Greed (1924)

BFI Southbank, London

2 July 2017


If director Erich von Stroheim had got his way back in 1924, we’d be sitting down this afternoon at the BFI Southbank to watch his 42 reel version of Greed, lasting around nine hours.  Despite the reputation for extravagance which von Stroheim earned at Carl Laemmle’s Universal Studios with films such as Blind Husbands (1919) and Foolish Wives (1922), and for which he was eventually sacked by Universal’s production manager Irving Thalberg mid-way through shooting his next film Merry-Go-Round (1923), von Stroheim was not out of work for long. Within a month, he had negotiated a three film deal with down on its luck Goldwyn Pictures, who were at that time looking to hire big name talent behind the camera and give them considerable artistic freedom in an effort to reverse the studio’s fortunes.  For von Stroheim, the prospect of no studio interference must have seemed a dream come true.  His first project for Goldwyn was to be his long cherished desire to film an adaption of the Frank Norris novel McTeague, a classic of American naturalist writing, in which the role of family background, social conditions and environment are instrumental in shaping human character.

Considering himself free from studio intervention, von Stroheim set off to shoot his film.  In an effort to match Norris’ literary naturalism with its emphasis on environment and social situation von Stroheim sought to use cinematic realism in order to accurately capture the material world in which the characters found themselves. To this end he choose to shoot the film entirely on location.  The opening scenes were filmed in the actual Big Dipper gold mine in Northern California that Norris wrote about in his novel, it apparently being reopened just for the picture.  The body of the film was shot in the streets and rooming houses of San Francisco with passers-by often unaware that a film was being filmed. McTeague’s dentist surgery was an apartment hired by von Stroheim and where he reputedly forced the main players to live in order to get them into character.  Many of the scenes shot there were filmed with just natural light and with an actual street panorama unfolding outside the window.  The finale was filmed in the blistering heat of Death Valley, so hot that the cameras apparently had to be wrapped in iced towels.   Shooting took more than nine months, with von Stroheim doggedly faithful to Norris’ text, shooting every page, word for word (even adding in some significant extra scenes) and cost over half a million dollars, three times the original budget.

Von Stroheim was equally demanding of realism from his cast. In the scene where Schouler throws a knife which narrowly misses McTeague, von Stroheim wanted to use a real knife thrower but was eventually over-ruled by actor Gibson Gowland who not surprisingly regarded it as being just a little  too dangerous.  For the Death Valley finale, cast and crew suffered sunstroke and heat exhaustion under the 120 degree heat of Death Valley as the director shot and re-shot scenes for two months. Anger towards von Stroheim was such that he reportedly slept with a pistol under his pillow and in the final deadly fight between McTeague and Schouler he egged them on by shouting “Fight! Fight! Try to hate each other as you hate me!”  When the scene was completed, actor Jean Hersholt was taken straight to hospital where he took several weeks to recover.  

But with shooting over, von Stroheim’s problems were only just beginning! After personally editing the film, he presented Goldwyn with his 42 reel, nine hour version. Perhaps not surprisingly Goldwyn was unimpressed and demanded that it be cut down to a commercially viable duration. Working with friend and fellow director Rex Ingram, von Stroheim eventually cut the film down to a four hour version designed to be screened in two parts.  This, he declared, was the absolute minimum to which the film could be cut without destroying its coherence  But in the meantime, Goldwyn Pictures had amalgamated with Metro Pictures and Mayer Studios to become MGM with Louis B Mayer taking charge.  Mayer brought von Stroheim’s old nemesis Irving Thalberg in as his deputy who in turn took charge of von Stroheim’s picture and ordered that it be further re-edited by MGM title writer Joseph Farnham and, according to some sources, June Mathis, Goldwyn’s story editor, which further inflamed von Stroheim who claimed that neither had read either the original novel or the shooting script.  The end result was a 140 minute edit that von Stroheim claimed “was cut by a hack with nothing on his mind but his hat.” and he would forever disassociate himself from this final version.       

The plot of Greed follows the fortunes of John McTeague (Gibson Gowlan), a simple-minded and brutish labourer first seen working in a gold mine.  With the arrival of a travelling dentist McTeague’s mother sees a way of getting her son out of the mine by persuading the dentist to teach him his trade. Years later, McTeague is established as a dentist in San Francisco when his friend Schouler (Jean Hersholt) brings in his fiancé Trina (ZaSu Pitts) for some treatment. McTeague is immediately attracted to Trina and later, while she is under anesthetic gas, he is unable to resist kissing her. When McTeague reveals his feelings for Trina to Marcus, he renounces his romantic claim on her and she and McTeague are married. However, when Trina has a large lottery win Schouler is aggrieved that he has lost both his fiancé and his share of the lottery winnings. But the lottery win changes Trina’s personality.  Not only does she refuse to spend any of the winnings but she becomes greedy and miserly, stealing money from McTeague to add to her hoard.  

