Von Stroheim’s Silent Masterpiece Premieres

Erich von Stroheim probed beneath the surface of life and human behavior to create a triumph of cinematic naturalism in his motion picture Greed.

Summary of Event

Motion picture director Erich von Stroheim began production of Greed, his film adaptation of Frank Norris’s Norris, Frank naturalistic 1899 novel McTeague, McTeague (Norris)[Macteague] in the spring of 1923. Von Stroheim intended to present Norris’s story of avarice and human degradation in authentic detail. His film begins by showing McTeague (played by Gibson Gowland) as a burly young miner at the Big Dipper gold mine in Placer County, California. McTeague, the son of an alcoholic father who dies of delirium tremens in a saloon at the mine, is a giant man with supreme strength and slow wits. He appears to be gentle and good-natured, but the brute within him lies just beneath the surface. McTeague is shown as a victim of circumstance, environment, and heredity, unable to control his own destiny. His mother, an overworked drudge in the camp’s kitchen, desperately wants her son to leave the mine to seek a profession. When a traveling dentist stops at the camp, Mother McTeague persuades the dentist to take her son with him as an apprentice. [kw]Von Stroheim’s Silent Masterpiece Greed Premieres (Dec. 4, 1924)[Von Stroheims Silent Masterpiece Greed Premieres (Dec. 4, 1924)]
[kw]Silent Masterpiece Greed Premieres, Von Stroheim’s (Dec. 4, 1924)
[kw]Greed Premieres, Von Stroheim’s Silent Masterpiece (Dec. 4, 1924)
Greed (film)
Motion pictures;Greed
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Erich von Stroheim[Stroheim]
[g]United States;Dec. 4, 1924: Von Stroheim’s Silent Masterpiece Greed Premieres[06170]
[c]Motion pictures;Dec. 4, 1924: Von Stroheim’s Silent Masterpiece Greed Premieres[06170]
Stroheim, Erich von
Gowland, Gibson
Pitts, ZaSu
Hersholt, Jean

Several years later, after having learned the basic skills of dentistry, McTeague has opened a dental parlor on Polk Street in San Francisco. His practice is going well and his life seems comfortable when he meets Marcus Schouler (played by Jean Hersholt). Marcus is an arrogant, vulgar blowhard who works as an attendant at a nearby dog hospital, but McTeague finds him a likable, colorful character, and they soon become good friends. Marcus introduces McTeague to his fiancé, Trina (played by ZaSu Pitts), the shy daughter of German immigrant parents. Trina has a broken tooth, and Marcus has brought her to McTeague to have it fixed. McTeague develops a passion for Trina and finally confesses his love for her to Marcus, who, with a false sense of generosity, gives up Trina to his friend. After a few months, McTeague and Trina marry. On the eve of their wedding, Trina learns that she has won five thousand dollars in a lottery drawing.

The lottery win marks the film’s descent into tragedy. Marcus feels cheated in having given up the newly rich Trina and, in a moment of anger and self-pity, throws a knife at McTeague. The former friend is now an enemy, and Marcus begins to plot his revenge on the newlyweds. Marcus informs the state medical board that McTeague is practicing without a license, and McTeague is forced to curtail his practice. Trina then becomes a miser, unwilling to spend a cent of her lottery winnings. With the loss of income, the McTeagues slowly sink into poverty. McTeague, once again a victim of circumstance, takes to drinking, and Trina is forced to work as a carver of wooden toys. McTeague begins to act more and more like a brute, and he torments his wife in an unsuccessful attempt to get her money. Eventually, he abandons her. Trina’s only comfort (more accurately, her passion) is her money, which she continues to hoard in the form of gold coins. Finally, the beast in McTeague rises to full force. He breaks into his wife’s room, murders her, and flees with the coins.

McTeague, now on the run, briefly returns to his mountain home. Before long, however, he senses pursuit and sets off across the Mojave Desert. At this juncture, Marcus reappears in the film to join the posse in pursuit of McTeague. The posse turns back when the chase reaches Death Valley, but Marcus continues to pursue McTeague on his own. Driven onward by greed, Marcus overtakes McTeague on the salt flats of Death Valley. There, miles from water and in 130-degree heat, they fight to the death. McTeague manages to kill Marcus but finds himself handcuffed to a corpse. McTeague dies in the desert with the gold coins scattered around him.

