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McTeague, son of degenerate parents from a California mining town, is torn between a propensity for violence and more gentle impulses. When a traveling dentist visits the town, McTeague is inspired to take up a career in dentistry and leaves his native mining town to set up practice in San Francisco. When his best friend Marcus refers his current romantic interest, Trina Sieppe, to him to have a broken tooth repaired, McTeague finds himself powerfully attracted to her and struggles against the impulse to molest her while she lies unconscious in the dental chair. He confesses his feelings to Marcus, who agrees to step aside and allow McTeague to woo Trina; eventually the two get married. After Trina wins a lottery, she is transformed into a pathological miser and resentment flares up between McTeague and Marcus. McTeague's violent tendencies seize control of him once again and he murders his wife. Marcus, determined to bring him to justice, becomes a sheriff's deputy and pursues McTeague toward a fatal confrontation under the pitiless sun of Death Valley.
The novel McTeague (1899) by Frank Norris (1870-1902) is a key work in the Naturalist movement of American literature. Drawing upon popular conceptions of the evolutionary theories of Darwin and the work of contemporary French writers such as Emile Zola, Norris creates in McTeague a man whose fate is determined by genes, environment and sheer chance, someone who tragically proves unable to control his baser instincts. Erich von Stroheim, the producer and director of Greed, first encountered Norris's novel in the early 1910s and expressed plans to make it into a film as early as 1920. The novel had been adapted previously in a five-reel version entitled Life's Whirlpool (1917), directed by Barry O'Neil and starring Fania Marinoff and Holbrook Blinn; this film no longer survives. Stroheim said of Greed (1924) (quoted by Kevin Brownlow in the book Hollywood: The Pioneers): "I was not going to compromise. I felt that after the last war, the motion picture-going public had tired of the cinematic 'chocolate eclairs' which had been stuffed down their throat. I felt they were ready for a large dose of plebian but honest 'corned beef and cabbage.' I felt they had become weary of insipid pollyanna stories, with their doll-like heroines steeped in eternal virginity, and their hairless, flat-chested sterile heroes who were as lily-white as the heroines. I had graduated from the D. W. Griffith school of film-making and intended to go the Master one better as regards film realism. I knew that everything could be done with film, the only medium which could reproduce life as it really was."
The production and eventual mutilation of Greed is one of the more complicated episodes in Hollywood history. Stroheim's first feature, Blind Husbands (1919), made a fortune for Universal, but his second film, The Devil's Passkey (1920), which no longer survives, ran afoul of the studio. His third feature, Foolish Wives (1922), with its minutely detailed reconstruction of Monte Carlo, ran up exorbitant production costs and was cut at studio executive Irving Thalberg's insistence from 34 to 10 reels. His next film, Merry-Go-Round (1923), was taken out of his hands and partly shot by Rupert Julian. After this experience, Stroheim left Universal and joined with Goldwyn to make McTeague, which he later retitled Greed. The film was shot between the spring and fall of 1923, much of it on location in the Sierra Nevada mountains, San Francisco and most famously, the punishing summer heat of Death Valley. In a cruel irony reminiscent of one of Stroheim's own plots, Goldwyn's merger with Metro and Mayer brought Stroheim again under the control of Irving Thalberg after he had finished the film, placing his most cherished project to date in jeopardy.
Harry Carr, one of the lucky few who saw the first rough cut of the film, wrote, "I saw a wonderful picture the other day that no one else will ever see. It was the unslaughtered version of Greed. It was a magnificent piece of work, but it was forty-two reels long. We went into the projecting-room at 10:30 in the morning; we staggered out at 8:00 that night. I can't imagine what they are going to do with it. It is like Les Miserables. Episodes come along that you think have no bearing on the story, then twelve or fourteen reels later, it hits you with a crash. For stark, terrible realism and marvelous artistry, it is the greatest picture I have seen. But I don't know what it will be like when it shrinks from forty-two to eight reels." The film went through various cuts, from somewhere between twenty-two to twenty-eight reels down to a version prepared by Stroheim's friend Rex Ingram and Ingram's editor Grant Whytock that ran between fifteen and eighteen reels and was designed to be shown in two parts. However, the studio intervened, cutting the film down to the ten-reel version in which the film survives to the present day. The excised footage was allegedly destroyed by the studio. As critic Jonathan Rosenbaum rightly points out in his recent book on Greed (part of the BFI FilmClassics series), it is difficult to determine what Stroheim considered to be the definitive version of the film at the time, although much later he referred to the forty-two reel version. At the same time, even in its mutilated form the surviving ten-reel version plays remarkably well today; many still consider it among the greatest of all silent films.
Rick Schmidlin, who oversaw the acclaimed reconstruction of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958), carefully following Welles' own detailed memo to studio executives, undertook an entirely different kind of project here; since none of the excised footage has survived, he used more than 650 stills and the continuity script to fill in the gaps in the narrative. Entire subplots, such as the relationship between the junkman Zerkow and the gypsy Maria, have been restored in the four-hour version. Through optical pans, cutting and iris effects, Schmidlin gives the still images a more film-like presentation and tries to suggest how the scenes might have been constructed in the longer versions. Early prints of the film used the Handschlegel process, a stencil coloring system, to give a yellow tint to gold objects, most notably the giant gold tooth; Schmidlin reproduces the original effect in this version. While Schmidlin's project does not pretend to create anything like a definitive version, it gives us a fuller sense of the subtleties and complex parallels of Stroheim's grand vision. At the time of the reconstruction's premiere on TCM in 1999, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote: "If you have any interest in Greed, you can't afford to miss this version."
Producer and Director: Erich von Stroheim.
Screenplay: Erich von Stroheim and June Mathis (titles), based on the novel McTeague by Frank Norris.
Cinematography: William Daniels, Ben Reynolds, Ernest B. Schoedsack.
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons.
Editor: Joseph Farnham (credited).
Reconstruction: Rick Schmidlin.
Music: Robert Israel.
Cast: Gibson Gowland (McTeague), ZaSu Pitts (Trina), Jean Hersholt (Marcus Schouler), Chester Conklin (Mr. Sieppe), Sylvia Ashton (Mrs. Sieppe), Dale Fuller (Maria), Joan Standing (Selina), Austin Jewel (August Sieppe), Oscar and Otto Gottell (the Sieppe Twins), Frank Hayes (Old Grannis), Fanny Midgley (Miss Baker), Hughie Mack (Mr. Heise), Jack Curtis (McTeague's father), Tempe Pigott (McTeague's mother).
C & BW-240m.
by James Steffen