Greed (1924)


(director/writer/editor: Erich Von Stroheim; screenwriters: based on the turn-of-the-century novel McTeague by Frank Norris/ June Mathis/; cinematographer: Ernest B. Schoedsack; editors: Rex Ingraham/June Mathis/Joseph W. Farnham; cast: Gibson Gowland (‘Doctor’ John (“Mac”) McTeague), ZaSu Pitts (Trina Sieppe), Jean Hersholt (Marcus Schouler), Chester Conklin (Mr. Sieppe), Sylvia Ashton (Mrs. Sieppe), Florence Gibson (Hag), James Gibson (Deputy), Oscar Gottell (A Sieppe Twin), Otto Gotell (A Sieppe Twin), Dale Fuller (Maria Miranda Macapa), Cesare Gravina (Zerkow, a Junkman), Frank Hayes (Old Grannis), Jack Curtis (McTeague’s Father), James F. Fulton (Cribbens, prospector), Hughie Mack (Mr. Heise), Jack McDonald (Gribbons), Fanny Midgley (Miss Baker), Tempe Piggott (McTeague’s mother), Joan Standing (Selina), Erich von Ritzau (Traveling Dentist, Dr. Potter), William Barlow (Minister), Lon Poff (Lottery Agent), Max Tryon (Uncle Oelbermann); Runtime: 140; MGM; 1925-silent)

“This version of Greed is a don’t miss one…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Erich von Stroheim meant this silent film completed in 1924 to run for nine-and-one-half hours but MGM forced him to cut it down which he did to four hours, but still not satisfied the studio hired a hack editor to help him cut the film down further but without von Stroheim’s approval. But, finally, von Stroheim did oblige them by cutting it down to two hours. The completed film as originally done is not recoverable as the studio burned its copy and if one is to believe von Stroheim, they got money for the silver nitrate in the film. Through the efforts of Rick Schmidlin, the producer of this reconstructed video, two hours worth of the film was recovered by using rephotographed stills, which were photographed by Warren Lynch; and, by dutifully following the director’s instruction, such as whether to zoom in for a shot or fade out, they preserved as much of the original film as possible. This successful project of reconstructing the epic masterpiece into the one von Stroheim co-edited with Rex Ingram from the original is a great accomplishment. These photograph replacements make for an acceptable four-hour production.

The film is based on Frank Norris’ intensely naturalistic 1899 novel “McTeague;” this version of it was recently shown on TCM.

Von Stroheim was determined to accurately recreate and recapture every detail of every page of the source material, which is the reason the film grew to unacceptable proportions for MGM’s studio executive, Irving Thalberg. The head of the studio, Louis B. Mayer, hated the idea of the film and was not pleased that it was made in the first place, so there would be no help forthcoming from him to save the project. Stroheim also insisted on authentic location shots around the San Francisco and Oakland areas and of filming the final sequence at Death Valley under the harshest conditions, causing camera equipment to be damaged and the loss of 26 pounds by Jean Hersholt who played the role of Marcus Schouler. All this did not endear the director to the cast or the film crew, as well as to the studio bosses, but the brilliant result he got from his method of filming makes all those expenses incurred and inconveniences seem irrelevant. It should be duly noted that the film in its butchered form was a box office flop when it finally opened, though the AFI film critics still listed it as one of their 100 best films.

“Greed” is about the oppressive forces that decay and corrupt three people – a beastly, uneducated man in turn-of-the-20th century San Francisco, John McTeague (Gibson Gowland); his miserly, vulgar wife, Trina (ZaSu Pitts); and, their friend, Marcus Schouler (Hersholt), who works in a dog hospital. All of whom are trapped by their debased passion and greed for gold. There is a subplot of another couple suffering from the same kind of material greed; a junk collector, Zerkow (Gravina) and his mentally unbalanced Mexican-American wife, who is a cleaning lady, junk collector, and lottery salesperson, Maria Miranda Macapa (Dale Fuller).

