Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Greed (1924)
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Greed (1924) is one of the greatest silent films ever made, although the film was a box-office failure at the time. The 'lost' film masterpiece is a dark study of the oppressive forces that decay and corrupt three people - a simple, uneducated former miner and dentist (McTeague) in turn of the century San Francisco, his miserly, vulgar and pathological wife (Trina), and their mutual friend and McTeague's ultimate nemesis (Marcus) - all are caught up by their squalid, debased passion, compulsion and greed for gold. The wife's fixation on money causes the dentist to lose everything - he kills her, becomes maddened with the same lust for gold, then takes flight only to find himself handcuffed to his dead pursuer in the fateful conclusion. The film is a morality tale about how the characters are dehumanized by the influence of money upon their lives.

What remains of the film was directed by the ambitious, extravagant, stubborn and independent-minded Erich Von Stroheim - he spent nine months shooting the film and a total of fifteen months writing and editing it (from 1923-1924). Production costs were close to half a million dollars. [Von Stroheim is better known for his role as Gloria Swanson's butler in director Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950), and as the prison-camp commandant in director Jean Renoir's La Grand Illusion (1937-French).]

The film's elaborate script, adapted by June Mathis and Von Stroheim himself, was taken from Frank Norris' naturalistic, best-selling epic novel McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (written when Norris was twenty-three in 1895 and published in 1899). But the original tragic tale was modified - the pre-1906 earthquake plot was updated to begin in 1908 and covered a fifteen year period (until 1923). Since Von Stroheim was determined to accurately recreate and recapture every detail of every single page of the source material, the film became very complex and grew to unacceptable proportions. He also insisted on filming in natural, non-Hollywood studio locales - using real exteriors in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and interiors and street scenes in San Francisco and in Oakland. And he filmed the final fatal confrontation and shoot-out sequence in the sweltering heat of Death Valley under the very harshest conditions.

Greed, still a powerful masterpiece, is only a truncated fragment of its original form that was first presented to the Goldwyn Company (the first cut was 47 reels, the second cut was approximately seven hours and 42 reels long). It is most noted for the director's struggle with Irving Thalberg at MGM, the studio that eventually released the film and wanted it to be of acceptable, commercial length. [A reel is approximately ten to twelve minutes in length.] Although Von Stroheim cut the film down to about 24 reels (a four-hour version), Stroheim's own director/friend Rex Ingram cut the film further to between 15 and 18 reels (a three-hour version). It was edited even more - the current release version of the film is now shown at approximately two and a quarter hours (about 10 reels), one quarter of its original length. The severe editing was completed by Joe Farnham and June Mathis, Goldwyn's story editor, who hadn't read either the book or the screenplay. Reportedly, the 32 reels of edited negatives were melted down by MGM to extract the valuable silver nitrate from the film stock.

Gold-related objects in the black-and-white film (i.e., gold coins, gold plates and vessels, gold tooth fillings, a giant gold tooth, a brass bedstead, gilt frames, the birdcage, the canary, and gold itself) were hand-tinted frame-by-frame in the original release prints. But the original print of the film has been lost forever, although there have been repeated rumors of its existence. A restored, four-hour version was recently reconstructed by film archivist Rick Schmidlin - he pieced together existing footage and 650 stills with the use of the continuity script to create a fuller sense of Stroheim's original film (with its numerous subplots and complexities).

Plot Synopsis

The film's prologue is taken from an opening page of the Norris book:

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.

The credits announce, in a signature style, that the film was "personally directed by Erich von Stroheim," and that the film was "dedicated to my mother."

Part One:

An iris opens and closes on a title card for The Big Dipper Gold Mine in Placer County, California, A.D. 1908.

Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold, Molten, Graven, Hammered, Rolled, Hard to Get and Light to Hold; Stolen, Borrowed, Squandered - Doled.

The poetic verse is taken from Miss Kilmansegg: Her Moral by early 19th century writer Thomas Hood.

