von Stroheim can be seen by the camera at the far left
von Stroheim on the set
USA (140 mi) 1924 restored version (239 mi) d: Erich von Stroheim
I never truckled, I never took off the hat to fashion and held it out for pennies. By God, I told them the truth. They liked it or they didn’t like it. What had that to do with me? I told them the truth; I knew it for the truth then and I know it for the truth now.
—Frank Norris, opening title card from his essay The True Reward of the Novelist, 1903, which may as well be the voice of the director
What had become of her husband Trina did not know. She never saw any of the old Polk Street people. There was no way she could have news of him, even if she had cared to have it. She had her money, that was the main thing. Her passion for it excluded every other sentiment. There it was in the bottom of her trunk, in the canvas sack, the chamois-skin bag, and the little brass match-safe. Not a day passed that Trina did not have it out where she could see and touch it. One evening she had even spread all the gold pieces between the sheets, and had then gone to bed, stripping herself, and had slept all night upon the money, taking a strange and ecstatic pleasure in the touch of the smooth flat pieces the length of her entire body.
—McTeague, by Frank Norris, 1899
It is rare to see live screenings of Erich von Stroheim films, and it is equally rare to get young people to sit through a silent feature, even when accompanied by the artistry of a live piano performance. When asked how to persuade young people to see a silent film, writer and film scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his recent column from the winter edition of Cinema Scope, Conspicuously Absent or Apt to be Overlooked | Jonathan ..., replied, “By saying that Stroheim knows more about people than Spielberg does — and more than we do.” Not sure even that would work. Rosenbaum goes on to express his dismay at the dearth of representation of von Stroheim on DVD, currently containing less than half his output, and only one film is available on Blu-Ray. Altogether missing is Rosenbaum’s choice for the greatest American film ever made (as of January 2016), My Ten Favorite American Films and Capsule Reviews of ..., which is von Stroheim’s silent film GREED (1924), the same film singled out by Catholic newspaper mogul and moral crusader Martin Quigley, one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Hays Code (Production Code) in the early 1930’s, who was quoted as saying art must be handled carefully because it could be “morally evil in its effects,” calling this film “the filthiest, vilest, most putrid picture in the history of motion pictures,” a perfect example of how negativity is often more graphically convincing than the best reviews. Part of the mythology behind the film exists in the artist himself, who began reconstructing a new persona for himself the moment he arrived at Ellis Island on November 25, 1909 at the age of 24, claiming to be the son of Austrian nobility, calling himself a Count, though his accent was distinctively lower class (according to his agent and Austrian-born director Billy Wilder), where his father was known to be a middle class Jewish hat-maker from Vienna. The reasons for his emigration to America were concealed until after his death, as it turns out he was a deserter from the Austrian army. Nonetheless he fooled virtually everyone in Hollywood and Western Europe that he had links to Austrian aristocracy, a ruse he successfully carried out throughout his lifetime, presumably the greatest role he ever played. In America he worked as a traveling salesman, moving to San Francisco and eventually Hollywood, where he surrounded himself with rumors of a military heritage, proclaiming himself an expert in these matters, which led him to a job in 1915 as a wardrobe supervisor in charge of uniforms, responsible for assembling his own costumed “student corps.” According to one of his biographers, Thomas Curtiss Quinn in Von Stroheim, “Each morning the von Stroheim ‘student corps’ — all of whom had been subjected to a German haircut — would ‘fall in’ in military fashion on an open stage and stand roll call, inspection, and a rehearsal drill.” He was hired as an uncredited assistant director to D.W. Griffith on BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), also a production assistant and an extra for INTOLERANCE (1916), claiming “I worshipped D.W. Griffith the way that someone can worship the man who has taught him everything, who has lavished the treasures of genius on him without holding back. He was the greatest of his day.”
Not Coming from a Theater Near You, August 23, 2009, Oh, the Depravity! The Cinema of Erich von Stroheim - Not ...
