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Greed Movie Review

von stroheim mcteague version

1924 – Erich von Stroheim –

“I consider that I have made only one real picture in my life and nobody ever saw that,” director Erich von Stroheim said. “The poor, mangled, mutilated remains were shown as Greed.” The director of this film earned the nickname “the man you love to hate” for his appearances as screen villains, but the description may also apply to his relations with studio executives. When he was directing Foolish Wives at Universal in 1922, von Stroheim shot so much footage (seven hours in a first cut) that twenty-one-year-old studio head Irving Thalberg had to shut down the production. Later, at Metro, von Stroheim started to make Greed from Frank Norris' classic naturalistic novel McTeague when the same excessiveness resulted in a first cut of forty-two reels (between nine and ten hours). During the twenty-one months or so that it took to shoot and edit the film, the merger had occurred (in April 1924) that changed Metro to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the artist-supportive Goldwyn front office was now replaced with the budget-minded approach of von Stroheim's old nemesis Thalberg. By now, these two disliked each other personally as well as professionally, and no chance existed of Greed ever being released in either the twenty-four reel version that von Stroheim himself cut it to or even the eighteen-reel version that his friend, director Rex Ingram, came up with. Eventually, the version released in 1924 and the one that exists today is a ten-reel version produced by MGM cutters, principally June Mathis.

What is lost is primarily the subplots from Norris' book that contrast the relationship of the main character McTeague (Gibson Gowland) and his wife Trina (ZaSu Pitts) with other couples. Trina has won five thousand dollars in a lottery, but she hoards the money and eventually the ill will created by her excessive frugality poisons the marriage. Meanwhile, one of her rejected suitors, Marcus (Jean Hersholt), harbors resentment about losing Trina to McTeague when he learns of the money.

The picture of marriage that comes across is unrelenting in its squalor and selfishness, and these traits even turn up in the wedding sequence of Trina and McTeague. As the bride and groom stand nervously before the minister surrounded by family and friends, the depth of field shot captures through the window the ominous march of a funeral procession passing in the street. The wedding night richly conveys Trina's fears about her new life. She repeatedly hugs her mother as the family leaves, and then she turns to see McTeague glowering down on her from the top of the staircase. He carries her to bed and the camera gradually pulls back as McTeague slowly draws the curtains shut.

The performances of Pitts and Gowland, the range of feelings their characters eventually display, and the often-praised concluding scenes between McTeague and Marcus in Death Valley give the existing version considerable power, even in its shortened form.

The shooting script for the original version has been published with all the deletions clearly marked (by Lorrimer Publishing, edited by Joel W. Finler). Norris' novel also gives a good sense of what has been omitted from the film, since von Stroheim planned to follow the book with nearly a paragraph-by-paragraph faithfulness.

Cast: Gibson Gowland (McTeague), ZaSu Pitts (Trina), Jean Hersholt (Marcus), Dale Fuller (Marcia Macapa), Joan Standing (Selina), Chester Conklin (Mr. Sieppe), Sylvia Ashton (Mrs. Sieppe), Frank Hayes (Old Grannis), James F. Fulton (sheriff), Jack McDonald (lottery agent), William Barlow (minister), Max Tyron (Mr. Oelberman), Erich von Ritzau (traveling dentist), S.S. Simon (Frena), Austin Jewel (August Sieppe), Hughie Mack (Mr. Heise), Cesare Gravina (Zerkow) Screenwriter: Erich von Stroheim, June Mathis Cinematographer: William H. Daniels, Ben F. Reynolds, Ernest B. Schoedsack (uncredited) Producer: Irving Thalberg, Samuel Goldwyn, and Erich von Stroheim for Metro-Goldwyn Running Time: 140 minutes Format: VHS, LV.

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