The film opens with an iris-in long shot of the tree-covered mountains of California's gold country (Placer County), filmed in documentary style. A mine building holds a giant, twenty-stamp ore-crushing machine, where men shovel up muddy substances with a trowel and inspect for gold. A rail-car is pushed out of a mine, where young McTeague (Gibson Gowland), a car-boy at the Big Dipper Mine, works with a candle in one hand. He inspects a large chunk of rock quartz, throws it on the car beside him, and cumbersomely pushes the rail-car out of the mouth of the tunnel. There, he spots a little lame bird on the ground in the middle of the narrow gauge rail-track. He picks up the feeble, wounded creature, tenderly examines it, and kisses it (in closeup) - revealing his more gentle impulses. McTeague proceeds further along the track with the rescued, injured bird in his hand.

Another miner maliciously hits his hand and the bird is carelessly knocked away from his hand. Anger grows on McTeague's transformed face to reveal his more violent side. In a rage, he grabs the miner, heaves him up over his head, and tosses him off the track down into a ravine where he lands in running water.

Such was McTeague.

In a cook house that is surrounded by trees, a Chinaman (with his jaw bandaged) replaces dirty towels on the porch. Inside the kitchen, an exhausted Mrs. (Mother) McTeague (Tempe Piggot) labors over the stove as a cook for the gold-mining camp, and then notices the time: 6:20 p.m. - life is extremely difficult:

Such was Mother McTeague.

At Mike's Saloon, two saloon tarts/brothel girls look out from an upstairs window and point toward a traveling dentist's buggy that is approaching. A giant tooth dangles from the hood of the buggy down into the driver's seat. Dr. 'Painless' Potter (Gunther von Ritzau), a transient quack dentist/surgeon, distributes leaflets to people on the porch of the saloon, bowing as he does so. The handbills read:

Extractions 50 cts.
Fillings, $2. & up
All Work Guaranteed
Absolutely Painless
Have Your Teeth Attended to NOW

"Filled with the one idea of having her son enter a profession and rise in life...the chance came at last to Mother McTeague." By nightfall, a crowd has gathered in front of the saloon, where the dentist exhibits his art to an audience. He takes his forceps and jerks a tooth from the mouth of a Chinaman patient. With great pain and longing on her face, Mrs. McTeague approaches and gazes thoughtfully at her son who is in the crowd - she ambitiously imagines her son bettering himself and in the same position as the dentist administering a glass of water to the Chinaman and being paid. "His mother's ambition was fired...and Mac went away with the dentist to learn his profession." She is inspired to have her son take up the career of dentistry.

In the next scene, the traveling dentist has agreed to take on McTeague as an apprentice. With his mother on the path, McTeague leaves the mining camp in the dentist's buggy. She takes a few steps toward the departing wagon. She waves goodbye and then is left standing there alone. With tears in her eyes, she stuffs her white handkerchief into her mouth - the wagon disappears and the iris closes down on the scene.

"Mac learned dentistry, after a fashion, through assisting the charlatan...and, years later, on Polk Street in San Francisco, "Doc" McTeague was established." A vertical barn door camera effect opens on the corner of the Polk Street district in San Francisco - [it is at the corner of Polk and California Streets]. Two street-cars pass by in the street below, as Mac works (with his white dental jacket clearly visible through the bay window on the second floor of the building at the intersection) upstairs on a patient in the dental chair. When the door bell rings, the door to the office at 611 Polk Street opens, where McTeague's best friend Marcus Schouler (Jean Hersholt) and Marcus' cousin Trina (Zasu Pitts) are ushered in to take a seat while he finishes his work on Miss Baker (Fanny Midgley).

Marcus has referred his cousin (and his romantic interest) Trina to the dentist - he brags to her about McTeague's strength: "Trina, Mac's the strongest duck you ever seen - - by damn!" To prove the point, he makes a fist and grips his own bicep arm muscle to demonstrate. Trina takes a look towards McTeague. Mac's bed-lounge area (his living quarters) adjoins his dental office, where Maria Macapa (Dale Fuller), the charlady "keeps Mac's place clean. She's cuckoo in the head." Maria approaches and holds out tickets towards them, asking: "Buy a ticket in the lottery?...Just a dollar." Marcus withdraws three dimes (thirty cents) from his pocket in his hand, but quickly replaces them, and then scolds Maria: "Go 'long with you! Lotteries is against the law!" She persists and persuades Trina to buy a lottery ticket: "-- the butcher in the next block won twenty dollars the last drawing!" Marcus picks his ear and nose, but Trina takes a dollar out of her handbag and purchases one of the tickets.