The increasingly bitter Schouler decides to leave town but first reports McTeague to the authorities for practising dentistry without a license.  Unable to work, McTeague becomes depressed at his failure to find other employment and he turns to drink while Trina’s growing miserliness results in him becoming increasingly abusive towards her. Eventually he leaves and she takes a job as a cleaner.  Later, when he returns and begs her for money she tells him she’d rather see him dead.  In a rage he kills her and takes all of the money.

With the police hunting McTeague, Schouler sees a wanted poster for him and joins a posse hunting McTeague down.  When McTeague enters Death Valley, the posse decides it is too dangerous to follow but Schouler, with his eye on the lottery winnings, presses on.  With their water almost gone Schouler eventually catches up with McTeague.  In a brutal fight McTeague overpowers and kills Schouler, but not before the latter has managed to handcuff the two men together, apparently condemning McTeague to a slow death under the blazing sun.        

Greed is a film which has divided audiences ever since its first screening. On seeing von Stroheim’s original 42 reel edit, noted Los Angeles Times critic Harry Carr regarded it as the greatest film he had ever seen. In contrast, on seeing the final two hour version that was eventually released, the trade paper Harrison’s Report said that “[i]f a contest were to be held to determine which has been the filthiest, vilest, most putrid picture in the history of the motion picture business, I am sure that Greed would win.” Although not a significant popular hit, sources differ over the extent of its commercial success with some (perhaps reflecting MGM’s side of the dispute with von Stroheim) claiming it was a major loss maker although most others say it actually turned a small profit.

But whatever the critical or popular reaction at the time of its original release, the film’s stature has grown over the years to the extent that it now features regularly within lists of the most popular silent films and is firmly embedded in the Sight & Sound Critic’s Poll of the hundred greatest films of all time. And there are certainly aspects of the film which justify the high regard in which it is now held. Stroheim’s insistence on location shooting now seems a master-stroke, imbuing the film with a remarkable realism and, according to the BFI’s Bryony Dixon, being almost unique amongst films of this era in giving “such a sense of what life was really like for the ordinary people of America”. This sense of realism is helped by the stunning photography, with its huge depth of focus, capturing every detail. The scene in which McTeague and Trina are married while outside the window a funeral passes by is hugely impressive both visually and as a harbinger of the couple’s doomed future.  The film also retains a raw dramatic power, for example in the shock of McTeague’s violent attack on Trina or in the tremendously open-ended finale as, having emerged victorious over Schouler, McTeague suddenly finds himself handcuffed to a dead man in the searing desert heat and with no water.  

But counting against the film is its relentlessly doom laden scenario which follows McTeague and Trina from marital joy through to destitution, domestic strife, abuse and murder before that depressingly downbeat finale.  With Greed, von Stroheim presented a view of human nature that was cruel, self-centred and cynical. This was the complete antithesis to the largely upbeat, escapist fare being produced by other Hollywood studios at the time, in a year in which the top grossing US films were The Sea Hawk (Dir. Frank Lloyd), The Thief of Baghdad (Dir. Raoul Walsh) and Girl Shy (Dir. Fred C Newmeyer/Sam Taylor). So its perhaps not surprising that the studio was so shocked when viewing what von Stroheim had presented them with.   

Coupled with the film’s downbeat scenario is the almost total absence of sympathy that one can feel towards any of the three main characters. Once the prospect of money is dangled in front of them, all three are consumed by the greed of the film’s title.  McTeague is a dim-witted bully whose desire for Trina veers rapidly into the realms of creepy as he kisses her while she is unconscious in his dentist’s chair and who later tortures her by sadistically biting her fingers to force her to reveal the whereabouts of the money. For her part, once Trina has come into money she rapidly transforms into a miserly shrew, refusing McTeague even five cents for a bus ride to escape the rain.  As for Schouler, he allows bitterness at loosing out on Trina’s money to gnaw away at him until he wilfully destroys McTeague’s business and then sets out to track him down across the desert, eventually at the cost of his own life.  But von Stroheim’s analysis of greed isn’t focused solely on these three individuals. In the rather grotesque scene of the marriage feast, as all of the assembled guests gorge themselves animal-like on the food laid out before them, did he instead seek to imply that greed was universal, a natural human condition in the society in which his characters inhabited.  

