Erich von Stroheim's Greed
Page 4

Producers acknowledged von Stroheim's brilliance and knew that his creative energies were the life-blood of their industry, yet in their estimation directors (and von Stroheim in particular) had to be harnessed and channeled for the good of the industry. As one of his greatest enemies, Louis B. Mayer, remarked years after their conflict, he "was the greatest director in the world... But he was impossible, a crazy artist. If he had only been ten percent less himself and ten percent more reasonable, we would still be making pictures together." As the 20s progressed, increasingly the producer was King of Hollywood, and with the rise of the studio system his rule was often less than benevolent.

  "GREED, the much-talked-of picturization of Frank Norris' McTeague, is a picture of undeniable power. Erich von Stroheim has let himself go and has produced a picture which by virtue of choice of subject, treatment, and emphasis represents a logical development in the work of the creator of Blind Husbands, The Devil's Passkey, and Foolish Wives. Mr. von Stroheim is one of the great stylists of the screen whose touch is recognizable in everything he does. He has always been the realist as Rex Ingram is the romanticist and Griffith the sentimentalist of the screen, and in GREED he has given us an example of realism at its starkest.

Like the novel from which the plot was taken, GREED is a terrible and wonderful thing. McTeague is one of the most savage, uncompromising, ugliest novels ever written. It achieved fame and continues to be read as an example of the horrible. It must be considered in any survey of the development of the American novel.

In judging the picture which Mr. von Stroheim has made from it we must use the widest possible perspective. For motion picture art has by this time attained its majority. It is entitled to experiment in any form from the ultrasentimental to the latest fad in symbolism. The days of censorship in that sense, the feeling that motion pictures must always be pretty pictures, are over. The time has come when we can invite the spirit of Matthew Arnold to the screen to see what he saw in literature, namely a criticism of life.

Most emphatically, there is and should be a place for a picture like GREED. It is undoubtedly one of the most uncompromising films ever shown on the screen. There have already been many criticisms of its brutality, its stark realism, its sordidness. But the point is that it was never intended to be a pleasant picture. It is a picture that is grown up with a vengeance, a theme for just those adults who have been complaining most about the sickening sentimentality of the average film. Nobody can complain of being deceived when he goes to see it; Zola did not compete with Gautier, and Frank Norris would never have sent any story of his to True Romance.

Lest it be considered that so far this review has been propaganda rather than criticism, we hasten to add that GREED is not our idea of a perfect picture. It is sometimes easier to make a perfect picture than a real one. Scaramouche, which has just won the Adolph Zukor $10,000 prize, is one of those perfect pictures. It is slick and polished, deftly acted, correct in setting and costume. But it is not really very much alive. Its perfections satiate rather than stir. Von Stroheim could do that sort of thing; in fact he has done it. But it is entirely to his credit that he has preferred to do some pioneer work. His picture, it is true, has generated the heat of controversy, but the very picture people who today are saying that he has gone beyond what is permissible on the screen tomorrow will be copying him.

The picture follows the novel with considerable accuracy. It gives the essentials of McTeague insofar as that could be done upon the screen. Just how far von Stroheim succeeded in this respect will, however, never be known. For the original picture was made in no less than forty reels, which were first cut down to twenty-four, then to twelve or less. Inevitably much must have been sacrificed in this process of reduction, and one certainly misses some of the motivation.

But these omissions hardly impair the primitive impact of the story, and the Death Valley sequence would stand out in any picture as a sort of travelogue through Hell. Some of the details of the picture, the sheer animalism of the characters as reflected in their every manner, have been the subject of much criticism. But Stroheim set out to show that greed is an ugly cantankerous thing, and in his conception everybody and everything in the picture becomes smudged with this quality. Sometimes the sense of ugliness becomes overwhelming so that it disturbs our esthetic reaction. The best form of realism in any art does not do this, and to that extent von Stroheim has failed to do what he set out to accomplish. But that is one of the penalties of experimentation and should not become an unconditional criticism of the picture.
The acting honors of this remarkable production are so evenly divided that it is hard to say whether the characterization of McTeague by Gibson Gowland or of his wife by Zasu Pitts is the more memorable. Both create the illusion that they are not acting at all. They build up the characters slowly and carefully and carry the spectator with them at every point. Jean Hersholt's impersonation of Marcus Schouler, McTeague's false friend, is hardly less skillful though it, together with the other characters, shows some of the exaggerations of low comedy into which the actors were undoubtedly pushed by von Stroheim's over-direction. There are times when von Stroheim squeezes the lemon a little too hard."

Exceptional Photoplays, December/January 1925


The complete, uncut GREED has become something of a "Holy Grail," a Hollywood urban legend that somewhere out there is a copy, waiting to be discovered. It is, however, almost possible to "see" the film as von Stroheim originally intended; with the publication of the original script complete with annotations, as well as a book "reconstruction" using hundreds of stills from the discarded sections, one can get a feel for the film as intended by its director.

While the nine-hour GREED is gone, it is not forgotten. According to the panel at the Brussels Referendum in 1952, of The Ten Best Films GREED was voted #7, and in Sight and Sound's 1962 poll the film was ranked #4 (tied with Kenji Mizoguchi's 1953 Ugetsu Monogatari). Interesting, in its poll of the greatest films of all time, it was the uncut (never mind unseen) version of GREED that was voted to the list.

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Many thanks to Hitchcock Fleming & Associates, whose financial support made this possible.