After McTeague is finished with the patient, Marcus, an assistant in the local dog hospital, introduces his fiancee Trina to him:

Mac, old pal, I wantcha to shake hands with my cousin. Trina Sieppe. She's my sweetie!

In close-up, his large hand squeezes her smaller one. Marcus cautions him: "Don't you hurt her too much, Mac...So long, Mac. I got to do some work the dog hospital. Don't do anything I wouldn't know!"

Trina sits in the dental chair for some dental work, explaining what happened to her teeth. McTeague places a bib on her, has her remove her hat, examines her mouth with a dental mirror, and then decides that some of her teeth will have to come out: "I guess I'll have to pull them three teeth and make you a bridge." In the film's first hint at her stinginess, she is upset and naturally distressed by the diagnosis: "Oh no! That will cost too much, won't it?" "For the first time in his life, McTeague felt an inkling of ambition to please a woman." He explains to Trina what he is going to do, assuring her that he will not hurt her.

"During the next two weeks Trina was a daily patient." After using a drill on her during the two weeks of treatment (extractions), she shows great pain, so he proposes using a pain killer on her last visit: "Ether...not so dangerous as gas." She agrees and he prepares her for an ether mask: "So Mac administered the ether." She slowly succumbs to the effects of the anesthetic gas, with her lips extended upwards toward his. The quack dentist's encounter with the young woman has a great impact on him. As McTeague stands above her unconscious, sedated face - his eyes are fixed on her and he lustfully bends down toward her - but then he holds back and resists the strong temptation and impulse to molest her (inherited from his degenerate hereditary line). He takes out his drill to begin working, but still appears disturbed:

But below the fine fabric bred of his mother, ran the foul stream of hereditary evil...the taint of generations given through his father.

He smells her hair and her perfume, and eagerly leans over and cannot resist kissing her full on the mouth while she is under the influence of the ether. His agitated pet bird jumps and hops about in its cage in a corner of the office. At the conclusion of the kiss, he pulls back, grabs his hair, and continues working:

Terrified at his weakness, McTeague threw himself once more into his work with desperate energy...until he finished.

Marcus clowishly enters the office to retrieve Trina, following the operation. To enliven their ill-at-ease spirits, he enters with a hop and skip, closes the door behind him with his foot, and then makes an imitation of Napoleon (with his hat turned sideways, his coat closed, and his hand in the familiar pose). After looking at the repair job in her mouth, Marcus compliments Mac: "Oh, Mac's all damn!" He playfully punches Mac in the arm.

"Trina was to come no more." As Trina and Marcus walk toward the door, hand in hand, and say "So long," Mac watches them depart with a sense of loss, after being powerfully attracted to Trina. "His dream was gone." From his bay window, he watches them while they wait for (and then board) a streetcar from across the street. As the street-car travels away down Hayes Street, a closeup of his face shows tears streaming down his cheeks.

"The following Sunday, Marcus took Mac to the Cliff House." Documentary-style shots are inserted of the boardwalk with the sea in the background, and a stairway leading down, with a large sign that reads: "Seal Rock, Tea Gardens and Grill, Meals from 25 cents up, Family Style." In the restaurant pub at the Cliff House on the Presidio, they are seated at a small round table, drinking beer. Throughout the entire scene, a player piano is in action inside, and there is a steady stream of passers-by on the boardwalk that can be seen through the window. Mac appears despondent and glum - he drops his hat and then confesses his passion for Trina. In a noble gesture of self-sacrifice, Marcus renounces his romantic claim on Trina and agrees to step aside so that McTeague can woo her:

Marcus: What's the matter with you these days, Mac?...huh?
Mac: (after a long hesitation) It''s...Miss Sieppe!
Marcus: (furiously) You mean...that you, too - -
Mac: (blurting out and confessing) She's been the first girl I've ever known. I couldn't help myself!... -- I was so close to her -- an' smelled her hair -- an' felt her breath! Oh! don't know! (Marcus rises, dumfounded and anguished. With his hands in his pockets, he walks toward the window, watches the people pass by outside on the boardwalk, and notices the waves in the distance.)
Marcus: (Agitated, he turns back toward Mac and extends his arms toward his friend.) Well...what are we goin' to do 'bout it? I'll give her up to you, old man - - by damn! (The two men shake hands together.) Friends for life - - or...death!
Mac: I'm...much...obliged, Marcus. I'm much...obliged!