Von Stroheim completed production of Greed in October, 1923. The shooting had lasted 198 days at a cost of roughly half a million dollars. Von Stroheim immediately began editing, and on January 12, 1924, he presented a forty-two-reel, nine-and-a-half-hour preview to a small group of associates. The studio demanded that further cuts be made, and von Stroheim complied, producing a twenty-four-reel version.

While von Stroheim struggled to cut his film to a marketable length, his parent company (Goldwyn) merged with the Metro Pictures Corporation. Louis B. Mayer Mayer, Louis B. took over as head of production, and Irving Thalberg Thalberg, Irving became von Stroheim’s new production manager. Both executives foresaw a financial disaster in Greed, with its excessive length and pessimistic message, and demanded further cuts. Von Stroheim then sent the film to one of his closest friends, director Rex Ingram, Ingram, Rex who edited the film to eighteen reels. Von Stroheim took this version to Mayer, who insisted that it be cut to ten reels. Von Stroheim protested that the artistic qualities of the film would be destroyed in the process, but he was powerless to prevent further cutting.

Von Stroheim had broken the rules in his pursuit of artistic integrity, and he paid the price. Greed was given to an outside “cutter” for final editing. The studio first showed this truncated version of the film on December 4, 1924, at William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Theatre in New York City. The film was shown twice daily and ran for six weeks to mixed reviews. Von Stroheim, who felt his most creative work had been ruined, refused even to look at the final product.


Erich von Stroheim’s Greed is now considered a silent film classic. Von Stroheim was a disciple of the legendary D. W. Griffith and had worked for several years under his tutelage. Von Stroheim’s uses of close-ups, camera angles, lighting, composition, and symbolism show the influences of Griffith’s work, but von Stroheim’s films in general, and Greed in particular, go beyond Griffith’s in their stark, realistic analysis and in their attention to authentic detail.

Von Stroheim was one of the first directors to struggle with the problem of how to adapt a work of written fiction to the screen realistically. Just as Frank Norris had rebelled against the popular fiction of the 1890’s, von Stroheim rebelled against the sentimental Hollywood products of the 1920’s. Critics attacked both artists for the vulgarity and sordidness of their “realism,” and both defended themselves as having merely presented life in a truthful manner. They noted that individuals can be good, kind, noble, and idealistic, but they can also be selfish, mean, jealous, and greedy. Norris’s and von Stroheim’s uncompromising portrayals of life and human behavior are more accurately described as “naturalism.” Both men believed that heredity and environment control human actions and that individuals are at the mercy of irresistible natural forces. Both were concerned about psychological and sociological nuances outside the accepted cultural definition of what should be openly displayed as art.

Von Stroheim relied entirely on actual locations to add force and meaning to the more grotesque aspects of his story. For the scenes that took place in the Placer County mining area, von Stroheim had the Goldwyn Company lease and restore to operation the actual mine described in Norris’s novel. When the story shifted to San Francisco, von Stroheim moved shooting there as well. Because the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 had destroyed the seedy Polk Street area described in Norris’s novel, von Stroheim had to improvise. He rented a house at the corner of Hayes and Laguna Streets, furnished the rooms exactly as Norris’s novel describes them, and then had the actors actually live in the rooms to get the feel of their surroundings.

Von Stroheim filled each scene with interesting and important details. He believed that objects could be used to create atmosphere and that an emphasis on detail would both enrich the scene and accentuate the dramatic importance of the film. He kept the backgrounds of his scenes in deep focus, so that details were not lost on the viewer and so that contrasting themes and symbols, plots and subplots, could be ironically juxtaposed.