Traces of Griffith’s signature style are present throughout von Stroheim’s work. The presentational mise-en-scene that privileges both the actor’s expression and the obsessively, painstakingly detailed sets; poetic (sometimes excessively so) title-cards; idyllic, romantic interludes that off-set an otherwise realist aesthetic; close-ups that reveal the character’s soul (for Griffith often signs of purity, for von Stroheim corruption); and a dexterous use of montage to maneuver around a set, or to cross-cut different scenes for dramatic effect. Von Stroheim often takes Griffith’s stylizations to their furthest extreme, strictly adhering to montage and rarely moving the camera (defiantly against-the-times, as filmmakers were more and more employing expressive lighting and tracking shots).
But he also learned something else from the master: a grand, uncompromising vision that no theater or studio could contain or, more importantly, maintain. Much like Griffith initially planned for Intolerance, von Stroheim had hoped to show his monumental Greed in two parts on consecutive nights, something akin to Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung, a series of four connected operas that are intended to be seen consecutively (though they are often divided and performed individually). Neither Griffith nor von Stroheim saw this vision of theirs actualized, but certainly they are two early visions of cinema as a higher art in an age that still saw the medium as decidedly lower.
As a director renowned for his authoritative, dictatorial style, with tensions occurring both on and off the set, von Stroheim is also remembered for his extravagance in budget indiscretions, along with painfully slow working methods, where studio executives often had to step in before shooting was finished due to cost overruns. He directed nine films between 1919 and 1932 but was fired (or replaced) from as many as five of them, demonstrating an unwillingness or inability to modify his artistic principles, such as his extreme attention to detail and his insistence on near-total artistic freedom, where his career as a director was all but finished when he was prematurely fired working with Gloria Swanson in QUEEN KELLY (1928), which forced him to return to acting, salvaging his reputation and career through iconic acting performances in GRAND ILLUSION (1937) and SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). To many he is known primarily as an actor associated with a decorated military past and aristocratic background, but as a scene constructionist, von Stroheim was far more sophisticated than many of his contemporaries, using magnificent crane shots, often blending subjective points of view, using surrealistic flourishes, including Technicolor shots. Obsessed with portraying characters as realistic, succumbing to their own desires, von Stroheim is arguably the first director to shoot a feature film on location, using natural light, displaying an uncanny sense for meticulous detail and decors, driven by a desire for perfection, using a novelistic approach where his ultimate goal was to achieve naturalism and believability in the often exaggerated theatrics of silent cinema. The films of von Stroheim lie in a cloud of mystery, as not one of his films was ever released to the public in the manner of his choosing, as all were altered significantly by studio execs and recut by studio hacks, none more than this film, considered the Holy Grail of butchered movies with the complete version presumed lost forever, where generations of cinephiles can only imagine what was originally conceived by the artist. As much about the legendary story behind the film as the film itself, GREED belongs in a unique category, as it’s among the most ambitious efforts never to have materialized onscreen.
Jonathan Rosenbaum from The Guardian, August 31, 2002, Jonathan Rosenbaum on Erich von Stroheim's Greed | Film ...
Legends about the “complete” Greed have existed ever since Erich von Stroheim’s film was released in 1924. Stroheim’s bosses at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer slashed the film to a mere 10 reels, but the great Austrian director had shot no fewer than 446. In early 1924 Stroheim apparently screened various rough cuts to friends that were about one-tenth as long, ranging from 47 to 42 reels. Private screenings can be interrupted for many reasons — projector breakdowns, pauses for meals or reel changes — but even so, most accounts put the duration of the Greed screenings at between eight and 10 hours.
The next version Stroheim edited, said to be somewhere between 28 and 22 reels, still ran for over four hours. When he asked editor Grant Whytock to produce a still shorter cut — designed to be shown over two evenings and eliminating one of the major subplots — the results were somewhere between 15 and 18 reels. This too was rejected by MGM, which whittled the film down again, adding intertitles to account for some of the gaps.
