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Sunday, December 5, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restored `Greed' Comes To Turner Classic Movies

Seattle Times Movie Reviewer

------------------------------- Movie review

XXXX "Greed," with Jean Hersholt, Zasu Pitts, Gibson Gowland, Chester Conklin. Written and directed by Erich von Stroheim, from Frank Norris' novel, "McTeague." Reconstructed by Rick Schmidlin. 250 minutes. Turner Classic Movies, 5 p.m. tonight (Sunday). -------------------------------

Battles between studios and filmmakers often end with the studio taking control and putting together the final cut. Perhaps the most famous case of such "creative differences" is Erich Von Stroheim's "Greed" (1924), which gets a 75th-anniversary four-hour restoration at 5 p.m. tonight on Turner Classic Movies.

Just lately, with the release of such indulgent, overlong-by-half movies as "Meet Joe Black" or "End of Days," you may wonder why the studios didn't do more to protect the audience. But there have been times when the studios were clearly in the wrong, and the uncut versions of certain classics have become celluloid Holy Grails.

The full-length three-hour roadshow edition of 1954's "A Star Is Born" is still rumored to exist in a private collector's vault, though only pieces of the missing scenes made it into the 1983 restoration that recently turned up on laserdisc. Hope fades that the original two-and-a-half-hour version of Orson Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons" will surface; still, other pieces of Welles movies have turned up.

In the case of "Greed," however, it's pretty clear what happened to the nine-hour-plus original. Von Stroheim pleaded to release a two-part, four-hour version of his adaptation of Frank Norris' novel, "McTeague." But MGM trimmed it to 135 minutes and threw the rest away, reportedly melting the extra footage to extract the silver from it. It is still considered an influential breakthrough in cinematic realism.

Rick Schmidlin, who restored Welles' "Touch of Evil" last year, hasn't been able to put "Greed" back together the way Von Stroheim wanted it. Instead, he's done the next best thing: filling in the holes with still photos (more than 650 of them) and digital animation techniques.

Making use of the final 1923 shooting script, Schmidlin has restored two plotlines and several subplots. The main storyline remains the same: a lottery winner (Zasu Pitts) becomes obsessed with hoarding her money, thereby shortening her own life and wrecking the lives of her husband (Gibson Gowland) and ex-fiance (Jean Hersholt).

The new version of "Greed" adds more than an hour and a half of material, including glimpses of several characters who were left on the cutting-room floor in 1924. Robert Israel composed the new score, a few awkward subtitles were replaced, and some sequences have been color-tinted, in accordance with Von Stroheim's wishes. (The director wanted to tint all the gold items in the film, including coins, brass beds, a gold tooth and a canary.)

The result, which cost $100,000 to piece together on videotape, may test the patience of the casual moviegoer. Schmidlin shies away from the term, "director's cut," and calls this "a reconstruction of Von Stroheim's lost narrative."

But similar methods were used to put "A Star Is Born" and "Lost Horizon" back together, and they found a responsive audience when they were reissued theatrically.

While Schmidlin's "Greed" restoration was screened at festivals in Telluride, Pordenone, Venice and Los Angeles this fall, it will probably play to its largest audience tonight. (Warner Home Video plans a cassette release late next year.)

Like the cut-down "Ambersons," the truncated "Greed" continues to turn up on international critics' lists of the top 10 films of all time. Somehow, both pictures have managed to survive in this abbreviated form; they still inspire audiences and filmmakers.

They may be ruins, but they're more interesting in mutilated form than 99 percent of what passes for cinema these days. Their essence remains.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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