#471) Greed (1924)

#471) Greed (1924)

OR “McTeague Fatigue”

Directed by Erich von Stroheim

Written by June Mathis Erich von Stroheim. Based on the novel “McTeague” by Frank Norris.

Class of 1991 

NOTE: “Greed” exists today in two versions: the original studio cut of around two hours, and a 1999 restored four hour cut by Rick Schmidlin with Turner Classic Movies. Because I love you, this post is based on my viewing of the four hour restoration.

The Plot: San Francisco dentist John McTeague (Gibson Gowland) is infatuated with Trina Sieppe (ZaSu Pitts), the cousin/girlfriend (yeah…) of his best friend Marcus Schouler (Jean Hersholt). Upon seeing McTeague’s genuine affection for Trina, Marcus agrees to step aside for the two. Shortly after McTeague and Trina’s engagement, Trina learns she has won a lottery of $5,000. Upon hearing the news, Marcus becomes resentful of McTeague, feeling the money should be his. As their marriage disintegrates, McTeague and Trina lose trust in each other over their use of the money. Will these relationships be destroyed by…greed? That answer, in about four hours.

Why It Matters: The NFR write-up indicates that “Greed” is “notorious for both its production difficulties…and its post-production”. Oddly, there’s no mention of the influence “Greed” had on generations of filmmakers (see “Legacy”).

But Does It Really?: “Greed” has a lot going for it (von Stroheim’s powerful imagery, his innovative use of editing and deep focus), but I found the history of the film more interesting than the film itself. The two available cuts offer an interesting trade-off: the studio cut is shorter, but you lose a lot of nuance and texture. The restored cut is the better movie, but is also four hours of silent film, text, and photos. “Greed” continues to hold a very prominent place in film history, but ultimately its current entertainment value is reserved for film buffs putting together cinema’s most intriguing puzzle.

Wow, That’s Dated: The $5000 Trina wins would be about $75,000 today!

Wow, That’s Oddly Anachronistic: Von Stroheim went out of his way to ensure that his film of the 1899 novel was a faithful recreation of the era…even though the film’s timeline was bumped up to present day (1923).

Other notes 

  • Already notorious for going over-budget and defying studio heads (see “Foolish Wives“), Erich von Stroheim was unceremoniously fired from Universal in October 1922. Less than a month later, von Stroheim signed with Goldwyn Pictures, who favored artistic freedom over commercialism, and thought they could reign in von Stroheim’s excessive spending. “Greed” was given a budget of $175,000, and ultimately cost almost $600,000, still down from the $1,000,000 von Stroheim spent on “Foolish Wives”.
  • Von Stroheim’s major cost cutting effort: filming entirely on location, without having to build sets in-studio.
  • Shoutout to still photographer Warren Lynch. His extensive documentation of “Greed” and its production is what makes any restoration possible and palatable.
  • The one upside to editing in the silent era: any continuity issues can be covered with re-written intertitles.
  • All the major cast members were part of von Stroheim’s unofficial repertory company. Gilbert Gowland did mostly bit and supporting parts until von Stroheim cast him in “Blind Husbands”. Eliza Susan “ZaSu” Pitts was an ingenue who would get a second career during the sound era as a comic character actor. Jean Hersholt’s acting career has been mostly eclipsed by his humanitarian efforts, primarily for his work with the Motion Picture Relief Fund. After his passing, the Oscars named their Humanitarian Award in his honor.
  • A majority of the film’s deletions center around two subplots meant to serve as counterpoints to McTeague and Trina’s relationship: The tumultuous marriage between custodian Maria and junk dealer Zerkow, and elderly neighbors Mr. Granis & Mrs. Baker, who are smitten with each other, despite having never met. Ultimately, anything not directly pertaining to the main plot was cut, with these four characters relegated to background extras.
  • Yeah, this relationship is doomed from the start. McTeague kisses Trina while she’s under anesthetics, and he pretty much throws himself at her after that despite her obvious objections. No means no, McTeague!
  • “Greed” adheres to the silent film immigrant rule: All broken English must be spelled out phonetically. “Doktor…pe goot to her! Pe vairy goot to her…von’t you?”
  • A funeral procession happening at the same time as a wedding? I don’t like where this symbolism is going. This is immediately followed by the reception feast, in which everyone gorges on dead animals with their skulls still intact! Truly the most distressing wedding banquet this side of “Freaks“.
  • The deleted Maria/Zerkow plotline is definitely the darkest: spousal abuse, an infant death, a murder-suicide. I agree with editor Grant Whytock, who called the plot “very distasteful”.
  • The film intercuts Marcus’ final visit to the McTeagues with a cat ready to pounce on two lovebirds. Get it?
  • Once the greed of the title takes over, suddenly the film becomes “Treasure of the Sierra Madre“, but much longer and with women in it.
  • Whoa, I just saw ZaSu Pitts show a little skin. It’s pre-code, anything goes!
  • The finale in Death Valley is quite amazing, I found myself on the edge of my seat. It is almost worth the four hour runtime to get there. Almost.
  • I get it: this film’s extensive length helps us feel as worn down by the character’s greed as they are. You can still get there in two hours, but it doesn’t pack the same punch. That being said; To anyone who complained about “The Irishman” being too long: watch “Greed” and then tell me where you stand.

Legacy 

  • The first rough cut of “Greed” was screened in January 1924 and ran approximately 8-9 hours! After two months of pruning, von Stroheim turned in a five hour cut to Goldwyn Pictures with the hope it could be released in two parts. The studio rejected this offer, and von Stroheim-approved editor Grant Whytock got the film down to under four hours. It was around this time that Goldwyn officially merged with Metro Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Productions to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). “Greed” fell under the supervision of Irving Thalberg, who had fired von Stroheim from Universal two years earlier, which did not bode well for this movie. The film was taken over by executive June Mathis, and she and editor Joseph W. Farnham pared it down to under two hours. This was the cut that ultimately made it to theaters.
  • Critics were divided on “Greed”; Exceptional Photoplays called it “a terrible and wonderful thing”. Mixed with MGM’s poor job advertising the picture, “Greed” made less than half of its budget back at the box office.
  • Von Stroheim resented the final cut of “Greed”, and his relationship with MGM continued to sour. While his next film for MGM, “The Merry Widow”, was commercially successful, von Stroheim’s frequent outbursts with cast, crew, and studio heads effectively ended his Hollywood directing career.
  • In 1952, “Greed” started getting reappraised when both the Festival Mondial du Film and Sight and Sound ranked it among the best films ever made (these two lists are generally considered the first “Greatest Movies” lists). Filmmakers who have cited “Greed” as an influence include Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Renoir, Ernst Lubitsch, Orson Welles, and Billy Wilder.
  • Following Erich von Stroheim’s death in 1957, his partner Denise Vernac approved the publishing of his uncut screenplay for “Greed”, which spurred attempts to locate and restore the missing footage. Although over 600 still photos of the deleted scenes have resurfaced over the years, the original footage was destroyed by MGM to recycle the film’s silver nitrate.
  • Turner Classic Movies released a reconstructed version of “Greed” in 1999, using von Stroheim’s script and hundreds of still photos to reinstate all the deleted subplots. While no new footage was located, this is still the most complete version of “Greed” we will most likely ever have.

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