Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Restoration of Two Important Films

Eric Von Stroheim
This Labor Day morning I awoke, turned on the television to catch the latest news over breakfast, and when I got tired of the news being interrupted by commercials, I turned to Turner Classic Movies. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in the middle of a classic silent film Greed, directed and produced by the famous director Eric Von Stroheim. I have to admit that Von Stroheim as a director and actor is a favorite, and I've been curious about his film Greed for a long time.

Von Stroheim had a reputation for shooting long films. He was a perfectionist for realistic detail and he strove to tell a more complete story on film than the Hollywood moguls thought appropriate. In spite of his brilliant filmmaking, his career as a filmmaker ended with the silent film era, but he went on to become a superb actor during the sound era. Two favorite examples are his roles in Jean Renoir's 1937 film La Grande Illusion and  Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard from 1950, which included footage from Von Stroheim's 1929 film Queen Kelly. Both Sunset Boulevard and Queen Kelly starred Gloria Swanson.

Serge Eisenstein
I couldn't help but to notice a comparison of the fate of Von Stroheim's Greed to another film by his contemporary Serge Eisenstein. That film was Que Viva Mexico! Von Stroheim's Greed was based on the Frank Norris naturalist novel McTeague. Eisenstein had made the trip to Hollywood from his home in the Soviet Union to make a film during those times of warmer feelings between our two countries generated by Roosevelt's New Deal. Initially Eisenstein planned to make a film version of the social realist novel by Theodore Dreiser, his 1925 An American Tragedy. Somewhat like Von Stroheim, Eisenstein ran into the Hollywood buzz saw of subterfuge, intrigue and sensibilities reminiscent of Fitzgerald's final novel The Last Tycoon. This whole set of circumstances drove Eisenstein to Mexico to embark upon the making of the film Que Viva Mexico! which he was unable to complete.

In spite of the fate of both Que Viva Mexico! and Greed, bowdlerized and shorter versions of each film were released. These versions distorted the messages that filmmakers Eisenstein and Von Stroheim intended, even though the superior quality of their filmmaking craft enabled the moguls to use the truncated films to recoup their investments.

About a decade ago a restored version of Eisenstein's Que Viva Mexico! was released. This was accomplished because footage intended for the finished film but relegated to the "cutting room floor" had been recovered. Along with notes  and story boards kept by Eisenstein's associates Grigori Alexandrov  and Eduard Tissé, a completed, though not finished film, was released.  Eisenstein had intended to portray the cultural identity of Mexico through its history up to and including its revolution of 1910 – 1920. Only surviving story boards depicted this latter portion of the film.

In Von Stroheim's Greed, the nearly restored four hour version that was broadcast on Turner Classic Movies had also been pieced together from various elements to demonstrate the filmmaker's original intent.  Much of the lost footage was replaced by movie stills. The inclusion of those stills was enough to incorporate the subplots that Von Stroheim intended, which also provided contrasting themes to a story of the destructive capacity of greed and the power it inflicts on the downward spiral of the personal lives of McTeague and his wife Trina.

Both Eisenstein and Von Stroheim were pioneers of early 20th century filmmaking. Both had to adjust to the caprices of their patrons, in spite of which both remained innovators, great stylists of cinema, and uncompromising champions of progressive causes. Both Que Viva Mexico! and Greed are well worthy of viewing. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Steve! Viva Eisenstein and Von Stroheim!