Vol. 12, No. 3,009 - The American Reporter - October 19, 2006

On Media

by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif

Printable version of this story

LOS ANGELES -- A film retrospective currently running at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art underscores one of the 20th Century's great bodies of work, even as it illustrates one of our true cultural tragedies.

I speak of the work of director/actor Erich von Stroheim, and the perverse mutilation by MGM of his greatest work, "Greed." The film retrospective is running in conjunction with an exhibition at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of recently discovered drawings, photos and documents maintained by Erich von Stroheim until his death in 1957.

Together, the film showings and exhibition reveal something of the underpinnings of our modern visual culture.

Strangely enough, it is cable television, or, to be more precise, the Turner Classic Movies channel that made part of this retrospective possible by financing the recent restoration of "Greed." There is also the diplomacy, work and, I would like to think, the great good luck of Rick Schmidlin.

Modern viewers may remember Erich von Stroheim for his Oscar-nominated performance as the baldheaded butler in Billy Wilder's 1950 classic Sunset Blvd. Classic film buffs may remember him as Capt. von Rauffenstein in Jean Renoir's masterpiece The Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion, 1937). In earlier work during the silent era, his screen persona of the lecherous villain was merchandised to the public as "the man you love to hate."

Historians of the early twentieth century, an increasing number of viewers and some of the greatest film directors of all time have considered von Stroheim in a different light. They consider him to have been the consummate film director. As explained by Schmidlin, pioneering Russian director Serge Eisenstein and French director Jean Renoir both considered von Stroheim to be their favorite.

His contributions to visual style and dramatic direction have contributed greatly to the modern art of motion picture and television production.

A little about the exhibition: The motion picture Academy's gallery and theater (see www.oscars.org) on Wilshire Blvd in Beverly Hills is one of the better kept secrets in town. One time I attended a tribute to film editor Walter Murch there (on a five dollar ticket) in which the first two speakers happened to be George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. Thursday night's program kicked off the exhibit and simultaneous film retrospective. Many of the living descendants of Erich von Stroheim were there. The high point of the festivities was the screening of the otherwise seldom shown Blind Husbands (1919), von Stroheim's first effort as a director.

What many of us gained from the experience was an inkling of the von Stroheim genius for art and design. "Dressing the set" is the modern day term for decorating the area to be filmed. Von Stroheim had his own special eye for detail. It was apparent even in this, his inaugural voyage as a director.

There was also his genius for creating complex yet sympathetic female characters being menaced by some charismatic lothario (typically himself).

Upstairs in the fourth floor gallery, we learned a little about how the spectacle was accomplished. Drawings never before displayed publicly showed how the director himself designed details of his sets, right down to the shape and texture of lanterns hanging on the outside wall of a country inn. Other drawings (some shown at an earlier exhibit in Sacile, Italy at the festival Le Giornate del Cinema Muto) show von Stroheim's designs for uniforms used in other films. Film scripts typed by hand (now there's a thought!) and photographs line the walls. It is a treasure trove that historians will consider fifty and a hundred years from now, a direct connection to the development of the art and technology of the moving image.

With all his vast talent, Erich von Stroheim had what might be described as a checkered career. After a brief beginning in acting and modest experience as an assistant director, he began his short career as director in 1919 with the aforementioned Blind Husbands. Taking a look at the Internet Movie Data Base (www.imdb.com), we find that his directorial career includes only 12 films over a very few years. Compared to the 79 films credited to the arguably less talented but more disciplined Cecil B. Demille -- a man who started in pictures at about the same time as von Stroheim -- it is a sorry story of potentials unfulfilled.

Still, what he did manage to accomplish is remarkable. The Wedding March (1928) is one of my all-time favorite films. It paired von Stroheim (still playing the charismatic lecher) with a young actress who had been employed doing short cowboy films, Fay Wray, and made her into an international star.

And then there is "Greed."

By the year 1924, Erich von Stroheim had established himself as a Hollywood director. The son of an Austrian couple, he worked for his father in the manufacture of hats before coming to the United States and working in motion pictures. He did a little acting, worked as an assistant director, and made several films before "Greed."

The subject matter of "Greed" is curious, considering the bulk of von Stroheim's directorial career. Most of his films have plots centered on some European location such as Austria or Monte Carlo. "Greed" is set in early 1900s San Francisco and the California desert.

