Greed (1925)

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Greed (1925) final scene

Greed (1925).  Directed by Erich von Stroheim.  140 minutes (MGM) / 239 minutes (restored version, 1999).  Starring Gibson Gowland (as John McTeague), Zasu Pitts (as Trina Sieppe), and Jean Hersholt (as Marcus Schouler).

Greed is based on the 1899 American novel McTeague by Frank Norris.  It takes place at the turn of the nineteenth century in California and was one of the first Hollywood films to be shot entirely on location.  As the story opens, McTeague, a miner, leaves his California mountain town to train as a dentist.  When he opens a practice in San Francisco, he meets Marcus Schouler and Schouler’s cousin Trina, with whom McTeague falls in love.  Trina wins $5000 in a lottery and marries McTeague, but soon she begins to obsess over her winnings and becomes miserly towards her husband.  Because Schouler feels cheated both out of Trina, whom he loved, and her fortune, he reports on McTeague to the dental board, which determines that he is a quack.  McTeague and Trina slowly descend into poverty, with Trina behaving increasingly bizarrely as she worships her private hoard of money.  As tensions mount between the couple, there is an act of violence that leads McTeague to be pursued by Schouler into Death Valley, where the film ends in a climactic showdown.

The saga of the editing of this film is widely known among cinephiles.  Von Stroheim originally filmed roughly nine hours of footage and showed it once in an all-day screening.  No surviving copy of the nine-hour film exists; it is not clear that von Stroheim ever intended for the film to be released in that state.  Subsequently the film was repeatedly edited down by the studio until it reached the 140-minute version that was released in 1925 and has been heralded as a masterpiece by many ever since; von Stroheim, however, made it entirely clear that the 140-minute version was a chop job and did not resemble his original vision for the film.

As the 140-minute version was the only version available for over seven decades, our understanding of what Greed looked like was transformed in 1999 when Rick Schmidlin, who had access to a copy of von Stroheim’s original 330-page shooting script and a sizeable cache of production stills that captured moments later cut from the shortened version.  Schmidlin’s version runs at nearly four hours.  The extra time, however, that it takes to watch this restored version is well worth it.  There are subplots introduced in the longer version that were completely excised from the 140-minute, 1925 version—important characters whom you would barely even know of if you only saw the shorter version.  These include the junkman Zerkow and his wife, Maria Miranda Macapa, who tells Zerkow wild tales about a solid gold dinner service belonging to her family and who is responsible for selling Trina her winning lottery ticket; and Charles W. Grannis and Anastasia Baker, an elderly couple who room in the same building as McTeague and spend years listening to each other through the thin walls of their apartments before approaching each other socially.  These stories offer invaluable support to the Trina/McTeague characterizations.  The Zerkow/Macapa plot offers a malevolent foreshadowing of the central Trina/McTeague story elements of greed, violence, and betrayal.  The Grannis/Baker plot offers a more benevolent alternative to either of those plots.  The elderly couple’s courtship suggests that there are sweet and loving possibilities in the world of Greed.  Without the Zerkow/Macapa and Grannis/Baker plots, Greed loses some of its multidimensionality.

If you are wondering how a movie that, in its shorter form, is already longer than the average modern-day Hollywood film could be enhanced by an additional hour and a half of footage, I recommend that you view the first half hour of the 1925 140-minute Greed, then stop, and look at the first hour of the 1999 4-hour Greed.  The 140-minute Greed is complex and deep, but the fullness of the 4-hour Greed is astonishing in comparison.  The transformations of so many of the characters who are present in both feel more developed and supported in the longer version.  The more time we spend with these characters, the more we are convinced of some of what von Stroheim said he saw in this story of a San Francisco dentist impersonator: elements of Greek tragedy.  Trina’s transformation in particular takes on a new and horrifying light when supported by the restored subplots.  Obsessed with her lottery winnings and the interest she earns from them, she changes from a sweet and charming young lady into a cruel miser who eventually works as a raggedy washerwoman for a school so as not to spend her precious hoard of gold coins.  There is a scene in which, now living alone in the back of the school, Trina disrobes and, her very long, dark hair covering her pale body, pours the gold onto her rickety bed and lolls around on it.  The scene is at once beautiful, erotic, and horrifying.

