Movies That Kick My Ass
No. 16: Greed
One of the saddest legacies of the era of early motion pictures is the staggering number of films that have been lost due to careless storage practices, fragile nitrate film stock, and intentional destruction by studios. It’s estimated that as few as ten percent of all the films produced during the silent era survive today. Most of these films and the people who made them would be unfamiliar to modern audiences, but take a look through a list of lost films and you will see the names of silent legends like D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, Lillian Gish, F.W. Murnau, and Lon Chaney. You’ll also see early films by great post-silent directors John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock.
But of all those lost films, the most devastating and tantalizing must be the 7+ hours cut from Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 masterwork, Greed. A zealously faithful adaptation of Frank Norris’s novel McTeague, filmed on location in San Francisco and Death Valley, the most expensive film that had yet been made (running over $500,000, at the time a staggering sum), Greed’s initial director’s cut reportedly ran close to ten hours. Between its contractually obligated debut screening in January 1924 and its wide commercial release one year later, Greed lost more than ¾ its original running time. The cut footage, enough to fill 32 reels, was eventually destroyed in order to extract the silver contained in its nitrocellulose film stock.
Under pressure from the studio, von Stroheim enlisted Rex Ingram (whom he called “the world’s greatest director”) to cut his film from over nine hours to under five. MGM head Irving Thalberg then instructed editor Joseph Farnham to cut the film even further. Farnham, who had read neither the script nor the novel from which it was adapted, hacked Greed down to its final length of 140 minutes. Supporting characters, entire subplots disappeared. When it was finally released, the final cut of Greed failed with audiences and critics. New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall called it “sordid,” and Variety wrote that “the province of the theatre is to provide amusement and entertainment, but Greed provides neither,” though it did also offer condescending praise for von Stroheim and his “little intimate touches” as director.
He went on to make a handful of films (most notably Queen Kelly, from which he was fired and which was subsequently completed without his original ending), but Greed had branded von Stroheim as an expensive, uncooperative director with poor commercial instincts. He continued to find work as an actor, playing crucial supporting roles in Grand Illusion and Sunset Boulevard, but the failure of Greed marked the end of von Stroheim as one of the silent screen’s greatest auteurs.
Though it was panned by critics, barely profitable at the box office, and disowned by von Stroheim, who vowed never to see it in its 140-minute form, the final cut of Greed was eventually recognized as one of the great works of the silent era. Writing about it for his Great Movies series, Roger Ebert calls it a “masterpiece,” and “an uncompromising exercise in naturalism”:
Indeed the film is realistic. Opening scenes were shot in the very gold mine that Norris wrote about; it was reopened for the movie. The San Francisco dentist’s office was not a set but a real second-floor office, which still exists. Von Stroheim could have shot his desert scenes outside Palm Springs, but insisted on shooting in the 120-degree heat of Death Valley itself; the camera had to be cooled with iced towels. Some of his crew mutinied and others complained. Von Stroheim slept with his pistol, and as his two actors engaged in their death struggle he screamed: “Fight! Fight! Try to hate each other as you hate me!”
I first saw Greed in 1999, when Turner Classic Movies aired a four-hour restoration that incorporated production stills of lost scenes into the final cut to reconstruct as nearly as possible the original narrative. Von Stroheim’s original script was used, and photographs were shot using motion control cameras to suggest movement within the scenes. Immediately it struck me as an outstanding piece of work. It was also easily the bleakest film I’d ever seen. It still is. Seriously, if any of you have ever watched a film more cynical about human nature than Greed, please let me know.
At the center of Greed are three characters — McTeague, his best friend Marcus, and Marcus’s cousin Trina. McTeague is a gentle but short-tempered oaf from a family of miners who becomes an unlicensed dentist after throwing a fellow miner off a bridge for abusing an injured canary. He meets Trina through Marcus, who loves her and wants to marry her — for they are simple immigrant folk, y’see. Trina breaks a tooth and Marcus convinces McTeague to repair it for her. While Trina is gassed in his dentist’s chair, McTeague kisses her. Marcus steps aside, seeing how taken McTeague is with her, and all is well with the three of them — until Trina wins $5,000 in an underground lottery.
The money changes Trina. She and McTeague are married, but she refuses to spend any of her windfall, insisting they live solely on McTeague’s earnings. Jealous Marcus reports McTeague to the state dental board for practicing without a license, and even after he is forced to close his practice, Trina declines to share any of her money with McTeague. Eventually she comes to distrust even the bank, and has her fortune changed into gold coins which she keeps in her bed. Finally, a frustrated McTeague demands a share of the money. Trina refuses, and McTeague kills her. He gathers up her gold and flees into the desert. Marcus learns of Trina’s murder and follows, catching up with McTeague as he crosses Death Valley. They fight. Marcus dies, but not before handcuffing himself to McTeague. Out of water, handcuffed to a corpse, his stolen gold utterly useless, McTeague is doomed.
That would be depressing enough, but von Stroheim (adapting Norris) takes things one further. Birds are a dominant recurring visual in the film. McTeague is first seen nursing an injured canary. When he and Trina marry, they buy a pair of lovebirds which they keep in a cage and take with them when they are forced to move following the end of McTeague’s dental practice. After murdering Trina, McTeague takes one of the lovebirds along on his flight into the desert. After killing Marcus, McTeague takes the bird in his hands and, attempting a noble final gesture, releases it. The bird flutters its wings, falls like a rock to the desert floor, and dies.
And that’s the end of the movie. Jesus, no wonder people didn’t see what was so goddamn terrific about it at first — it opened in the middle of the Roaring ‘20s! I can just see von Stroheim watching newsreels of flappers dancing the Charleston on top of flag poles, grinning maliciously and saying to himself, “I’ve got just the story for these assholes.”
But that bleakness, that uncompromising pessimism is what makes Greed so great. It’s depressing as hell, sure. It’s also unforgettable.
Incidentally, Erich von Stroheim wasn’t the first filmmaker to tackle this story. The incredibly prolific director Barry O’Neil adapted Frank Norris’s novel in 1916. Like most of Greed, O’Neil’s McTeague is now lost.