Erich von Stroheim's "Greed" (1925), like the Venus de
Milo, is acclaimed as a classic despite missing several parts deemed essential
by its creator. Its unhappy history is well known. Von Stroheim's original film
was more than nine hours long. After it was cut, cut and cut again, it was
released at about 140 minutes, in a version that he disowned--and that inspired
a fistfight with Louis B. Mayer. It is this version that is often voted one of
the greatest films of all time.
inspiration for "Greed" wasMcTeague,a novel by Frank Norris about the
rough, simple son of a drunken miner, who learns dentistry from a quack, moves
to San Francisco, marries a woman who is a miser and ends up in Death Valley
next to the body of his rival for the woman and her lottery winnings. It was a
bleak and sardonic story for the Roaring '20s, and neither Mayer nor his new
MGM partner, Irving Thalberg, thought the public wanted it--not at nine-plus
von Stroheim, a martinet who affected the dress, bearing and monocle of a
Prussian officer, their opposition was like a curse that followed him. At
Universal, where Thalberg was then employed, von Stroheim's "Foolish
Wives" (1922) was cut by a third, and Thalberg fired him from his next
film, "Merry-Go-Round." He fled to MGM to make "Greed,"
which cost $750,000 and took a year to shoot, only to have Thalberg catch up
with him there and demand more cuts.
one now alive has seen the original version, but a San Francisco drama critic
named Idwal Jones was present at its first studio screening, which began at 10
a.m. and continued without breaks for lunch or anything else, von Stroheim
sitting ramrod straight through the whole thing as an example to the others.
Jones was a friend of the director's, but his account of that experience does
not inspire our envy. He liked the individual parts well enough; it was just
that there were so many of them: "Every episode is developed to the full,
every comma of the book put in, as it were." He noted that von Stroheim
"worships realism like an abstract ideal; worships it more, and suffers
more in its achievement, than other men do for wealth or fame."
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
memories and others are recalled in a book about von Stroheim by Thomas Quinn
Curtis, a longtime friend of the director's, who until fairly recent years was
the Paris Herald-Tribune's film critic. He recalls lunching one day in Paris
with Louis B. Mayer, who told him the story of his fight with von Stroheim.
That evening, Curtis had dinner with the director, who said, "That's
entirely accurate." Their fight began when von Stroheim took up his gloves
to stalk out of the mogul's office. "I suppose you consider me
rabble," Mayer said. "Not even that," said von Stroheim. Mayer
struck him so hard that von Stroheim fell out through the office door and onto
the floor, still clutching gloves and cane. "You see, my hands were
occupied," he told Mayer's secretary.
were their tempers so inflamed? Partly because in Mayer's view a fortune had
been squandered on an unreleasable picture. But also because the film's view of
human nature was so sour and cynical. McTeague (Gibson Gowland) is a quack who
first falls in love with Trina (Zasu Pitts) after chloroforming her in his
chair, then leaning over her to inhale the perfume of her hair. Trina is a
miser who begrudges her man a five-cent bus fare on a rainy day, and polishes
her coins until they glisten. Trina's original suitor Marcus (Jean Hersholt, of
the humanitarian award) essentially gives her to McTeague, then wants her back
after she wins a lottery. And there is a good possibility that McTeague and
Trina engage in premarital sex, which was scandalous in 1925. (Much depends on
a title card that says, "Please! Oh, please!" Does she mean please
do, or please don't?)
missing seven hours of "Greed" have been called the Holy Grail of the
cinema. Apparently they were destroyed to extract the silver nitrate used in
their manufacture. The movie that remained had a decent run in the 1920s, and
was later restored by silent film historian Kevin Brownlow; it is that version
that is considered a masterpiece. Now an ambitious new approach has been made
to the material by the film restorer Rick Schmidlin, who discovered a trove of
original production stills and a copy of von Stroheim's long-lost 330-page
original shooting script. He has taken that material and edited it together
with the surviving footage to produce a four-hour version that premiered on the
TCM channel and will be available on video.
the two versions, we can see how not only length but also prudish sensibilities
went into MGM's chop job. Early in their relationship, McTeague and Trina take
the interurban train out into the countryside. As they're standing at the
station, Trina's title card in the shortened MGM version reads, "This is
the first day it hasn't rained in weeks. I thought it would be nice to go for a
walk." In Schmidlin's reconstruction from the shooting script, it reads:
"Let's go over and sit on the sewer," and so they do, perching on a
original version of "Greed" is perhaps a masterpiece more lamented
than missed; there is a point after which an audience will simply not sit
still. Even von Stroheim's friend Jones wondered if it could be shown "on
the installment plan," and muses about how "German professors sit for
years before they developsitzfleish,"loosely translated as iron rumps.
My own feeling, having seen both versions, is that movie lovers will want to
begin with the familiar 140-minute film (which after all is a great experience)
and then, if their curiosity is aroused, look at Schmidlin's version to get an
idea of all they have missed.
surviving "Greed" is an uncompromising exercise in naturalism,
capturing the rough working-class lives of the new U.S. cities, where saloons
doubled as living rooms. And there is a real poignancy in the plight of
McTeague, who may by the end be a double murderer but is essentially a gentle,
simpleminded soul. One of the scenes cut out by MGM is reconstructed by
Schmidlin; it shows McTeague buying theater tickets for his engagement party.
He wants the tickets on the right side of the theater. "As you face the
stage, or the audience?" asks the ticket seller. "The side away from
the drums," says McTeague, confused, and after he becomes convinced the
man is toying with him, he explodes.
is a man who only wants to be a dentist and inhale Trina's lovely fragrance,
and his bones end up in Death Valley. His last act is to set free his pet
canary, which flutters a little, and dies. No wonder Mayer and Thalberg thought
the Jazz Age wasn't ready for this film.