The reports that appeared in the Hollywood trade papers seemed almost miraculous: The Holy Grail of butchered movies, Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 silent masterpiece Greed, is on the verge of being restored to at least a flickering shadow of its former glory. This was startling news, because the scenes excised from this close adaptation of Frank Norris’ “American naturalist” novel McTeague (at the behest of MGM studio chief Irving Thalberg, who ground down the epic from almost four hours to just 140 minutes) are some of the most famous lost footage in the history of the cinema. Starring beefy Gibson Gowland as a gold-crazed San Francisco dentist, Greed mixed a radical dedication to visual realism with thematic flourishes redolent of 19th-century melodrama.
According to Rick Schmidlin, who supervised last year’s acclaimed reconstruction of Orson Welles’ 1958 Touch of Evil, it has long been assumed that the dismembered hunks of Greed were destroyed on the spot, hours of great filmmaking literally reduced to ashes: “The length of just one of the missing subplots is as long as the entire movie that exists now.” Schmidlin will employ high-end digital technology to resurrect Greed on video for the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. Funding for the project will enable Schmidlin “to make the calls, to send the letters, to do the traveling, to really find out if any additional material exists.” He admits he isn’t optimistic: Thalberg’s henchmen worked on the negative itself, before any release prints had been struck.
In lieu of additional film footage, Schmidlin will deploy 633 production stills he found last year, in a donation made by the von Stroheim estate to the Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Using “video animation” procedures such as those popularized by Ken Burns in his PBS series The Civil War, he will attempt to “keep the integrity of the original but also to put some motion into the stills.” As a road map to the process, he will consult several cutting continuities of the original full-length screenplay, with the text of the intertitles written out and scene numbers specified. New title cards will be created on a computer to match the typeface and border art of the remaining originals. The screenplay also specifies tinting and coloring effects that will be added digitally, including seductive glints of gold in key sequences.
No imminent theatrical release is contemplated. “The production costs for celluloid would be much higher,” Schmidlin explains, and it is assumed audiences would be limited. The reconstruction is a direct result of the digital revolution: “This came about because we now have the tools to do it, and because there are outlets like TCM and ancillary media like DVD that make it financially practical.”
Modest revamps of the film were attempted in the 1970s, by scholar Kevin Brownlow and, in book form, by the late historian William K. Everson. But those attempts were constrained, in part, by the costs involved. “What was astronomically expensive even 10 years ago is nickels and dimes today,” says Schmidlin. “Von Stroheim lost the footage, but he also lost the story. This at least gives us a visual rendition of the story, as accurate as we can make it.”
Partly to certify the project as “a serious, academic reconstruction,” Schmidlin has engaged film scholar and von Stroheim biographer Richard Koszarski as a consultant, the watchdog role held on Touch of Evil by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. A professor of film history at Rutgers Univer-sity, Koszarski confirms that “the material Rick has assembled really does document how the film was constructed in its various versions.” Koszarski likens this effort to the restoration of a damaged fresco, where only a few patches of original material remain. Working from sketches and contemporary descriptions, art historians strive for a sense of the overall design that will put the surviving chunks in context.
Pointing out that von Stroheim’s legendary original eight-hour cut of Greed was the equivalent of what would now be called a “first assemblage,” Koszarski contends that the director’s plan was for a final running time of under four hours, “about the same as Gone With the Wind.” Because Greed was covered thoroughly by the still photographer, and because 98 percent of those images have now been recovered, Koszarski thinks that with care it may almost be possible to “re-animate” some sequences: “Rick’s goal is to produce something watchable, something that plays — the way Ken Burns’ stuff plays.”
Schmidlin is willing to consider the possibility that his version, too, may eventually be superseded, in part due to his own efforts: “Who knows what might happen? Amazing film treasures turn up all the time. The silent version of Richard III, for example, or that Titanic movie” — a “lost” silent drama that came to light precisely because of the heightened awareness created by the recent blockbuster. “If 500,000 more people end up knowing about Greed, perhaps something will shake loose. In that sense, the movie becomes an advertisement for itself.”