GREED - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1924

Director: Erich von Stroheim

Production: Begun under Goldwyn-von Stroheim Productions for Goldwyn Pictures; released by Metro-Goldwyn Corporation as a Louis B. Mayer Presentation; black and white, 35mm, silent; running time: about 150 minutes, a 109-minute version also exists; originally 7-hours, but Stroheim was forced to edit further, first into a 4 hour version, then into a 3 hour version supervised by Rex Ingram, and finally cut to 2½ hours by the studio; length: 10,212 fee (some sources list length as 10,067 feet or 10,500 feet); originally 47,000 feet, then 45,000 feet, then 42,000 feet, then 24,000 feet, then 18,000 feet, then 16,000 feet, and finally present length. Released December 1924, New York; all scenes with gold or gold-related objects were hand-tinted in original release prints. Filmed in 9 months, 1922–23 and edited in 1 year, 1923–24. Filmed in Oakland, California, and in Death Valley and the Panamint Mountains, California. Cost: over $450,000.

Producers: Erich von Stroheim and Samuel Goldwyn, some sources list Irving Thalberg as producer; screenplay: Erich von Stroheim and June Mathis, from the novel McTeague by Frank Norris; original titles: Erich von Stroheim and June Mathis; released titles: Joseph Farnham; photography: William H. Daniels, Ben F. Reynolds, and Ernest B. Schoedsack; editor: Frank Hull; final version editors: Joseph Farnham and reputedly June Mathis; production designers: Capt. Richard Day and Erich von Stroheim (no actual sets used); art directors: Louis Germonprez and Edward Sowders; music: James and Jack Brennan.

Cast: In the Prologue: Jack Curtis ( McTeague, Sr., Shift Boss at the Big Dipper Mine ) (role cut from film); Tempé Piggot ( Mother McTeague ); Gibson Gowland ( McTeague, the Son ); Günther von Ritzau ( Dr. "Painless" Potter ); Florence Gibson ( Hag ); In the Play: Gibson Gowland ( Doc McTeague ); Jean Hersholt ( Marcus Schouler ); Chester Conklin ( Popper Sieppe ); Sylvia Ashton ( Mommer Sieppe ); ZaSu Pitts ( Trina ); Austin Jewell ( "Owgoost" Sieppe ); Oscar and Otto Gotell ( "Der Tervins," the twin brothers ); Joan Standing ( Selina ); Frank Hayes ( Old Grannis ); Fanny Midgley ( Miss Baker ); Max Tyron ( Mr. Oelbermann ); Hughie Mack ( Heise, the Harness Maker ); Tiny Jones ( Mrs. Heise ); J. Aldrich Libbey ( Mr. Ryer ); Rita Revela ( Mrs. Ryer ); Dale Fuller ( Maria Miranda Macapa, a Scrubwoman ); Cesare Gravina ( Zerkow, a Junkman ); Lon Poff ( Lottery Agent ); S. S. Simon ( Joe Frenna, the Saloon Keeper ); William Mollenheimer ( The Palmist ); Hugh J. McCauley ( The Photographer ); Jack McDonald ( Cribbens, a Prospector ); James Gibson ( Deputy Sheriff ).



Von Stroheim, Erich, and June Mathis, Greed , edited by Joel W. Finler, New York and London, 1972.

Weinberg, Herman G., The Complete Greed by Erich von Stroheim , New York, 1972.


Fronval, Georges, Erich von Stroheim: Sa vie, ses films , Paris, 1939.

Noble, Peter, Hollywood Scapegoat: The Biography of Erich von Stroheim , London, 1951.

Bergut, Bob, Erich von Stroheim , Paris, 1960.

Lawson, John Howard, Film: The Creative Process , New York, 1964.

Barna, Jon, Stroheim , Vienna, 1966.

Gobeil, Charlotte, editor, Hommage Ă  Erich von Stroheim , Ottawa, 1966.

Bazin, André, What is Cinema 1 , Berkeley, 1967.

Ciment, Michel, Erich von Stroheim , Paris, 1967.

Finler, Joel W., Stroheim , Berkeley, 1968.

Brownlow, Kenvin, The Parade's Gone By , London and New York, 1969.