Although there my be little sympathy for the characters they portray, it is hard to fault the cast of Greed.  Gibson Gowland effectively captures the lumbering menace of McTeague, his inability to comprehend the change taking place in his wife’s character but at the same time demonstrating an occasional glimmer of humanity, for example in saving the small bird at the film’s beginning. English born Gowland led something of an adventurous life as a ship’s mate, big game hunter and diamond prospector before taking up acting.  He had bit parts in several early D W Griffith features including Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) and a minor role in von Stroheim’s Blind Husbands (1919) but Greed was to be his only starring role.  He gradually reverted to playing bit parts until his eventual retirement in he mid 1940s when he returned to Britain.  ZaSu Pitts’ casting as Trina in Greed caused considerable surprise at the time as she had previously made her name as a comedienne but von Stroheim clearly saw dramatic potential and she repaid him by putting in a searing performance as the grasping wife.  Although Pitts appeared in a couple more von Stroheim dramas she gradually returned to light comedy, often appearing in spinster-type roles, in films, radio and theatre until her death in 1963.   Danish born Jean Hersholt excelled as the flashy but conniving Schouler, nicely capturing his darkening relationship with McTeague. Making his first US film appearance in 1916, Hersholt had a prestigious film career until his death in 1956. In 1939 he helped found the Motion Picture Relief Fund to support industry employees with medical care and in return this led to the creation of the Humanitarian Award for an individual’s outstanding contributions to humanitarian causes.  

As for Greed’s director, Austrian born Erich Oswald Stroheim moved to America in 1909, re-naming himself Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria von Stroheim and creating an entirely false persona with a highly decorated military past and an aristocratic background (he had only previously worked in his father’s hat factory!). Finding work initially with D W Griffith as a bit part player, he also gained some experience as an assistant director. With America’s entry into World War 1 von Stroheim became a master at portraying the sadistic German officer in films such as The Heart of Humanity (Dir. Allen Holubar, 1918) in the process of which he became renowned as ‘the man you love to hate’.  His first film as director was Blind Husbands (1919), made after he convinced Carl Laemmle he could bring the film in for $5000.  It eventually cost twenty times that amount but was a huge hit. After two more films at Universal he was sacked by Thalberg, only to run into the same producer once again at MGM and so loose directorial control of Greed.

Yet despite the animosity between Thalberg and von Stroheim over the latter’s directorial extravagance and refusal to compromise his art for commercial ends he almost immediately got a chance to direct yet another picture for MGM, The Merry Widow (1925). In contrast to Greed, this was pretty much a crowd pleasing romantic blockbuster, but Thalberg probably had to work hard to keep von Stroheim in check!  According to legend, while the two were watching the daily rushes there was a protracted scene with the lecherous Baron Sadoja (Tully Marshall) watching the feet of dancer Sally O’Hara (Mae Murray).  Von Stroheim casually explained to Thalberg that Sadoja had a foot fetish to which Thalberg replied ‘and you, von, have a footage fetish’ (and perhaps not surprisingly the foot fetish scene never made it into the final version).  The film’s success led von Stroheim to another film for MGM, The Wedding March (1928) but once again his extravagance was allowed to run out of control (in one instance he apparently had Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph’s actual coronation coach shipped to America to appear in a scene lasting just seconds) and he was removed from the film when the original budget of $300,000 reached $1,250,000.

There then followed the disaster of Queen Kelly (1929) starring Gloria Swanson and produced by Joseph P Kennedy, her lover at the time.  They fought constantly with von Stoheim over the film’s cost and artistic direction until von Stroheim was sacked once again and the partially shot film re-edited for eventual release.  After that, von Stroheim’s directorial career was all but over.  But he would continue to attract praise for his continuing acting roles in films such as La Grande Illusion (Dir. Jean Renoir, Fr, 1937) and Sunset Boulevard (Dir. Billy Wilder, US, 1950).

Perhaps the best summation of von Stroheim’s career comes from film historian David Robinson when he said “One of the greatest directors in the history of cinema, Stroheim was fated, largely by his own inability to compromise his art for commercial ends, to achieve only a very small output, and to see five of the nine films he made as director ‘improved’ by other hands.”  In the specific case of Greed, what survives of von Stroheim’s original film does indeed show signs of greatness but given its resoundingly down-beat plot and wholly unsympathetic characters it is a difficult film to watch, even at two hours in length.  I’m not sure I could withstand the rigours of depression long enough to watch his original nine hour edit.

The live piano accompaniment for this afternoon’s screening was by John Sweeney which. given the relentlessly grim course of the film, must have been a challenge.  But he succeeded in raising the mood in the film’s few lighter moments and contributed superbly to the powerful and dramatic finale.

NB  The only DVD option for Greed at present appears to be a Spanish import (although Amazon is also offering a second-hand VHS version).  A four hour revised version compiled by film restorer Rick Schmidlin using von Stroheim’s original 330 page shooting script and incorporating still photos and additional inter-titles to replace the lost film has been shown on TCM with a promise of a DVD release but I can find no trace of this coming about.