Directed by Erich von Stroheim and starring Gibson Gowland, Zasu Pitts, Jean Hersholt, Dale Fuller, Tempe Pigott, Sylvia Ashton, Chester Conklin, Joan Standing and Jack Curtis, ‘Greed’ is one of the greatest films ever made. It is a silent film and a morality play: it holds a mirror to our own psyche and though we may never play the part the shapes come to play therein, we may as well accept the truth it reveals.Truth of this film is greed and it is exclusively a human peculiarity that must make even man avowing highest ideals cringe. ‘Out, out with this damn spot,’ we may as well say and yet we shall pursue it with more resolve under some guise or other. Those who want to bring democracy into Iraq shall know that the underbelly of such risky venture only carries the ilks of Halliburton, Bechtel, KBR and what not and yet supposedly the idea ( of democracy)seems more a license than a right to fool the world.
At the opening of the film the title card reads a quote from the author of the book McTeague on which it is based: ‘I never truckled; I never took off the hat to Fashion and held it out for pennies. By God, I told them the truth. They liked it or they didn’t like it. What had that to do with me? I told them the truth; I knew it for the truth then, and I know it for the truth now.’
. FRANK NORRIS.
Frank Norris’ powerful novel McTeague first came out in 1902 and was first filmed in 1915. It is the 1924 version is that we are presently concerned with. From early on Erich von Stroheim was attracted to the book and after scoring an enormous financial hit with Foolish Wives, in 1923, he began work on what he hoped would his masterpiece.
Stripped to its bare essentials, McTeague tells the story of a brute but basically good-natured miner named McTeague (played by Gibson Gowland), his wife Trina (ZaSu Pitts) and Marcus(Jean Hersholt), his best friend who later turns out to be his nemesis.
The eponymous character finds his true calling in life by taking over the practice of a traveling dentist. Setting up shop in San Francisco, McTeague falls in love with the daughter of German immigrants. It happens that Trina is the girlfriend of Marcus who is mildly resentful, but ultimately forgiving, when McTeague and Trina are married. Always seeking out an opportunity to better herself, Trina buys a lottery ticket. When the ticket pays off and she wins a fortune, the previously even-tempered Trina undergoes a complete personality change, metamorphosing into a grasping, greedy, miserly shrew, hoarding huge sums of money while her husband must get by on his meager earnings as a dentist. Trina’s sudden windfall sparks a change in both McTeague and Marcus, as well; driven to distraction by his wife’s avarice, McTeague turns into a violent beast, while Marcus boils with jealousy over losing the now-prosperous Trina to McTeague. Pushed too far, McTeague ultimately murders Trina and escapes to the desert with her money. Appointed a sheriff’s deputy, the envious Marcus heads out to bring McTeague in, and the two men catch up with one another in the middle of Death Valley. Their water supply gone, their packhorse dead, McTeague and Marcus begin a fight to the death. McTeague manages to shoot and kill Marcus — only to discover that Marcus has manacled himself to McTeague. Utterly defeated, he sits benumbed on the scorching rocks, awaiting madness and a horrible death.
Marcus: There’s no water… within a hundred miles o’ here!
[the two men hopelessly stand by the dead mule in the middle of the desert]
Marcus: We… are… dead… men!
Filming at actual locations (the murder scene was shot at a locale where a real murder had occurred, while the sweltering Death Valley sequence was, likewise, made there), Von Stroheim remained doggedly faithful to the Norris original, shooting every page word for word. The end result ran 40 reels, or roughly 10 hours of screen time. Production head Irving Thalberg argued logically that no audience would sit still for ten hours of unrelenting realism. Von Stroheim reluctantly responded by paring his film down to 20 reels, but it was still far too long and depressing for MGM’s taste. It was edited even more – the current release version of the film is now shown at approximately two and a quarter hours (about 10 reels), one quarter of its original length. The severe editing was completed by Joe Farnham and June Mathis, Goldwyn’s story editor, who hadn’t read either the book or the screenplay. Reportedly, the 32 reels of edited negatives were melted down by MGM to extract the valuable silver nitrate from the film stock.
* Gibson Gowland as John McTeague
* Zasu Pitts as Trina
* Jean Hersholt as Marcus
* Dale Fuller as Maria
* Tempe Pigott as McTeague’s mother
* Jack Curtis as McTeague’s father (uncredited)
* Silvia Ashton as ‘Mommer’ Sieppe
* Chester Conklin as ‘Popper’ Sieppe
* Joan Standing as Selina
Directed by Erich von Stroheim
Produced by Irving Thalberg
Louis B. Mayer
Written by June Mathis
Erich von Stroheim
Frank Norris (novel)
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date(s) December 4, 1924
Running time 140 min.
239 min. (restored)
Trina: Let’s go sit on the sewer.
* MGM’s first feature-length movie.
* The original 42 reel version is one of the top ten “lost films” of the American Film Institute
* Jean Hersholt was hospitalized after he lost 27 pounds during the filming of the movie’s climax in Death Valley.
* Concerning the editor hired to cut “Greed” down to 2 hours, Erich von Stroheim supposedly commented: “The only thing he had on his mind was his hat!”
* Director Cameo: [Erich von Stroheim] as a balloon vendor (although only in a deleted sequence). McTeague and Trina buy balloons from the vendor on the street.
* The filming of the climax was actually the subject of an early silent newsreel. The facts reported by the newsreel concerning the Death Valley portion of the shooting: it took a day just to reach the location from the town of Keeler, California, they rode in a combination of cars and horses (one of the cars had the word “Greed” stenciled on it), water had to be rationed and they shot in August when temperatures were over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
• The only screening of the original complete director’s cut was for a small group of reporters. One wrote a glowing review of it, using words like “wonderful” and “brilliant” to describe it, but lamented the fact that nobody else would ever see it.
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