Erich von Stroheim's Greed
Page 2

Regardless of the story's veracity, what is true is that as early as 1920 von Stroheim had expressed his desire to adapt McTeague for the screen. His intention was to put the novel onto film, page by page, comma for comma, omitting no detail, and entirely on location.

  "I had graduated from the D.W. Griffith school of film making and intended to go the Master one better as regards film realism. In real cities, not corners of them designed by Cedric Gibbons or Richard Days, but in real tree-bordered boulevards, with real street-cars, buses and automobiles, through real winding alleys, with real dirt and foulness, in the gutters as well as in real castles and palaces. I was going to people my scenes with real men, women and children, as we meet them every day in real life, in bad as well as in good taste, clean and dirty, faultless and ragged, but without exaggeration, without modification, and without the then currently popular concession to the conventions of stage and screen. I was going to film stories which would be believable, life-like, even if I had to make them realistic to the Nth degree. I intended to show men and women as they are all over the world, none of them perfect, with their good and bad qualities, their noble and idealistic sides and their jealous, vicious, mean and greedy sides. I was not going to compromise. I felt that after the last war, the motion picture going public had tired of the cinematographic 'chocolate eclairs' which had been stuffed down their throats, and which had in a large degree figuratively ruined their stomachs with this overdose of saccharose in pictures. Now, I felt, they were ready for a large bowl of plebeian but honest 'corned beef and cabbage.' I felt that they had become weary of insipid Pollyanna stories with their peroxide-blonde, doll-like heroines, steeped in eternal virginity, and their hairless flat-chested sterile heroes, who were as lily-white as the heroines. I thought they could no longer bear to see the stock villains, dyed-in-the-wool, 100 per cent black, armed with moustache, mortgage and riding crop.

I believed audiences were ready to witness real drama and real tragedy, as it happens every day in every land; real love and real hatred of real men and women who were proud of their passions. I felt that the time was ripe to present screen stories about men and women who defied with written and unwritten codes, and who the consequence of their defiance gallantly, like many people do in real life. People who defied prejudice and jealousies, conventions and the social mores of a hypocritical society, who fought for their passions, conquered them or were conquered by them.

I knew that everything could be done with film, the only medium with which one could reproduce life as it actually was. I knew also that an entertainment that mirrored life would be more entertainment than one which distorted it. The sky was the limit! Whatever man could dream of, I could and would reproduce it in my films. I was going to metamorphose the 'movies' into an art -- a composite of all arts. Fight for it! and die for it, if need be!... Well, fight I did... And die... I almost did, too!

Erich von Stroheim, "Greed," 'Dreams of Realism...," extract from an unpublished article

"At liberty" after his disastrous attempt to film Merry-Go-Round with the same careful attention to detail, von Stroheim managed to attract the interest of the Goldwyn Company, at that time vying for major studio status and artistic legitimacy. Despite his reputation for being "difficult," as his first three films Blind Husbands, The Devil's Passkey, and Foolish Wives were critical and commercial successes for Universal, he was able to sign with Goldwyn and begin production on GREED.

  "Frankly, I used to consider Erich von Stroheim a foreign upstart, who when he had pleaded with Carl Laemmle for an opportunity and was given it, rewarded his benefactor with ingratitude. I resented his FOOLISH WIVES, and still do. I resented his insistence on giving us his continental viewpoint of the sex relationships. I resented the stark brutality of his screen treatments. I thought he was trying to glorify himself at the expense of the producers who entrusted him with their money. I considered him a poseur of the first water, a forty-five calibre egotist. But I have changed my opinion of the man. I must give the von Stroheim his due.

Now I see that through it all the man has been fighting the whole motion picture business in an effort to express himself. His severest critic, and I have been called that, could never accuse him of any ambition to make himself solid with the producers as a good "commercial director." He wanted to make pictures for the sake of making them -- "art for art's sake" in the finest sense of the word.

...I have not had the opportunity to see his GREED, make from Frank Norris' great novel, McTeague...but those who have seen it proclaim it a masterpiece. Rex Ingram, in whose judgment I place confidence, tells me it is the greatest translation of life to the screen ever produced.

... von Stroheim will probably shock us again with the brutality of his picturizations. He will probably attempt to show us in detail the throat-cutting episode in which the money-mad Polish junkman kills his demented wife. I will not see it anticipating a delightful evening's entertainment. I will go prepared..."

"My Estimation of Erich von Stroheim," James R. Quirk, Photoplay Magazine, January 1925, pg. 27

GREED was unlike anything ever seen before, with its raw, stark portrayal of the lives of people corrupted and consumed by avarice. Despite its poor showing, critics of the time were quick to praise the artistry of von Stroheim and his sure hand with his actors. Gibson Gowland, in the title role, was acknowledged to have turned in one of the finest performances of his career. ZaSu Pitts, as Trina Sieppe, had long spent her career as a comedienne, but given the opportunity was astonishing in the role of the miserly wife. And Jean Hersholt was generally (if not universally) praised for his portrayal of Marcus Schouler, the false friend of the McTeagues'.

  "It is undeniably a dramatic story, filled with the spirit of its film title, without a hero or a heroine. The three principals, however, deliver splendid performances in their respective roles. Gibson Gowland is unusually fine as McTeague; but from beginning to end this affair is sordid, and deals only with the excrescences of life such as would flabbergast even those dwelling in lodging houses on the waterfront.

Mr. Gowland slides into the character and stays with it... Mr. Gowland is clever in his exhibition of temper and wonderfully effective in the desert scenes with his sweaty arms and bleary eyes.

Marcus Schouler is impersonated by Jean Hersholt, an efficient screen actor, but in this film he is occasionally overdressed for such a part... ZaSu Pitts portrays the role of Trina, into which she throws herself with vehemence. She is natural as the woman counting her golden hoard, and makes the character live when she robs her husband of trifling amounts. The other members of the cast are capable."

"The Screen: Frank Norris' McTeague," Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times, December 5, 1924, pg. 28

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