"Then, with unselfish friendship for his 'pal', Marcus took Mac to Oakland the next Sunday...that he might again be with Trina and meet her folks." From a long shot filmed from above, their train approaches the 34th Street Station where the Sieppe family (with dog) is expectantly awaiting its arrival. "Mommer" Sieppe (Sylvia Ashton) carries a large picnic basket; the twin brothers Max and Moritz (Oscar and Otto Gotell) and kid brother 'Owgooste' (Austin Jewel) are dressed for the picnic outing and carry a butterfly net and a toy boat; and buck-toothed cousin Selina (Joan Standing). First, Marcus vigorously shakes hands with a spectacled, handle-bar mustached "Popper" Sieppe (Chester Conklin), who carries a Winchester rifle, has a chest covered with medals, and wears a hat with a small American flag. He then introduces the entire family to McTeague.

Marcus: Mac, this is Trina's father!
Mac: (They shake hands) Sure glad t' know ya, Mr. Sieppe.
Mr. Sieppe: Mommer! (Mac shakes hands with Mrs. Sieppe)
Marcus: Doc,...shake hands with my cousin, Selina.

Mac also holds out his hand to Trina, who smiles at him and shakes his hand. She lifts a corner of her lip to open her mouth and show him the results of his gold bridge repair work. In a single long shot, Popper arranges and lines the familial group on the tracks in the foreground. He rules them with military precision and has them stand at attention - he assumes the lead position as a lieutenant commanding a charge, and proceeds down the tracks on a forced march with the column. Trina and Mac bring up the rear. They walk to a picnic spot: "Shell Mound Park - Shooting Range." At the ticket booth and gate to Schuetzen Park (in Oakland), Marcus speaks to Mac (in the foreground) about paying the entrance fees:

Marcus: Here's where we shell out, Mac. Gimme four bits!
Mac: (After reaching deeply into his pocket and looking slightly embarrassed) I ain't got no money with me...only a dime!

Marcus assures his pal that he will pay for everyone and buys their tickets at the ticket office. "What a day that was for McTeague...what a never-to-be-forgotten day!" Some of them go to the merry-go-round - with the camera on the platform itself, Trina and Mac ride two abreast. Behind them are Selina and Marcus (they go in and out of the sunlight during the ride - it alternates from dark to light). Popper visits the rifle range, aims his rifle at the shooting range target, and fires. He gets very worked up when a sign rotates and indicates that he has missed the target. McTeague is uproariously happy, slapping his thigh, laughing, and enjoying Trina's company.

"Weeks passed and March rains put a stop to their picnics...but Mac saw Trina every Wednesday and Sunday." Now that Mac comes regularly to call on Trina, she stands waiting at the station for his train. When it pulls in, McTeague descends and greets her by shaking hands - he is carrying a concertina wrapped in newspaper. Trina suggests and points: "Let's go over and sit on the sewer." They cross the tracks and walk along a pathway through the sewage area - an iris shot focuses on a dead rat and other garbage on the side of the pathway. At the end of the pathway, they reach a large sewer-pipe with a grating on top. Here, they hop up and sit romantically together - she steadies herself for support by grabbing his arm. The boorish, shy Mac removes the newspaper from his concertina and asks what tune she would like to hear:

Trina: -- 'Hearts and Flowers'?
Mac: No...but, 'Nearer My God to Thee'.

