Movies are fragile. Store them improperly - or don't store them at all and throw them away like last month's magazines - and they decay, dissolve, disintegrate, or disappear. A vast proportion of our cinematic heritage has vanished forever.
It's sad that so many films have been lost through the carelessness of an industry that was long oblivious to the enduring value of its products. But it's even more distressing to contemplate the countless reels of celluloid that have been deliberately destroyed - often by their own studios, greedy to reclaim costly chemicals by melting them down. Of these films, none is more legendary than "Greed," completed by Erich von Stroheim in 1924 and showing in a partially restored version this Sunday (8 p.m.) on Turner Classic Movies.
Conceived by Stroheim as the grandest epic of his directing career, "Greed" clocked in at around nine hours when he presented a preview version to journalists before the final editing was completed. Accounts of the screening indicate that viewers were mightily impressed by his realistic retelling of Frank Norris's novel "McTeague," focusing on an ambitious working-class man whose life takes regrettable turns after his wife acquires an unexpected fortune.
It wasn't enough to calm MGM's doubts about releasing a movie of such sprawling length, even in the two-evening format Stroheim had envisioned. Rejecting his suggestion of a four-hour compromise version, studio chief Irving Thalberg - usually considered a bold supporter of artistic cinema - ordered his editing department to prepare a two-hour cut for theatrical release. The rest of the footage was scrapped.
The two-hour cut of "Greed" has been acclaimed a masterpiece of silent cinema since its premire, earning applause for its acting (by Gibson Gowland and ZaSu Pitts, among others) and its directing, which blend naturalism and expressionism seamlessly. Prepared by Rick Schmidlin, who also worked on the recent restoration of Orson Welles's great "Touch of Evil," the new edition supplements the existing motion-picture material with hundreds of still photos taken for publicity and documentation purposes while the epic was being shot. These flesh out the missing parts of the story well enough to make this "Greed" a flowing dramatic experience.
An effective music score and a judicious use of color tinting - integral to Stroheim's original plan - make this the closest we'll ever come to seeing what may be the greatest lost classic in cinema history.
It's ironic that movie fans will be seeing it on video, which lacks the crispness and clarity of motion-picture film. But video technologies are essential to restorations of this nature, and purism about such matters would have made this "Greed" less true to Stroheim's intentions. Movie buffs are in for a major treat.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society