Silents are Golden: A Closer Look at – Greed (1924)
With its deeply, grittily realistic story and grand, almost operatic themes, Frank Norris’s 1899 novel McTeague is one of the great American books of the late 19th century. While many critics disliked it at the time for being overly “vulgar,” “depressing” or even “hideous,” its powerful story would leave an impact on generations of readers.
One such reader was film director Erich von Stroheim. Born in Austria to a lower-class family, he came to America insisting he was descended from Prussian noblemen and stuck to the story like glue. He would specialize in playing villainous “Huns” onscreen during the propaganda-soaked era of World War I and by the late 1910s had started directing. Obsessed with military life and uniforms, he was said to sometimes wear a Prussian uniform even offscreen.
Von Stroheim’s films took sophisticated looks at the themes of sex and seduction – often with himself in the role of a villainous seducer – and he was always happy to push the envelope. He also pushed the envelope on his studio budgets, insisting on lavish replicas of Monte Carlo or imperial Vienna. But when he decided to adapt McTeague to the big screen, it was the idea of bringing its macabre story to life with humble, real-world locations that excited him.
The story concerns the dentist McTeague, a large, gentle, slow-witted man who runs his little business out of his apartment in San Francisco. His friend Marcus, a confident blowhard type, is engaged to Trina Sieppe, a sensitive, fluttery sort of young woman. McTeague finds himself powerfully attracted to Trina, and Marcus decides to “sacrificially” break things off with her. In time McTeague and Trina marry, and by a strange stroke of good luck, Trina discovers she won $5,000 in a lottery. This is unwelcome news to Marcus, who becomes very jealous.
Despite their sudden fortune, the McTeagues live modestly and Trina becomes more and more obsessed with hoarding her winnings. She becomes a miser and a frustrated McTeague turns to drink. Marcus has his revenge by informing the authorities that McTeague doesn’t have a dentistry license. And everything keeps going downhill from there.
Naturally, this grim plot fascinated von Stroheim. His casting decisions were arguably perfect: the husky Gibson Gowland, who had played a mountain guide in von Stroheim’s hit Blind Husbands (1919), was chosen to play McTeague. Danish actor Jean Hersholt would play the greasy Marcus Schouler. Fragile-looking ZaSu Pitts, who was known for comedy roles, would be an ideal Trina. And various other comedians were chosen for other roles, such as Dale Fuller, Chester Conklin, and Frank Hayes. Von Stroheim had reasoned – correctly – that their comic skills would help them excel at more dramatic roles.
He wanted to set his film in the same Polk Street neighborhood Norris described but found it had been largely destroyed by the 1906 earthquake. But he searched diligently until he found the perfect building with a large bay window to serve as McTeague’s dental parlor, situated at the corner of Hayes and Laguna. The waterfront and Shell Mount park, the setting of some memorable scenes, were happily unchanged and other buildings around Hayes and Laguna were perfect for the stores, the saloon, and the junk shop described in the novel.
Von Stroheim threw himself, heart and soul, into filming Greed (he thought the title a better fit for the story’s operatic themes) and was obsessed with capturing the novel as perfectly and realistically as possible. He could even recite passages from McTeague from memory. His enthusiasm swept up his cast and also bystanders who came to watch the filming – writer Eleanor Ross wrote an essay describing what it was like in the Hayes and Laguna building:
“It was odd how these people spoke of all the characters in McTeague as if they really lived and breathed. In fact, owing perhaps to von Stroheim’s realism, they do live and breathe. ‘Knock again,’ someone was shouting. ‘Again! Again!’ The door opens; Marcus appears; they talk for a while; the door closes. Yet it must be shot again. ‘Von Stroheim shot a scene twenty-six times once,’ I was informed, ‘because it didn’t suit him.’”
Sometimes the realism was extended even beyond the sets. In a scene where Trina discovers a character has been murdered, Pitts went into the street and hysterically informed innocent passers-by what had “happened” while the cameras secretly rolled, causing several people to call the police for real. In a scene where McTeague and Marcus wrestle, von Stroheim encouraged Hershoult to bite Gowland’s ear so hard that it bled, much to Gowland’s anger. Gowland did manage to successfully object to having a knife thrown at him in a key scene, even though the thrower was a skilled professional.
But most realistic of all were the Death Valley scenes, taken in – yes – Death Valley itself when the temp was soaring above 120 degrees. The grueling shoot, where members of the crew often suffered heat exhaustion and heatstroke, was so miserable that von Stroheim reportedly kept a pistol on him 24/7. Gowland and Hersholt had to actually crawl and fight on the blinding salt flats, clearly sweat-soaked and miserable onscreen. Von Stroheim reportedly screamed at them to “Fight! Fight! Try to hate each other as you hate me!” When shooting finally ended, it took Hersholt several weeks to recover his health.
The result of the memorable production was an astonishing 42 reels of film, which was about nine hours long. It was apparently shown once at MGM studios to friends and reporters on January 12, 1924. Critic Idwal Jones described von Stroheim as “sitting motionless in a straight chair, cane in hand and staring straight ahead as if boring through the screen… Every episode is developed to the full, every comma of the book put in, as it were.” Von Stroheim then cut this mega picture down to about 4 1/2 hours. Apparently, von Stroheim originally hoped would be shown over two consecutive evenings or one lengthy sitting, but studio executives disagreed and his precious film was chopped shorter and shorter until it ran about 10 reels.
While Greed did well, its reputation grew throughout the following decades and today it’s considered one of the finest silents ever made. Fans frequently mourn the loss of the 42-reel version, which was almost certainly destroyed. Happily today the 4 ½ version has been reconstructed with surviving stills added into the film, allowing us to get at least a strong idea of von Stroheim’s obsessive, manically-authentic vision.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.