The studio burned the footage that it deleted over 75 years ago; according to Stroheim, this was done in order to extract the few cents’ worth of silver contained in the nitrate of the film-stock.
What MGM eventually released contains the only surviving footage of the film, but in 1999 the American producer Rick Schmidlin reconstructed on video what Greed might have been. Schmidlin’s main sources, apart from the 10-reel version and a new score, are Stroheim’s “continuity screenplay” dated March 31, 1923, together with hundreds of re-photographed stills of missing scenes — sometimes with added pans and zooms, sometimes cropped, often with opening and closing irises. It’s a useful and enlightening undertaking that should alter and enhance most people’s understanding of Greed, and if you believe the hype from Turner Classic Movies, what has been lost has now been found. However, by necessity it is a project that is doomed to remain unfinished, since so many scenes were destroyed.
(In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess that I was hired by Schmidlin a few years ago as a consultant on another speculative version of a classic — Orson Welles’s 1958 Touch of Evil. Schmidlin also invited me to serve as consultant on his Greed project, but — with regret — I had to decline because he couldn’t afford to pay me a fee.)
Both before and after Greed, most of Stroheim’s released films turned a profit, which helps to explain why he survived as long as he did in Hollywood, despite cost overruns and constant battles with the studios. Whether any of his own cuts of Greed could have been profitable is hard to say, but it’s difficult to fathom how Hollywood apologists can argue that Irving Thalberg was justified in eviscerating Greed for business reasons, because the movie he released recouped less than half its budget.
It’s a truism that writers are among the most neglected creative participants in movies, especially in relation to actors and directors. Yet a special kind of hell awaits writer-director-performers when they function as writers, as Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, John Cassavetes and Stroheim all found to their cost. Stroheim’s authoritarian image as director and as actor left little room for any notion of him as a writer. Yet it’s mainly as a writer that we can come to any understanding of what he was trying to accomplish in his films, above all in Greed, where his only appearance as an actor is a cameo as a balloon seller, which is missing from the released version.
The 1972 edition of Stroheim’s screenplay, edited by Joel W Finler and published by Lorrimer, is a slightly longer adaptation of Frank Norris’s 1899 novel McTeague than the one used by Schmidlin; it gives a pretty good idea of the writer-director’s intentions. Contrary to the absurd legend that Stroheim simply “filmed” Norris page by page, nearly one-fifth of the plot in this script transpires before the first sentence of the novel, and much of what follows brilliantly expands or elaborates upon the original.
Curiously, von Stroheim rejected the idea of coddling movie stars who were encouraged to dramatically overact onscreen, which did not endear him to the movie moguls and Hollywood executives who relied upon a sympathetic star system to generate box office, and instead demonstrated a passion for authenticity, focused upon the innate emotions involved, writing flawed characters prone to making poor decisions, victims of their own mistakes, subject to repressed resentments and dark, uncontrollable motives. Instead of creating a false Hollywood melodrama that spins its own alluring fiction, von Stroheim created a grim realism with no stars, no glamor, and no happy endings, exposing a seamy underside of everyday life that includes the hardships and pitfalls of living in poverty, enhanced by the use of actual locations, creating a harrowing and uncompromising vision where money literally destroys lives right before our eyes in a stark depiction of a man unable to control his baser instincts. There are few films being made even today, more than 90 years later, that create such a shattering effect. Adapted from the 1899 Frank Norris novel McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, considered one of the first major naturalistic novels in American literature, drawing upon Darwinian theories of evolution, such as survival of the fittest, and the work of contemporary French writers such as Émile Zola, who helped shape the naturalism literary movement, suggesting man is a product of his social environment, where the surrounding forces affect human behavior. For instance, the influences of violence, alcohol, and prostitution were more prevalent for those living in the filth and squalor of industrialization, subjecting those workers to harsh realities that would also include poverty, racism, prejudice, disease, injury, and death. In creating the character of John “Mac” McTeague, played by Gibson Gowland, he is a hulk of a man known for his virile physicality, having grown up in the Big Dipper Gold Mining region in Placer County, California made famous by the California Gold Rush, where from the outset we see a man struggling to contain the brute within, as he’s learned to survive by relying upon brute force and his lower instincts. Viewed as a simple headed but basically good-natured miner, with a tendency to be overly friendly, especially after a drink, he is composed of strong and often warring emotions, where primal instincts such as lust, desire, and greed would often fight for dominance in an otherwise amoral and indifferent universe around him. What’s unique here is the unflattering portrait of an archetypal specimen of the human species, as throughout the film McTeague is viewed more as a symbol who comes to stand for the entire human race.