Von Stroheim’s obsession with realistic detail was also evident in the scenes shot in Death Valley. The director rejected the studio’s advice that he film the desert scenes on the sand dunes near Los Angeles; instead, he took a film crew consisting of forty-one men and one woman to Death Valley. There, again for the sake of realism and to stay true to the novel, von Stroheim filmed the final scenes in 130-degree heat. He claimed that the combination of intense heat, hellish surroundings, and physical strain gave the film its proper nightmarish conclusion.

In the end, von Stroheim created a film that was ahead of its time and a commercial disaster. Studio executives (Mayer and Thalberg), ever conscious of box-office realities, demanded that severe cuts be made to reduce the film’s length. They also found the film lacking in star quality. Von Stroheim, unlike most Hollywood directors, rejected the star system then in vogue. Instead, he chose his actors primarily from screen comedies. He reasoned that such actors would not be burdened with artificial dramatic mannerisms that would detract from their human qualities.

Critics found the film to be unsparingly intense (because of the severe editing, one dramatic scene follows another almost without respite) and too pessimistic (major and minor characters appear helpless against larger forces). Viewers found the contrast between innocence and degeneracy repellent and the emphasis on the tragic state of human existence too bleak. In short, the film was out of touch with the marketing realities of Hollywood and out of step with the popular culture of the 1920’s and 1930’s. To the post-World War II generation of film critics and film viewers, however, the film’s reception appeared to indicate the public’s and the critics’ failure to confront the ugly side of life and to recognize the directional genius of von Stroheim. More contemporary observers have come to realize the tremendous impact Greed had and continues to have on the overall development of realism on the screen during the era of sound. Most modern critical viewers marvel at von Stroheim’s authenticity, his sophisticated development of character, his innovative production techniques, and his visionary direction. Greed (film)
Motion pictures;Greed
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Erich von Stroheim[Stroheim]

Further Reading

  • Curtiss, Thomas Quinn. Von Stroheim. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971. Biography written by a close friend of von Stroheim records events much as von Stroheim would have wanted. Includes a long chapter on Greed as well as Idwal Jones’s account of the original screening of the film. Jones, the drama critic for the San Francisco Daily News, was one of perhaps only a dozen individuals ever to see the original, nine-hour-plus version of Greed.
  • Finler, Joel W. Stroheim. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. Brief volume focuses primarily on Greed. Valuable for its comparisons of Norris’s novel with von Stroheim’s film.
  • _______, ed.“Greed”: A Film by Erich von Stroheim. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972. Contains von Stroheim’s original shooting script for Greed and includes brief but useful articles from Finler and from Herman G. Weinberg. Also included are valuable recollections concerning the making of Greed from actor Jean Hersholt, cameraman William Daniels, and von Stroheim himself.
  • Henry, Nora. Ethics and Social Criticism in the Hollywood Films of Erich von Stroheim, Ernst Lubitsch, and Billy Wilder. New York: Praeger, 2000. Examines how these three directors commented on and influenced American culture through their filmmaking. Includes brief biographies of the directors, bibliography, and index.
  • Koszarski, Richard. Von: The Life and Films of Erich Von Stroheim. Rev. ed. Portland, Oreg.: Amadeus Press, 2001. Expanded and heavily revised version of an earlier biography titled The Man You Loved to Hate: Erich von Stroheim and Hollywood, which was published in 1983. Provides one of the most useful syntheses available on von Stroheim’s life. Includes a long chapter on Greed.
  • Noble, Peter. Hollywood Scapegoat: The Biography of Erich von Stroheim. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1972. This biography, first published in 1950, was written with the cooperation of von Stroheim. The short chapter on Greed is composed largely of excerpts from correspondence between the author and the director. Includes a lengthy appendix that contains a selection of critical essays.
  • Weinberg, Herman G. The Complete “Greed.” New York: E. P. Dutton, 1973. An attempt to reconstruct the complete Greed with more than four hundred photos that remain from the original production. Scenes cut from the final film are marked, and a description or a fragment of dialogue accompanies each photo. Includes a brief but informative introduction.
  • Whittemore, Don, and Philip Alan Cecchettini, eds. Passport to Hollywood: Film Immigrants. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976. An anthology of works about important film directors, including von Stroheim. Several essays about the director describe his career and his major films.

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