Last night my California Literature class discussed the first half of Frank Norris's McTeague and watched some clips from Erich Von Stroheim's 1924 silent film adaptation, Greed. We giggled at the silent-film conventions that seem so dated today--ZaSu Pitts's attempt to express the inner longings of her soul through her darkly shadowed eyes, Gibson Gowland's gobbling down chicken like a shark chomping a swimmer's leg, Cesare Gravina as Zerkow the junkman going into multiple orgasms over Maria Macapa's hysterical legend of lost gold, a legend portrayed in the film by disembodied golden hands caressing piles of brilliant gold plates.
In the novel, references to gold begin subtly but grow in frequency and intensity, starting with the the description on the opening page of McTeague's yellow canary in its gilded cage; von Stroheim highlighted these references to gold by selectively tinting certain frames (the canary, a gold nugget, McTeague's immense gleaming gold tooth), but by the end of the film, the gold tone overwhelms everything. Characters who begin with a vague longing for something more move toward a lust for gold and end chained to gold, trapped by gold, engorged with gold.
One scene in the film made me think of The Great Gatsby: McTeague and a salesman are bargaining over the giant gold tooth McTeague wants to hang outside his window to advertise his "Dental Parlors," and while the tooth takes center stage in the scene, the two men stand in front of an advertisement showing a huge pair of eyeglasses with eyes looking straight at McTeague and the viewer, very much like the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg in Gatsby. Could Fitzgerald have seen Greed? Both works feature characters attempting to buy their way to a better life and descriptions of vast damp flats covered with heaps of dust and trash, and the scene in which McTeague caresses Trina's clothes resembles Daisy's caressing Gatsby's beautiful beautiful shirts. Perhaps someone has done a study on this, or maybe I can persuade one of my students to pursue this as a project.
We stopped our discussion at McTeague and Trina's wedding and I asked students to predict how the novel would end. "Happily ever after" was not a popular choice. Next week we'll see where all those multiple goldgasms take the characters and take a look at the closing scenes of the film that are drenched with gold, exploding with gold, dissolving in an all-consuming solution of gold. Of all the gold-obsessed characters in the novel, which will end up in the gilded cage?