GREED (1924) B/W & C "silent" 242m dir: Erich von Stroheim
w/Gibson Gowland, ZaSu Pitts, Jean Hersholt, Chester Conklin, Dale Fuller, Sylvia Ashton, Hughie Mack, Cesare Gravina (role removed in editing)
This controversial film is more than a masterpiece. Adaptation of Frank Norris' novel McTeague sets out to tell all the truth about a man's lust for wealth. Director von Stroheim's original version ran for nine hours, and the studio cut it to less than two! (This version contains some restored footage.) What remains is the finest piece of mad realism ever perpetrated. Von Stroheim took his actors to Death Valley so that they could really sweat out those climactic passions, and it shows. Pitts, who was so well-known for her comedy roles that contemporary audiences laughed practically every time she came on screen in the film, does fine work in a tragic role.
Be forewarned: the following material contains specific story information you may not want to know before viewing the film:
From Georges Sadoul's Dictionary of Films: "Former miner McTeague (Gowland) sets up as a dentist in San Francisco and marries Trina (Pitts), the daughter of German immigrants (Conklin, Ashton). After winning a lot of money, Trina becomes greedy, and McTeague, having lost his livelihood because of his rival, Marcus (Hersholt), becomes a drunken tramp and ends up killing his wife. He encounters Marcus again in Death Valley and kills him but remains bound to the corpse by handcuffs.
"Before making Greed, Stroheim wrote: 'It is possible to tell a great story in motion pictures in such a way that the spectator ... will come to believe that what he is looking at is real ... even as Dickens and De Maupassant and Zola and Frank Norris catch and reflect life in their novels. It is with that idea that I am producing Frank Norris' story McTeague.' The California writer (1870-1902) had, with Stephen Crane and Theodor Dreiser, established the American naturalistic school; his novel was to some extent derivative of Zola's L'Assommoir. Stroheim's original script followed the novel in every detail and he systematically shot scenes in the locations described in it. 'Life is not reconstituted, it is captured,' said the film maker. 'The only truly realistic films are those made at the scene of the action.' The final scenes were shot in Death Valley in the hottest part of the summer in 1923.
"Filming took nine months and cost about one-half million dollars. When the shooting was completed in December 1923, Stroheim invited several people to a private screening, including two Frenchmen, Valentin Mandelstam and the journalist, Jean Bertin. Jean Bertin wrote in Mon Cine (April 25, 1925): 'The film that we saw was no less than 47 reels. I repeat 47 reels. It was long but absorbing. Stroheim "talked" his film through its screening.' The first version Stroheim presented to the Goldwyn Company was 42 reels. He was asked to cut it to a reasonable length and reduced it to 24 reels. Finally, with the help of his friend Rex Ingram, he produced an 18-reel version that he wanted to release in two parts and that he said was the minimum length in which justice to the story could be done. The studio felt otherwise and turned the material over to June Mathis, the story editor at Goldwyn. She trimmed it down to 10 reels and gave it the title Greed. It was this version that was inherited by MGM (after the merger) for release. Stroheim argued with [producer Irving] Thalberg and [MGM head Louis B.] Mayer for months about the footage removed by June Mathis, 'who had read neither the book nor my script, yet was ordered to cut it' (Stroheim). But to no avail. MGM finally released the Mathis version in December 1924. In 1950, on Henri Langlois's insistence, Stroheim watched the mutilated version. He wept and said afterwards: 'This was like an exhumation for me. In a tiny coffin I found a lot of dust, a terrible smell, a little backbone, and shoulder bone.' The condensed version is the only one seen by the public, and even in this form (with continuity gaps bridged by long titles) it is a masterpiece, with at least twenty sequences that remain etched in the memories of all cinéphiles. Its theme of the dehumanizing influence of money is projected with an unforgettable realistic power.
"Principal sequences: McTeague, fixing the anesthetized Trina's decayed tooth, unable to resist the temptation to kiss her; Marcus giving Trina (then his fiancée) to McTeague in a seaside café; the German-type family on a picnic; the wedding in the apartment while a funeral passes in the street; the drinking bout after the ceremony; Trina on her wedding night able to think of nothing but the $5,000 she has won in a lottery; Marcus' denunciation, which prevents McTeague (without a diploma) from continuing his practice; the penniless McTeague grimacing at the rotten meat served by his wife and then beating her in order to get a few cents for a drink; Trina taking the gold coins from her mattress and caressing her naked body with them; McTeague's sordid murder of Trina in the house where she is a scrubwoman; the final confrontation of Marcus and McTeague in Death Valley.
"Marcel Defosse (Denis Marion) wrote after Greed's premier in France in 1926: 'Everything in the film, people and objects, has been touched by life in a profound and always different way, the alarm clock as well as the pastor, the dentist as well as his canary. The minor characters are equally brought to life often with a small but vivid detail: the servant's disheveled hair, the father-in-law's military mustache, the sister's smile. The principal characters are not merely caricatures or figures of ridicule; their complexities are almost completely portrayed by their appearance, in the way writers like Balzac tried to do. McTeague's crown of curly hair, his wife's great black hat, her habit of placing her fingers on her lips, the costumes and Marcus' flashy linen, all these things portray the morals of the characters --- complete pigheadedness, implacable greed, false bonhomie. Its portrait of the materialistic side of the human soul is the first we have seen, except perhaps in the theater. However, in my opinion the film does it better, more perfectly. And the moral decline of three people, brought on by their lust for gold, is portrayed with a bitterness and cruelty equaled only by the most pessimistic novels of some Russian authors and without their grandiloquence and didactism. The author describes without judging. He gives us a detailed picture of the innermost recesses of this cesspool of hell but it's up to us to decide what he is saying.' The acting is powerful, with the sublime ZaSu Pitts and Gibson Gowland giving performances that have rarely been matched in American films. Jean Hersholt, however, overacts a little. None of the three leads were well-known stars at the time.
"Originally yellow tinting was used throughout for gold, gold teeth, gilt frames and the canary, allowing a persistent visual reiteration of its theme."