Many of his other films involve romantic temptations and love triangles set in exotic locations involving the nobility. "Greed" involves everyday people who bounce between working class stability and poverty in an earlier California.

Based on the novel McTeague by Frank Norris, it involves a young man from a mining camp who apprentices himself to an itinerant quack dentist, learns his trade, then moves to San Francisco where he sets up his practice and meets the girl of his dreams. The story expands as his fiancÚ wins the lottery ($5000 -- huge by twenties standards). She slowly devolves into a condition of miserliness that is truly a study in neurotic obsession. The title character McTeague suddenly is denied the legal right to practice dentistry (he never attended dental school) and is reduced to a street existence.

There are side plots involving five other characters whose lives parallel, symbolize and contrast with McTeague's.

It was a massive undertaking. Film enthusiasts argue about how much film von Stroheim shot in the making of "Greed." There were various working editions of the film. We know that von Stroheim screened a quick-cut of about 10 hours to a few people. He edited it down to about 4 hours, and then the studio took it all away from him.

MGM took this massive epic, a work of genius in the making, and had it cut to 140 minutes, a little over two hours.

Much of the side plot material was butchered, much of the main plot was severely truncated, much of the emotional logic was destroyed or altered, and yet it still plays with considerable power even in the drastically shortened form.

What the butchered version lacks is the epic buildup, the almost lazily slow development until all the loose ends finally are tied up in a remarkably dramatic finish.

Rick Schmidlin is a former music industry producer who became interested in film preservation and restoration. He did research which led him to a couple of boxes of old von Stroheim material still stored in an old studio warehouse. Becoming aware of hundreds of still photographs taken during the production phase of "Greed", he set out to restore "Greed" to something approximating von Stroheim's four-hour cut. Funding was provided by the cable tv channel that ran the finished product.

The actual footage excised by MGM's celluloid butcher has never been found (it was probably recycled for its silver content), but the stills could be used to illustrate the plot points by inserting them among the available moving picture footage. The plot is explained by newly inserted title frames.

The result is clearly less than perfect, lacking as it does the flow of the moving image, but the extra, newly inserted material fills out the dramatic structure. The famous scenes at the end of the film in which McTeague and his nemesis struggle to their mutual destruction in the wastes of Death Valley come alive. We experience the full emotional impact, as it was intended.

Why all these words devoted to something that was a flop in its day, a day that is now already three-quarters of a century gone?

Perhaps it is because it is the story of genius deprived through lack of resources, the story of the eccentric who didn't quite follow the rules and got stomped on by the money men. It is an old story. In some ways, this free enterprise society of ours can be more cruel than the Medicis when it comes to withholding support for the arts.

It obviously isn't that simple. Von Stroheim is routinely described as "autocratic." He must have been difficult for any producer to manage. Still, in proper hands even difficult geniuses turn out works of genius. We think of mad King Ludwig and his support of Richard Wagner, or Mozart's patrons.

It never worked out like that for von Stroheim, and we of the 21st Century are left to view the few great works that survive along with the fragmented greatness of "Greed." We are left to ponder the power of the system that could allow Erich von Stroheim the chance to create, and the cold insensitivity that took it all away. Mostly, we are left to wonder in sheer amazement why the lost footage from "Greed" was not retained.

There is an amusing side to this story. Rick Schmidlin not only took up the challenge of recreating the original "Greed" in its original scale, he also began to meet with members of Erich von Stroheim's family. He spent hours interviewing Josef, one of Erich's sons, along with other grandchildren.

Almost by chance, he was directed to meet with a woman who still lived in the French farm cottage formerly inhabited by Erich von Stroheim. At a meeting in the cottage, he was shown multiple cartons of carefully sorted photographs, scripts, letters, drawings and other documents that had been retained by von Stroheim up till his death, documents which were then preserved for what has been nearly half a century.

Those documents are now in the collection of the Academy and a truly remarkable selection are available for viewing at the current exhibition. The film retrospective continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (www.lacma.org).

It is a story of what might have been, but it is also the story of remarkable achievement. Those who can make it to the showings at the Museum of Art will understand.

Copyright 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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