Curtiss, Thomas Quinn, Erich von Stroheim , Paris, 1969.

Buache, Freddy, Erich von Stroheim , Paris, 1972.

Everson, William K., American Silent Film , New York, 1978.

Bazin, André, The Cinema of Cruelty: From Buñuel to Hitchcock , New York, 1982.

Koszarski, Richard, The Man You Loved to Hate: Erich von Stroheim and Hollywood , Oxford, 1983.

Bessy, Maurice, Erich von Stroheim , Paris, 1984.

Rosenbaum, Richard, Greed , London, 1993.

Lenning, Arthur, Stroheim , Lexington, 2000.


New York Times , 5 December 1924.

Variety (New York), 10 December 1924.

Photoplay (New York), January 1925.

Davay, Paul, "Notes sur les principaux films de Stroheim," in Ecran des Arts (Paris), 1947.

"Erich von Stroheim: His Work and Influence," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1947–48.

Schwerin, Jules, "The Resurgence of von Stroheim," in Films in Review (New York), April 1950.

Lambert, Gavin, "Stroheim Revisited," in Sight and Sound (London), April-June 1953.

Weinberg, Herman J., in Cinemages (New York), 1955.

Fulton, A. R., in Films in Review (New York), June-July 1955.

Eisner, Lotte, "Notes sur le style de Stroheim," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1957.

Everson, William K., "The Career of Erich von Stroheim," in Films in Review (New York), August-September 1957.

"Von Stroheim Issue" of Film Culture (New York), April 1958.


"Von Stroheim Issue" of Bianco e Nero (Rome), February-March 1959.

Premier Plan (Lyons), August 1963.

Etudes Cinématographiques (Paris), no. 48–50, 1966.

Recassens, G., in Téléciné (Paris), January 1967.

Lee, R., "Count von Realism," in Classic Film Collector (Indiana, Pennsylvania), Spring 1969.

Buñuel, Luis, in Positif (Paris), Summer 1970.

Schepelern, P., in Kosmorama (Copenhagen), March 1973.

Weinberg, Herman G., "An Introduction to Greed," in Focus on Films (London), Spring 1973.

Wolfe, C., "Resurrecting Greed," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1975.

Dahan, L., "Les Rapaces d'Erich von Stroheim," in Cinématographe (Paris), April 1977.

Henley, John, in Cinema Texas Program Notes (Austin), 25 September 1978.

Koszarski, Richard, "A Legend in Its Own Time," in American Film (Washington D.C.), May 1983.

Slater, Thomas, "June Mathis," in American Screenwriters, 2nd Series , edited by Randall Clark, Detroit, 1986.

Grindon, L., "From Word to Image: Displacement and Meaning in Greed ," in Journal of Film and Video (Los Angeles), no. 4, 1989.

Dean, T. K., "The Flight of McTeague's Soul-Bird: Thematic Differences Between Norris's McTeague and von Stroheim's Greed ," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), no. 2, 1990.

Cremonini, G., in Cineforum (Bergamo, Italy), April 1992.

"Gold Lust," in New Yorker , vol. 69, 15 March 1993.

SĂ©quences (Haute-Ville), no. 177, March-April 1995.

Reisz, Karel, "Stroheim revu par Karel Reisz," in Positif (Paris), no. 411, May 1995.

Turner, George, "Wrap Shot," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 78, no. 9, September 1997.

McCarthy, Todd, "Mutilated Masterpiece Gets the Loving Touch," in Variety (New York), vol. 376, no. 4, 13, September 1999.

* * *

Frank Norris' novel McTeague was the basis for Erich von Stroheim's film Greed . Though he had purchased the rights to it, he never got the production off the ground until Irving Thalberg, disgusted with von Stroheim's method of extravagant production on Merry-Go-Round , quarrelled with him, and von Stroheim was dismissed as Universal's most prestigious director/producer. It did not take long for von Stroheim to sign with Goldwyn studios, where it was soon announced that his first production would be a film depiction of McTeague .