In the film’s prologue, it clearly states how the director intends to follow closely from the book, as the book’s opening is written onscreen:

“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 film begins in the Big Dipper Gold Mine, in Placer County, California, 1908, where McTeague’s cruel, womanizing, and drunken father (Curtis) works. When his father dies his mother (Piggott) opting for her son to have a better life talks a charlatan dentist, Dr. “Painless” Potter (von Ritzau), into taking her son on as an apprentice so he can have his own career eventually. When his mother passes away she leaves him $250 and he decides to start a dental practice on his own, in the working class area of Polk Street in San Francisco.

McTeague seems satisfied with his lot in life, not expecting much and not getting much in return. He has one close friend, Marcus, who is going out with his cousin Trina. When Trina falls at a picnic, chipping her tooth, Marcus takes her to his friend Mac. This is the first-time the inexperienced Mac feels anything for a woman and he instantly falls in love with her, kissing her when she is under ether and blaming his unethical breach of conduct on inheriting his father’s bad genes. When Marcus senses something is wrong with his relationship with Mac as they are seated at a boardwalk pub, he is surprised when Mac tells him that he fell in love with his cousin. After thinking hard about it Marcus decides to do Mac a favor and makes a big deal of his self-sacrifice of giving her up, by graciously letting him court Trina, saying now we will be friends forever.

The courtship involves Mac meeting Trina’s German mother (Ashton) and father (Conklin) and their twin boys (Oscar & Otto Gottell), all of whom like to go on picnics adorned with American flags. Mac becomes very involved with Trina but she puts off his sexual advances to her and his marriage proposals and when asked by her mother how she feels about him, tells her she doesn’t know how she feels about him.

Trina and Mac become engaged. The event is celebrated with a theater party attended by the family. We see them coming out of the theater excited about the show, as they each talk about what they liked best. Trina: “I liked the lady best…who sang those sad songs.” Mommer: “Der yodlers!” Mac: “The fellow who played ‘Nearer My God to Thee’…on the beer bottles.”

When they arrive home, the cleaning lady, Maria, who sold Trina her lottery ticket, informs her that she won $5,000. Marcus takes the news badly saying to himself, I got soldiered out of the money that should have been mine.

Trina and Mac get married a month later in the apartment that Mac rented for their future home. This is one sad and miserable marriage ceremony, with a funeral procession visibly going by in the street below. These unromantic signs being a harbinger of things to come. When they open their wedding presents the hateful Marcus, who refused to be best man and had his fists clenched during the entire ceremony gives a gift of a pocket watch to the bride only. Mac then shows his gift to her, as he removes the towel covering a gilded cage with two love-birds. Trying to conceal her disappointment, she forces out a sweet smile toward Mac. Her family is moving for good to Los Angeles in a few hours, as Trina feels despondent that she will not see them ever again.

The family all sit down and eat like pigs for the next two hours and then Trina tearfully clutches onto her mommer, not wanting her to leave as the mother tells the doctor to take good care of her girl and she tells her daughter to go to your husband. The two are alone at last with Trina frightened to be alone with him, as they awkwardly embrace and spend their first night together. This concludes the first part of the film.

Trina’s life soon becomes dominated by an obsession for money and she hoards every cent she gets in a trunk and refuses to spend her money on anything, and seems to enjoy only looking at her money and polishing it. The only thing she buys for Mac is a huge golden tooth for him to hang on the street to attract passers-by. She places the lottery winnings into her Uncle Oelbermann’s (Max Tryon) store, and draws interest from that account. Their three-years of marriage looms as a failure. We see how Trina becomes miserly and Mac is losing his love for her, as she diminishes him as a person and curtails his saloon drinking as his anger begins to grow. She refuses to part with any of her money, even to purchase an affordable house, which would give them some needed privacy. This turns out to be one cold marriage.

To add to the couple’s woes there is the hatred Marcus displays toward Mac, cursing him for stealing his girl and getting her money. He gets into a fight with Mac in their favorite saloon breaking his pipe and flinging a knife at his head.