Horrifying is an adjective that could be used to describe so much of Greed, and perhaps it is the level of stark reality and unpleasantness that made von Stroheim’s adaptation a hard sell, especially at its nine-hour length.  While von Stroheim is a faithful adapter of Frank Norris’s novel McTeague from what I can tell, still I think that people at the time registered a difference between reading about the demise of Trina and McTeague and seeing that demise played out on film.  For example, Trina’s fingers, as you can see more fully in the Schmidlin version, are bitten by McTeague, grow infected, and must be amputated during the period in which she lives alone; in the Schmidlin version, most of the screen time devoted to Trina’s fingers comes from the restored stills, so apparently a great deal of that storyline was cut, possibly because the finger episode is not strictly crucial to Trina’s downfall, but also probably because it is so odd and so unpleasant.  But then we must ask ourselves, what does the story lose when it loses so much of the screen time devoted to Trina’s fingers?  The depths to which the characters of Greed go to dehumanize each other and themselves can certainly be great, but I am loathe to lose this strange detail from the film.

As for the movie’s conclusion in Death Valley, about which you may have heard something, many films rival Greed in terms of drama and tragedy, but Greed carves out a special place for itself in terms of the beauty, agony, and epic nature of its finale, and I think it is without a doubt fair to mention that we can say this both for the story and for what the actors and crew went through to achieve this finale.  Von Stroheim was a film realist in the sense that he insisted on authenticity in all aspects of filming; for example, he had the then-closed Big Dipper Mine, where the film begins, reopened so that he could film the movie’s first sequences (and later sequences, when McTeague returns to the mine) deep below the earth–although according to von Stroheim’s cinematographer, the cinematic effects of filming 3,000 feet below the surface were the same as filming near the opening to the mine.  When it came time to shoot the Death Valley finale, the studio recommended the Oxnard dunes, which Hollywood filmmakers used for desert locations.  Oxnard is immensely preferable as a filming location for a crew, as it lies to the north of Los Angeles, and the temperatures even in summer are bearable compared to the temperatures of mid-summer Death Valley, which are frequently in the 120˚s and were indeed recorded in that range during the summer of Greed’s filming there.  For purposes of authenticity, however, von Stroheim insisted on Death Valley itself.

The stories of the Death Valley shoot are legendary (ice towels on the camera to keep it cool, over one-quarter of the cast and crew having to leave the shoot for health reasons, the actor Hersholt’s hospitalization immediately after filming wrapped, von Stroheim shouting to the actors playing McTeague and Schouler during their final confrontation, “Fight, fight!  Try to hate each other as you both hate me!”).  It is hard to imagine a modern cast and crew complying in a similar situation.  And yet the results, hard won as they are, are among the most beautiful and devastating moments in film.  SPOILER ALERT! (Please skip to the next paragraph if you do not want the film’s final moments revealed.)  McTeague is pursued by Trina’s cousin Schouler deep into the desert, loses his water and his horse, and is in the last moments of the film handcuffed to the dying Schouler, Trina’s lottery winning in the form of a bag of gold shining a few feet away.  It is a difficult moment as he surrenders to defeat. He has brought his pet bird, who has been with him throughout the film, to the desert, and in the movie’s conclusion, he releases the bird from its cage.  We see in the next shot that the bird has fallen, dead from the heat.  We know what end is in store for McTeague.

You know you are working in the realm of tragedy when everyone is dead in the last scene.  Exactly what the scope of that tragedy was was lost to us until Schmidlin’s reconstruction.  However, the accessibility of the film remains a troubled issue.  I say this primarily because nothing can be done to change the fact that Greed is a silent picture–I certainly don’t want to suggest that anything should be done to change that fact, but I do realize that for a modern film-going audience, a silent picture is a challenge.  The acting styles are for the most part different from modern acting styles (the actress who plays Trina, ZaSu Pitts, does use her eyes in a more melodramatic fashion than any modern actress would ever dare to), and the absence of dialogue can make it hard for a modern audience to stay engaged with the story.

For these reasons, I have chosen to inaugurate this website with this article.  Greed is ambitious, grand storytelling with images that are haunting and ghostly.  Even if you are not a fan of silent cinema, if you give it a chance, you may actually come to value the fact that it relies solely on visuals to convey the depths of its vision.  After all, if Gibson Gowland as McTeague were shouting something into the desert wind in the final Death Valley images and we could hear it, wouldn’t it be different from the other-worldly silent images that the movie provides?  Could the ending possibly be as chilling with spoken language?  Sometimes the restrictions that are placed on an artist–whether technological, economic, social, or political, and whether or not they are seen as restrictions at the time–can give birth to extraordinary works of art.  Greed is one of those works of art.

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