The Norris novel is a dramatic and sordid but realistic preachment of the evils of greed. Heretofore von Stroheim had epitomized the grand scene. At Universal he had directed three big features that showed life on an extravagant scale: his characters were all venal and recklessly amoral; they were decadent, and offered to the public under such lurid titles as Blind Husbands , The Devil's Passkey , and Foolish Wives . His characters were the rich in an Alpine background, on the boulevards and in the boudoirs of Paris, and in the gambling casino at Monte Carlo, which was reconstructed on the Universal lot. McTeague took place wholly in California, specifically in San Francisco, Oakland and the Bay area, and Death Valley, in a very lower middle class, even depressed, society. The title character was a dentist from the lower classes who practiced his dentistry illegally. Both he and the girl he marries, Trina, are crass, uneducated vulgarians possessed and destroyed by a love for gold. It seemed unlike anything von Stroheim had attempted in his previous films.

Early in pre-production, the project was referred to as Greed , and the name soon became the accepted title. Deliberately doing a turnabout, von Stroheim saw it as a venture completely shot in its natural setting, the Bay area, as far as he could get from the studios of Hollywood. The company would even go to Death Valley to film the bitterly ironic finale of the story. He saw the project as a faithful adaptation of the Norris novel, an almost page-by-page recreation of a well-known American novel of the naturalist type. The film grew to monstrous proportions, eventually reaching an estimated nine-and-a-half hours. The studio forced von Stroheim to severely edit it. Secretly, his good friend, Rex Ingram, saw the film and helped him cut one version, but June Mathis was later called in to edit it down to under three hours. It remained, however, a hopelessly gargantuan project. Characters had to be eliminated so that the main story of McTeague, Trina, and Schouler became entirely the story of Greed .

Ironically, it was Irving Thalberg who ordered the drastic cuts in Greed . Thalberg had moved from his berth with Carl Laemmle at Universal to join the new Metro-Goldwyn. He was soon to become head of production at the amalgamated Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, where after Louis B. Mayer officially became head of production, he had his own unit. His first concern was to shape Greed out of the mountainous reels of footage which von Stroheim had so recklessly shot. It was at his order that Greed was released in 1924, but only a quarter of it contained footage shot by von Stroheim. That salvaged edition is the only one unreeled at von Stroheim retrospectives nowadays. The unused film was ordered melted down so that the silver in the negative could be salvaged. There would be no ultimate rediscovery of footage unused and fitted into subsequent re-issues of the picture. It would be another chapter in the obliteration of von Stroheim's name as a great director. Not one film he made exists as he originally envisioned it. All have been cut either maliciously or out of necessity. Only one may have escaped obliteration—Universal's The Devil's Passkey , but it is a lost picture. To date, no print whatsoever has survived.

The legend surrounding von Stroheim's name as a great creative director survives, however, nurtured by those who have read the original McTeague written by Frank Norris. There are moviegoers who can relate whole sequences of the film that are just not in the final print. Memorable, however, in the released film are such treasured moments as the wooing of Trina under sedation in a dental chair; the miserably unromantic, even comic, wedding of Trina and McTeague; the brutalization of Trina by McTeague, leading to her murder and his escape with the gold she had even slept with; McTeague's meeting with onetime friend, Marcus Schouler, and their journey across Death Valley. Schouler is slain by McTeague, but before Schouler dies, he handcuffs himself to McTeague, and the picture fades out on McTeague sitting in the murderous heat of Death Valley handcuffed to a corpse he slew.

Greed made no profit either domestic or foreign. Costing $585,000 to film (a fortune in the mid-1920s), Greed showed a gross of only $277,000 domestically, and the foreign receipts were even more disappointing. The world's moviegoing public simply resisted Greed . Von Stroheim and his few faithful cohorts could quite honestly say that the picture as he filmed it was never released. The studio also alibied that Greed never stood a chance of success as a product from a studio noted for creating stars. There were no box-office names in Greed . The cast was hand-chosen by von Stroheim himself—ZaSu Pitts, Gibson Gowland, and Jean Hersholt, who had never brought in a dime on their own. They were more often featured in comedies, as were fellow cast members Dale Fuller, Chester Conklin, and Hughie Mack, and Greed was certainly no comedy.

A few years later, when von Stroheim had chalked up a few more disasters, he abandoned his directorial career for a successful one as an actor. He had often played in some of his own pictures, but as an actor he is a recognizable star in Renoir's La grande illusion and in Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard .

—DeWitt Bodeen

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