While McTeague is an acclaimed novel, it doesn’t resonate with the same conviction as von Stroheim’s film, as Frank Norris was the son of a millionaire who started writing the novel in a creative writing class at Harvard University, where the book is dedicated to his teacher. Von Stroheim, on the other hand, dedicated the film to his mother (who he adored) as the epitome of his artistry, adding painfully autobiographical elements of his own life into the film, where the poverty and physical abuse mirrors his early years in America and his difficult first marriage. While the novel takes place over several decades, featuring dozens of characters and subplots, including lengthy descriptions of the characters and the seedy neighborhoods where they live, the countless details might be hard to translate to a silent film, but von Stroheim’s exacting methods more than measure up, making him ideally suited for the job, as what he was trying to do was put an entire novel on film, something that was not fully achieved until 1980 with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s mammoth 15 and ½ hour adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. A blistering critique of the American Dream, von Stroheim centers his film around several dynamic characters, using bold, larger-than-life performances that project the unrelenting emotions at the core of this story. McTeague’s life effectively begins in 1908 with the death of his father (Jack Curtis), who also works in the mines, but is seen as a cruel, womanizing, and drunken lout, where as the saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. When first seen in the film, he’s holding an injured bird in his hand, kissing its head, resembling a gentle giant evoking moments of tenderness, but when another miner knocks the bird out of his hand, McTeague savagely throws him off a bridge. Hoping for a better life for her son, his mother (Tempe Pigott) pleads with a traveling dentist, Dr. Painless Potter (Erich von Ritzau), who is little more than a con artist, begging him to take her son along as an apprentice. So McTeague leaves the mining town where he grew up, and with the $250 dollars his mother leaves him when she dies, he opens a small dentist practice in a working class area on Polk Street in San Francisco. While he has few customers, he makes enough to get by, which seems to satisfy him. With a lone friend in the world, Marcus Schouler (Jean Hersholt), an assistant at a dog hospital, the two are joined at the hip with their destinies entwined.
