Silence is Golden: Retrofitting Cinema and Rebuilding Greed

Programming note: Turner Classic Movies will show a four-hour-and-fifteen-minute restored and reconstructed version of Eric von Stroheim’s GREED at 6 a.m. [EDT] on Labor Day.

Erich von Stroheim‘s GREED, the story of three friends whose relationship is destroyed by avarice after one wins $5,000 in a lottery (no small sum of money in 1924 when the film was being made), is one of the earliest and, arguably, most ridiculous examples of how a director’s clash with a studio executive — and not just any executive, but, in this case, “boy wonder” bigwig, producer Irving Thalberg — can result in cinematic infamy.

Greedy Hand-Colored Hands from GREED
Greedy Hand-Colored Hands from GREED

Intended by von Stroheim to run almost nine hours (at one point, he proposed the idea of having an audience see the film in four hour segments over two successive days), GREED was poorly reviewed and a box-office flop when its butchered (but logistically necessary) two-hour edited version was released in January, 1925.

Despite its many problems, the film is nonetheless beautifully shot (with effective details such as hand-colored yellow accents in scenes where gold appears), and is now highly regarded by modern critics — most notably, for the final grueling sequence, shot in death valley, that uses potent symbols (such as a caged bird that cannot survive despite being set free) to make clear that with all-consuming avarice comes the inevitable corruption of the soul.

In all, 446,103 feet of film were shot for what became an 8,500-foot long movie. The excess that wound up on the cutting room floor would eventually be burned. And that would have been the ignominious end for this otherwise unimportant film had not stories of the director’s war with the studio over its editing become the stuff of Hollywood legend. Perhaps it was the romantic ideal of an artist not wanting to bow down to the demands of a businessman. But whatever the reason, finding an uncut, restored version of the entire film became a sort of holy grail for archivists and film historians.

One-Sheet poster for von Stroheim's GREED
One-Sheet poster for von Stroheim’s GREED

Though no intact version has ever been found of von Stroheim’s film, it was learned that the director did, in fact, create a continuity prior to production. In 1999 — seventy-five years after principal photography — this continuity, along with still photographs from lost scenes, was used to recreate the missing parts of GREED.

It is this version that TCM has aired in the past and will air on Labor Day.

But is the reconstruction really a film? Still photographs that are “panned and scanned,” zoomed in upon and moved across the screen to simulate motion do not a movie make. Much like the long anticipated but hugely disappointing reconstruction of the entirely lost LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT starring Lon Chaney, the re-assembled GREED is no more a “film” than a a sketch artist’s flip book or scenes projected from a magic lantern.

In an age when Blu-ray discs carry the label “director’s cut” or contain deleted scenes along with a filmmaker’s commentary (from both directors and producers), it is curious to wonder what von Stroheim and Thalberg would have done with such technology. Could such a movie have even been made?

Perhaps, in the end, it is the technology of the time that determines what a film truly is.

As the mechanics of making and financing movies has changed, so too has the mechanisms for distribution, promotion, engagement and study.

For more information about TCM’s presentation of GREED this Labor Day, click here.