editing room at the intended 16 frames per second, the rich black-and-white images have a fluid, ethereal quality that is almost startling in its naturalness, like staring through a window at another time. Even the most brutal images have a kind of hypnotic poetry.

"He was really kind of avant-garde," Mr. Schmidlin said with a grin. "When Billy Wilder directed him in 'Five Graves to Cairo,' Wilder said, 'Imagine, little me, working with you! You were always 10 years ahead of your time.' To which Stroheim replied, '20!' I think we can now safely say 75."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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