When Marcus’s fiancée (and cousin), German immigrant Trina Sieppe (ZaSu Pitts), chips a tooth falling off a swing, he brings her in to McTeague to have her tooth repaired. While waiting, Trina buys an underground lottery ticket from McTeague’s cleaning lady, receiving a lecture from Marcus about how he doesn’t believe in gambling, but only because his pockets were empty at the time. Putting her to sleep in the dentist’s chair, McTeague finds himself powerfully attracted to Trina, swooning over her ecstatically before leaning down to kiss her at one point, arousing animal instincts, again resembling a brute that has to restrain himself from molesting her. Claiming he’s in love, McTeague confesses his feelings to Marcus afterwards, literally begging to go out with her, while entreating her to return on a daily basis for more dental work, just to have a chance to see her. Marcus makes a big deal about stepping aside, given ominous weight by the way the scene is shot, staring out the window of a pub, seeing the foot traffic of pedestrians before the camera moves further out to an expansive sea and returning back again, then casually giving her away as one might a new puppy or an old worn-out shirt, but almost immediately begins resenting McTeague for intruding into his personal territory. The afternoon picnic scenes with her German family are priceless, with ill-behaved children running around unsupervised, with the family almost always seen waving American flags, as if they’re more American that way. After the engagement party, the cleaning lady informs Trina that she has won $5,000 in the lottery, news that Marcus takes badly, thinking that should have been his. When Trina finally agrees to marry McTeague, oddly taking place in their living room as a somber funeral procession can be seen out the window behind the preacher, followed by a family feast of gluttonous proportions, which plays out like The Last Supper, as her family leaves for Los Angeles, leaving her petrified to be left alone. Interestingly, McTeague’s wedding present to his wife is a bird cage with two love-birds, though from her vantage point, seeing the cage transposed over her husband’s face, the birds are trapped with no hope of escape. Seen again after the passage of time, the aggressive nature of the birds picking at each other inside the cage resembles their own marital bickering, as the lottery money seems to have transformed Trina into an obsessive miser, hoarding the money and refusing to spend any of it, even if that means the couple is forced to live in squalor. Soon afterwards, Marcus announces he’s leaving town, heading for work on a cattle ranch, but this is accompanied by the imagery of a cat stalking the two fluttering birds in the cage, with thoughts of devouring them.
Shortly afterwards, McTeague receives official notice from the State that he’s not licensed to work as a dentist, subject to a hefty fine and a jail sentence if he persists, which they soon realize is the subtle actions of Marcus working behind the scenes. Bouncing from job to job, McTeague has little luck. With little to no money, the marriage deteriorates quickly, reaching desperate straits when the couple is forced to sell their possessions. After attempting to reason with her about hoarding the money, an incident occurs that changes his demeanor. Just after losing one job, she orders him out the door in search of another, refusing to give him even a nickel for busfare, forcing him to walk for miles in a downpour of rain. Of course, he never makes it to the job and ends up in a saloon instead, where McTeague becomes increasingly violent, literally ripping any money out of her hands and taking it instead of asking for it, where they are reduced to a loveless and pitiless existence. Made even worse are scenes of Trina carefully polishing her gold coins every night, including abstract inserts of long, scrawny arms reaching for and caressing the gold. On nights when McTeague is out all night, she even strips naked and crawls into bed with her coins, relishing the touch on her bare skin. After a certain point, McTeague never returns home anymore, where Trina gets a job working at an elementary school scrubbing the floors. On Christmas Eve, with nothing in his pockets, discovering their wedding picture ripped in half in the garbage can outside, McTeague breaks into her living quarters and murders her for the gold, grabbing one of the birds still left in the cage (which figures in the final sequence), a scene made even more memorable by the presence of Christmas decorations and two policemen standing outside having a conversation, but are clueless to what’s taking place. A “wanted for murder” poster alerts Marcus that McTeague is on the loose, where he joins a sheriff’s posse going after him, stopping when they reach the desert, refusing to enter, as those that enter don’t come back alive. Defying the sheriff, Marcus goes in after him alone, heading into the isolated wasteland of Death Valley, one of the hottest locations on earth, where temperatures during the shooting were reported between 91 and 161° F. Von Stroheim dragged as many as 43 cast and crew members into the heat of the desert for two months, with no roads or running water, wrapping the cameras with towels of ice to prevent overheating, where insurance coverage was denied, the closest town 100 miles away, yet 14 fell ill and returned to Los Angeles, including actor Jean Hersholt who had daily bouts with heat stroke, losing 26 pounds during the ordeal, suffering internal bleeding, and was forced to spend a week in a hospital afterwards. The most memorable shots were filmed during the heart of the summer in the middle of the day when the sun was the strongest, with the camera gradually building to longer shots, where the desolate landscape elevates the extreme gravity of the situation and the steadily out-of-proportion sense of desperation. From this place they have wandered into, a literal Hell on earth, there is no retreat and no possible chance of redemption, where the ultimate confrontation couldn’t be bleaker and more dramatically oppressive.