Greed (1924)
Greed (1924)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 20 min.

Release Date: December 4th, 1924 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Erich von Stroheim Actors: Zasu Pitts, Gibson Gowland, Jean Hersholt, Dale Fuller, Tempe Pigott, Silvia Ashton, Chester Conklin, Joan Standing

 


 

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irector Erich von Stroheim had a notorious reputation for extravagance and a yearning for the utmost authenticity. So when he approached the adaptation of Frank Norris’ “McTeague,” it’s not particularly surprising that rather than summarizing it for film, he added on to it. When he was finally finished shooting (including on location in Death Valley, which claimed the life of at least one employee), he had a whopping 96 hours of footage. After months of editing, he crafted a 9-hour epic. Eventually, he brought it down to 5, and then 3 and ¼ for a commercially viable length. But the executives at MGM forced further cuts down to 2 and ¼ hours for the theatrical release, which Stroheim refused to look at. As a result, the end product wasn’t a success. Decades later, however, even in its truncated form, “Greed” is considered one of the greatest films ever made.

Dramatic yet powerfully effective music thunders onscreen to introduce this striking tale of fortune and demise, beginning in 1908. At the Big Dipper gold mine in Placer County, California, stout John “Mac” McTeague (Gibson Gowland) pushes carts in the tunnels below the earth. But when he stops to play with a maimed bird, a coworker berates him for the dawdling, causing McTeague to hurl him down a hill – brandishing the irrational temper for which he’s well known. Shortly thereafter, elderly Mother McTeague (Tempe Pigott) finds an opportunity to ship her son off with charlatan Doctor “Painless” Potter (Erich von Ritzau), hoping he’ll learn a worthwhile profession. Sure enough, it’s not long before Doc McTeague opens up a shop on Polk Street in San Francisco.

One day, regular customer, local veterinarian, and good friend Marcus Schouler (Jean Hersholt) brings his sweetheart Trina Sieppe (Zasu Pitts) in for some dental work. For the first time in his life, McTeague takes genuine notice of a woman; instantly infatuated, he arranges to have Trina return multiple times for an unnecessarily lengthy series of pullings and bridge-making. Despite his mother’s good genes, a foul stream of hereditary evil resides in his father’s influences, persuading Mac to kiss and fondle the girl when she’s knocked out from ether. Ashamed at his momentary weakness, Mac finishes up with Trina’s teeth and sends her off, certain he’ll never see her again. When Mac eventually reveals to Marcus what he did, instead of becoming enraged, Marcus shockingly offers to concede his girlfriend to the dentist. He even arranges to take McTeague to Oakland to meet Trina’s parents.

After months of courting, carnivals, and picnics (in time reduced to biweekly visits due to March showers), Mac finally proposes. When Trina coyly refuses, Mac steals a kiss from her nonetheless, and though she appears distraught, she allows him to continue his regular visits. Not long after, they do finally get engaged. After a celebratory party, Trina is informed that she has won $5,000 from a lottery ticket she purchased from scatterbrained Maria (Dale Fuller), a bedraggled woman who cleans the dental parlor. A month later, the wedding arrives. But with Trina’s newfound wealth, Marcus begins to regret giving her up. Afraid of living lavishly, Trina distrustfully pinches her pennies, while Marcus insists on payment for past kindnesses (and even a cut of the lottery winnings he feels he’s owed), all while Mac’s freedom to visit places like Frenna’s Saloon grows smaller every day.

Although the camera angles (especially stagy close-ups), lighting, and framing are all typical of films from the ‘20s (though the deep-focus cinematography was advanced for the time period), Stroheim manages amusing artistry in the actions themselves – most predominantly in the marriage sequence, which unsubtly reveals a funeral procession passing by, just beneath the window behind the minister (the music shifts back and forth between jovial and funereal as well). There’s also symbolism in birds – starting with the sparrow McTeague rescues, followed by a canary that witnesses his molestation of an unconscious Trina, and finally a wedding gift of another bird, which ominously represents an incompatible, frightening consummation and deteriorating union. Likely due to the choppy shortening of the picture, it’s never fully explained why Trina is reluctant to marry McTeague, or why she’s so fearful of being alone with him. It’s as if she’s experienced exhibitions of his brute strength and temper, to which the audience wasn’t privy. And yet, not only is her presence stated to always calm Mac’s wrath, but she also demonstrates her own sense of power over him, as if a W.C. Fields-styled browbeating wife.

In an incomplex fashion, “Greed” insists that sudden wealth changes people for the worst. And merely misusing it isn’t the only wickedness; stinginess is equally as injurious. Just as a stroke of good luck can bring prosperity, fortunes can be undone with a single stroke of bad luck – or the gross mishandling of trust. In a somewhat jarring, humorous manner, Trina is ravaged by paranoia and avarice, even though she retains every bit from her lottery takings – so much so that she seeks continual, lowly manual labor to avoid spending any of her original money. The McTeagues’ downfall isn’t the standard, complicit self-destruction through venturing down a path of crime, but rather a familial degradation of dubiety, hatred, and desperation. In the bitter end (boasting a couple of intriguing twists, returning characters and symbolism, and a haunting parting shot), Trina’s riches buy only loneliness and fear … and an allegorical flight through a hellish desert landscape, from which there is no salvation.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10