Erich von Stroheim's Greed
Page 3

Interestingly, the rest of the cast (with the exception of Chester Conklin as "Popper" Sieppe) were given only fair marks for their performances. In their defense, scenes shaped to establish their importance to the central theme and characters were stripped away, reducing them to one-dimensional supporting players.

Without a doubt, however, GREED then as now established von Stroheim as one of the great directors. His use of the medium was revolutionary, with its use of abrupt close-ups, early use of deep-focus techniques, and the use of camera placement and composition to visually define the shifting dominance of Trina and McTeague. Despite its brutal length, the full nine-hour GREED permitted the director and the cast the luxury of in-depth character development, allowing the audience to feel both empathy and revulsion at the McTeague's gradual decline.

  "Ferocity, brutality, muscle, vulgarity, crudity, naked realism and sheer genius are to be found -- great hunks of them -- in Von Stroheim's production, GREED. It is a terribly powerful picture -- and an important one.

When Von Stroheim essayed to convert Frank Norris's "McTeague" into a movie, he assumed what is technically known as a man-sized job. There was absolutely nothing in this novel of entertainment value, heart interest or box-office appeal -- none of the qualities that are calculated to attract the shrewd eye of the movie mogul.

Nevertheless, there were the elements of fierce drama in "McTeague," and these have been taken by Von Stroheim and turned loose on the screen. He has followed copy with such extraordinary fidelity that there is no scene in the picture, hardly a detail, that is not recognizable to those who have read the book.

The acting in GREED is uneven: Gibson Garland [sic] is practically perfect as McTeague, as are Zasu [sic] Pitts and Jean Hersholt as Trina and Marcus Schouler; but Von Stroheim has been guilty of gross exaggeration in his treatment of the subordinate characters. They are an artificial lot, derived from the comic strip rather than from reality.

There are two defects in GREED -- one of which is almost fatal.

In the first place, Von Stroheim has chosen to be symbolic at intervals, and has inserted some very bad handcoloring to emphasize the goldenness of gold. This detracts greatly from the realism of the picture.

In the second place, Von Stroheim has been, as usual, so extravagant with his footage that GREED in its final form is merely a series of remnants. It has been cut to pieces -- so that entire sequences and important characters have been left out. Thus the story has a choppy quality; many of its developments are abrupt. We see Trina in one instant the tremulous young bride, and in the next the hard, haggard, scheming shrew of several years later. The intervening stages in her spiritual decay are not shown, although Von Stroheim undoubtedly included them originally.

This is Von Stroheim's own fault. He must learn to acquire some regard for the limitations of space. GREED, I understand, was produced in forty reels, which would take eight hours to unwind; and the eight-hour day for movie fans has not yet dawned -- thank God!
Von Stroheim is a genius -- GREED establishes that beyond all doubt -- but he is badly in need of a stopwatch."

R. E. Sherwood, Life, January 1, 1925, Volume 85, pg. 24


"I consider that I have made only one real picture in my life and nobody every saw that," von Stroheim once said. "The poor, mangled, mutiliated remains were shown as GREED." Mangled and mutilated though it may be, the extant version of GREED is still a masterpiece of filmmaking.

  "Every time I meet a movie fan on the street and he grabs my lapel, like the Ancient Mariner, I know he's going to ask about von Stroheim's screen version of McTeague.

... Early Saturday morning I found myself bowling through that town of architectural models, Hollywood, and through a forest of oil derricks, until I arrived at the studios in Culver City. There was a pretty lawn, a stucco building, and at the door Erich von Stroheim received us, with military bows. Like a diplomatic attache, he is always surrounded.

In the group were two San Francisco actresses, Carmel Myers and Aileen Pringle, in costume and with teeth painted a heavy white; Joseph Jackson, the urbane young president of the Wampas, thereby kingpin of publicity men, and Fritz Tidden, the director's shadow and courier.

... 'Ten o'clock,' announced von Stroheim. An unholy hour to see a picture. Through an iron door back of us we were admitted into a cosy [sic] little theatre. The door clanged. In the darkness all snuggled into deep armchairs. Attendants passed cigarettes. A projector whirred like a wind machine in a blizzard melodrama. On the screen was flashed: GREED, made from Frank Norris' novel, McTeague.

... 'When the picture's over,' said Jungmeyer [another newspaperman], 'which will be about seven, we'll have dinner and compare notes.'

On the screen a 20-stamp mill raised, dropped and pounded its iron shoes rhythmically, fading out to reveal the immense McTeague pushing his car of ore through the murk of the tunnel. That's the Big Dipper mine, described in the book. It was closed down for a generation, almost, but revived for picture purposes.

Then was depicted the home of McTeague, with his worn mother slaving for a score of hungry miners in the kitchen. Then father McTeague, a roystering old sinner, boozing himself with harridans in the saloon, and his end, which comes suddenly, would have elated a temperance lecturer.

... So far the picture was like the book, not a single detail omitted. It is evident that von Stroheim, sitting motionless in a straight chair, cane in hand and staring right ahead, as if boring through the screen, worships realism like an abstract ideal; worships it more, and suffers more in its achievement, than other men do for wealth or fame.

Twelve o'clock now, and McTeague is pulling teeth down in Howard Street...

Every episode is developed to the full, every comma of the book put in, as it were. Before our eyes was enacted the tale of McTeague's blundering courtship of Trina, the thrifty little toymaker...

We cannot find a trace of the conventional in the narrative. All is original. Drama is vigorously expounded.

Three o'clock. The murder of Maria is shown by shadow pantomime. Old Zerkow, having gone quite mad, is fished out of the bay. Now begins the slow degradation of Trina, the loss of dignity, the descent to ignoble poverty, though she has won thousands in a lottery game...
Five-thirty, and McTeague draws near to his catatrosphe. The psychoanalyst will perceive in ZaSu Pitts' delineation of Trina a laboratory study of masochism. She loves her husband, but stronger than her love is her passion for gold, though it scourges her broken body as with lacerating thongs.

Her end comes with the inevitableness of a Greek tragedy. McTeague is drawn back to the haunts of his boyhood; an instinct known to the police. His conscience, like a will-o'-the-wisp, leads him a devious route to Death Valley, Trina's fortune in his saddle-bag, with Schouler, his Nemesis, riding hard on his trail.

It is almost seven. And we go through Emigrant Canyon, past mountains of snowy porphyry, crowned with red diurite, a wilderness of incredible horror. This portion of GREED is already in the records of the Smithsonian. You consort with tarantulas, trading rats, chuckawallas, rattlers and such-like fauna. The sun beats brazenly on the sink of arsenical muck in the floor of the valley. McTeague meets his pursuer.

Schouler captures him. There is no water. McTeague slays his enemy, but seats himself on the sand, for he is enchained by the wrist to a dead man. In the sky a premonitory vulture hovers...

Seven o'clock. The entire novel has been depicted.

Silence, then applause. The doors swing open and out we go into darkness..."

Idwal Jones, "The First Screening of GREED," San Francisco Daily News


Previous Page | Next Page

[Home] [News & Notes] [The Features Page] [The Store] [At the Movies] [The Calendar]
[The Speeding Sweethearts] [Silent Era Facts] [Silent Star of the Month]