Film of the Week: Greed (1924) with an introduction by Alena Von Stroheim.
I don’t know that I have much (particularly profound) to add to the conversation… this film has such a wildly storied history; thank you for including me in your piece here. I’m certainly fan—of both Greed and of Erich von Stroheim’s other works as director and actor. As it had been many (very many) years since I watched Greed, I made a point to re-watch the semi-restored version in anticipation of our meeting. I think seeing it now, I was particularly struck by how contemporary the storytelling seems to me… I have watched a lot of television these last few months (thanks, quarantine)—and the long arc of this film, the varied, nuanced subplots— felt a bit like modern television drama (I mean that as compliment)… and the film’s subject, how unquestionably relevant? There is something about the film that I hadn’t appreciated seeing so long ago, that I appreciate now—how contemporary both subject and form feels to storytelling in 2020.
It was some time ago (late 90s, I think) that I remember a film historian named Rick Schmidlin was in contact with my grandmother Mary Alice, who lived in Los Angeles, and who was married to Erich von Stroheim’s older son, Erich von Stroheim Jr. When Mr. Schmidlin met my grandmother, he had also been in contact with Josef von Stroheim, Erich’s second son (and my grandfather’s half-brother) and that is when my grandmother suggested he speak with Jaqueline Keener, who was living in Paris at the time and was the sister of Erich von Stroheim’s last living companion, Denise Vernac. I believe that is where Mr. Schmidlin found a great many number of untouched boxes of personal material, which included numerous still photographs and full script, which were used in the most recent, semi-restored version of the film. I, myself, had the pleasure of meeting Jacqueline sometime around 2004, while I was in Paris. Although I had never met her before, she was incredibly welcoming and took me into her home, and even showed me around the city for a few days. She told me a number of stories about Erich von Stroheim first hand (as she had lived with her sister and him for some time in the 1950s)—about his work and how he was as a person. She remarked at one point that she had recently seen one of Erich von Stroheim’s films in theatre—a sort of special presentation—accompanied by a live orchestra… and how flatly displeased he would have been by the whole thing… the score was wrong, the timing was wrong and so on… she had to laugh a little as she said it. So there you have it.
Erich Von Stroheim’s 1924 film Greed is widely considered to be one of the most important films from the silent period, despite the original version having been cut significantly and potentially lost forever. The original running time was close to nine hours, which Von Stroheim considers to be the best version, expressing great frustration with Irving Thalberg’s demands to cut the film significantly to just over two hours in length. The film was later restored in the 90s by Rick Schmidlin and a four hour version was subsequently released. Greed, however, has garnered much praise since its release, being voted one of the greatest film ever made by filmmakers and critics in Sight and Sound’s 1952 Greatest Film’s poll.
Based on Frank Norris’ 1899 novel, McTeague, Von Stroheim’s Greed opens in The Big Dipper Gold Mine, Placer County, California, in 1908, where we are introduced to the film’s protagonist, John McTeague. We follow McTeague (Mac) from his days working long shifts in the mine to his career in dentistry on Polk Street, San Francisco, thanks to the help of Mother McTeague who secures him a job (Such was Mother McTeague, an early title card reads), to his relationship with Trina, who wins $5000 in the lottery on their wedding day. The couple are introduced by Trina’s cousin Marcus, who was previously engaged to Trina. The three characters’ lives are torn apart by the winnings. Trina decides to save all of her winnings and is even reluctant to give her own mother $50, much to Mac’s surprise. Trina slowly begins to frustrate Mac who becomes irksome and resentful of her attitude towards spending the money. All the while, Marcus is envious of Mac, as he believes that the money should be his. The three are now entangled in a tale of jealousy and greed all because of the lottery win which reveals their darker sides. There are many sub-plots in the film, and supposedly even more so in the original version, but ultimately Greed is a tragic portrayal of the dangers of greed and the consequences as a result.
Remarkably, Greed was filmed almost entirely on location, a rarity for its time. Von Stroheim relies on location shots to create a more realistic and naturalistic story. Although shooting almost entirely on location was impressive for its time, the cast and crew were required to shoot in Death Valley for the duration of two months in unbearable temperatures, with several cast and crew becoming ill as a result. The production costs also exceeded the original budget which lead to more complications with the studios.
Greed was ahead of its time for a number of reasons; extensive location shooting, developed characterisation, deep-focus cinematography, its use of extreme close-ups, and its significant original running time. Only a handful of people ever saw the original nine hour version and sadly we may never see Greed as Von Stroheim intended it. Nonetheless, the film remains a masterpiece not only of the silent period, but in the history of cinema and is an interesting study of the darker sides of humanity.