As he plays for her, the camera slowly irises out on the couple. Dark clouds loom up, and rain begins to fall. They jump off the sewer, Trina opens up her umbrella, and they walk back together to the train station in the pounding rain. In the shelter of the station shed, Mac paces back and forth, and then bends over Trina and asks for her permission to marry:

Mac: Say, Miss Trina...why can't us two get married? (Trina responds with agitation and a surprised expression, wringing her hands in front of her) Why not? Dontcher like me well enough? Then...why not?
Trina: Because! (Forcefully, he suddenly takes her in his arms and kisses her)

As they embrace, a train roars past, and she struggles to free herself from his strong grasp. "First...chance had brought them face to face; now...mysterious instincts, as ungovernable as the winds of the heavens, were knitting their lives together." She pleads with him, pushes him away and gasps: "Let me go alone...please!" Then, noticing his hurt expression, she extends her hand: "-- you may come Sunday!" He persists: "Can't I kiss ya again?" She refuses, withdraws and frees herself, opens her umbrella, and rushes from the station. As he stands in the rain and watches her go, his bewildered and stunned look changes, and a smile grows wide on his face. He exclaims madly, as he pounds his fist into his palm and realizes his good fortune: "I've got her! By God...I've got her!!" He hails down an approaching train and boards.

"Trina and Mac became engaged. The event was celebrated with a theatre party." The crowd files out of the theatre (an exterior long shot from above) - an elated Mac, Trina, Mommer Sieppe and Owgooste are leaving too, evaluating the show:

Trina: I liked the lady best...who sang those sad songs.
Mommer: I liked pest...der yodlers!
Mac: I liked best...the fellow who played 'Nearer My God to Thee'...on the beer bottles.

Owgooste twists and turns on his legs, impatiently complaining in Mommer's ear. She replies: "Pehave!" "And afterwards, there was to be 'something to eat' at Mac's dental parlors." With packages in their arms, everyone climbs the stairs to Mac's place - they react to the commotion upstairs. In the hallway at the top of the stairs are well-wishers - Miss Baker, Marcus, Maria, and others. A sinister-looking, cadaverous agent (a plaster bandage on his cheek covers a large boil) from the lottery company approaches and bows formally in front of Trina - she appears frightened and agitated. She is told the good news that she has won the $5,000 lottery prize - it is an unexpected windfall that will prove to be the downfall of the McTeague's lives:

Agent: Your lottery ticket has won five thousand dollars!
Trina: (disbelieving and shaking her head) Oh!...there's a mistake! (Maria shows Trina that her name is on the list of winners)
Agent: (reaffirming) On presentation of your will receive a check for five thousand dollars!
Mommer: Vat efer vill you do mit all dose money, Trina?
Marcus: (cynically and trying to hide his disappointment that he has been cheated) Get married on it...for one thing! Can't we go into your parlors and celebrate? (Mac assents and everyone moves in the direction of his dental parlour office for a celebration party.)

"The party ended late. Mac and Marcus gave up their rooms to Trina, 'Der Mommer' and little 'Owgooste.'" While the guests depart, Maria, the charwoman, steals some of Mac's dental gold. Smoking a cigar, she is the last of the guests to leave. Mac (smoking a long pipe) and Trina are alone for the first time all evening. She contemplates the windfall she has just received that will affect her future life with McTeague:

Trina: (smiling up at him) Oh, Mac! Think of all this money coming to us...just at this moment. (Trina adjusts his tie in a natural way, and then they hug and kiss. With malicious timing, they are interrupted by Marcus who returns.)
Marcus: Come along, Mac. We've gotta sleep with the dogs tonight you know.

Marcus is disheartened that he has lost both his fiancee to McTeague, and his lottery winnings on top of that. After gesturing for Trina that she will find everything she needs, Mac leaves through the door with Marcus. Above the bed-lounge, Trina looks heaven-ward in a gesture of gratitude. She pulls back the covers and finds Owgooste sleeping on the bed. The sequence intercuts scenes of Trina and Marcus/Mac. At the front of Old Grannis' dog hospital where Marcus works, a passing streetwalker is briefly glimpsed. Marcus opens the door, turns on the light, and Mac and Marcus enter. Back in Mac's place, Trina contemplates the paper that tells of her winning lottery ticket. Furious, Marcus curses his luck:

What a damn fool I was - - if I'd a' kept Trina, I'd a' had...five thousand bucks! Damn the luck!

"Trina and Mac were married a month later in the photographer's rooms that Mac rented for their future home." A closeup (an iris shot) of a white-gloved hand holding a wedding ring in a small square box opens the scene. As the camera pulls back, it reveals McTeague holding the ring in his office. Old Grannis (Frank Hayes) is seated nearby, performing the functions of best man.

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