When returning home, Trina tells him about a letter she received from her mommer asking for $50, which she says she can’t afford to give. Mac replies in amazement, telling her that she should help her mother out, telling her she is turning out to be real stingy. She tells him, if mommer really needs the money she will write again.

The relationship between Mac and Trina is barely tolerable at this point, though there are still some bursts of affection now and then. When Marcus comes to visit them at their home, this is after another wrestling fight they had at the picnic, they are both relieved that he tells them he is going good-bye for good leaving the area to do some cattle ranching downstate. Trina gasps, “Goodbye! That’s the best thing I ever heard Marcus say.”

Bad news comes when Mac receives a letter from the Board of Dental Examiners of California, informing him that because he never went to a recognized Dental College and does not have a license, that he is therefore prohibited from continuing to practice dentistry. They both realize that Marcus squealed to the Board and is responsible for putting Mac out of business.

Mac now can’t earn an income and rapidly goes downhill and Trina refuses to help him out, as Mac’s anger grows. With his failure, Trina reacts passionately for a moment, as submission suits her fancy. But she will not give him money or any kind of moral support. He will come home drunk from Frenna’s saloon, and all she could think of is where did he get the money to buy the drinks. A sign of things to come is when Maria is murdered by Zerkow, who then goes to the bay and commits suicide. He killed her because she mentioned she had solid gold plates and wouldn’t tell him where it was. Trina uses Maria’s death as an excuse to rent her run-down shack because the rent there is cheaper, to the dismay of Mac as the couple sinks to new lows.

Mac’s dislike for her grows as every day she becomes more stingy. Mac becomes a disheveled loafer, and increasingly acts more hostile toward her. There is no love left in him for her anymore. He will abandon her, stealing the few hundred dollars she saved in her trunk. When Mac wastes that money on whiskey he goes looking for Trina again, and finds that she has taken a job at a kindergarten school as a scrubwoman. He finds their wedding picture ripped in half in the garbage can in front of the school, where she is also living. When he tells her that he is starving, that he needs some money to buy food, she tells him she will give him nothing and that she can’t forgive him for stealing her money. Mac angrily enters the Christmas-decorated school and demands that she give him the five thousand dollars from the lottery. He repeatedly strikes Trina as she fights back, still refusing to give the money, preferring to die instead as he brutally murders her and flees back to the Big Dipper Gold Mine where his mother wanted him to escape from to get a better life.

Sensing that the police will be looking for him there Mac makes his way to Death Valley, where he hooks up with a prospector (Fulton); they find quartz in the desert, making them millionaires. But that joy is short-lived as a posse is on his trail and Marcus seeing his picture on a reward poster, vengefully goes after him ignoring the advice of the posse that it is impossible to cross the desert and come out alive. The posse decides not to go into Death Valley, but will wait for him by Gold Mountain if he makes it out of there. But Marcus will trail him some 100-miles inside Death Valley and in some of the most memorable movie shots ever as von Stroheim insisted on shooting in the summer, in the middle of the day when the sun was the strongest, the two arch enemies are marked for death having run out of water. Marcus gets the drop on him but the stronger Mac, even though he is hand-cuffed, will take the gun away from him and beat him savagely to death. In one last gesture of humanity Mac frees his caged canary, but the bird doesn’t have enough strength to fly away and falls dead on the sack of gold coins he robbed from Trina. The two die chained-together, as Mac’s last look is at the gold coins sparkling in the sun (the coins had been tinted bright gold for the movie).

Hollywood made a huge mistake in not following von Stroheim’s artistic way in making movies, instead opting for the box-office to determine a filmmaking project. They have gotten what they have sowed, as a Hollywood film today is generally considered to be an anti-art one.

This version of Greed is a don’t miss one — a Hollywood art film that was half-destroyed by them, yet still managed to somehow survive. Never has the greed for lucre been depicted in such a real way and in such a vicious and unrelenting manner. It hones in on the destruction of three lives for no other reason than over greed. The expressive acting by Pitts and Gowland shows each painfully searching for what burns inside them.