Greed: The Lost Masterpiece

The following is an article from Uncle John's Endlessly Engrossing Bathroom Reader.

For film director Eric von Stroheim, bringing his favorite novel to the big screen was a work of passion, but it would nearly undo his career. The story is as epic as any classic movie, even if the final product itself is lost to history.


Loosely based on a real-life San Francisco murder, Frank Norris’ 1899 novel McTeague was all about the destructive power of greed. The main plot: Marcus is engaged to Trina, a German immigrant. One day, Trina falls off a swing and chips a tooth, so Marcus takes her to see his friend McTeague, an unlicensed dentist. Despite Marcus’s objections to gambling (because he can’t afford to play), Trina wins a massive fortune in an underground lottery. They fight, and Trina leaves Marcus for McTeague. But she hoards her money, lives like a pauper, and turns into a hag. Out of jealousy, Marcus gets McTeague's dental practice shut down. McTeague has no way of making a living, but Trina still won’t share with him, either. So McTeague kills her.

The nearly 500-page novel takes place over two decades, features dozens of other characters and subplots, recurring motifs, and lengthy physical descriptions of the characters and the seedy San Francisco neighborhood in which they live. The many subtle touches and countless details would make it a hard book to turn into a movie, but silent film director Eric von Stroheim knew he could do it.


Von Stroheim emigrated from Vienna to the United States in 1909 at age 24, and after a few years of odd jobs found work as a crewman in the 1914 silent film epic The Birth of a Nation. He parlayed that job into a stint as an actor in World War I-era silent films, playing loathsome German military captains. Von Stroheim’s portrayals of evil Germans were so popular that his films were marketed as “Starring Eric von Stroheim, the man you love to hate.” In The Heart of Humanity, for example, von Stroheim’s character tears off a nurse’s uniform with his teeth and throws a crying baby out a window.

But by 1916 the jingoism he’d helped spread backfired on him- Germans were so hated in the United States during and immediately after World War I that von Stroheim couldn’t get work anymore (even though he wasn’t really German- he was Austrian). With no acting work being offered to him, the former movie star was reduced to renting a room in a boarding house in New York City. In his room, he found an old, beat up copy of McTeague left by a previous tenant. The book struck a nerve, especially in how McTeague had suddenly lost his means of employment when others turned on him. Von Stroheim vowed to himself that he’d make a movie out of the book someday.

A few months later, he got a break; D.W. Griffith, director of Birth of a Nation, asked him to co-star in his latest movie, Intolerance. So von Stroheim headed for the world’s emerging film capital- Hollywood, California.


Intolerance was von Stroheim’s ticket back to the movie business. The anti-German sentiment died down enough to where he acted in a dozen more silent movies. They were commercial hits, so in 1919 Universal Pictures allowed him to direct a script he’d written, called Blind Husbands. It, too, performed well at the box office, so Universal let him direct more movies. But von Stroheim was a self-styled artist who refused to compromise his artistic vision. Shots ran long, dozens of takes were required -von Stroheim would do whatever it took to get exactly what he wanted. Result: his movies went way over budget.

To rein him in, Universal hired a new studio head, 21-year-old Irving Thalberg. For their first film together, Foolish Wives, Thalberg gave von Stroheim a $250,000 budget. Despite Thalberg’s attempt to penny-pinch, von Stroheim managed to spend $1.25 million. Halfway through production of von Stroheim’s next film, 1923’s Merry-Go-Round, Thalberg decided he was still spending too much money, so he fired him. Von Stroheim signed with rival studio Metro-Goldwyn.

Thalberg’s method at Universal was to make cheap, profitable movies. At Metro-Goldwyn, executives believed they  could make commercial movies and turn a profit while allowing directors to make the movies they wanted to make (as long as they stated under budget). So, seven years after he first discovered the book, von Stroheim pitched his idea of adapting McTeague to the studio bosses. They gave him the go-ahead with only one condition: He had to retitle it Greed.

Hoping to make the most of his artistic freedom, but also hoping to avoid pushing his bosses at Metro-Goldwyn too far, von Stroheim had to make sure he had enough money to make the Greed he wanted, so he supplemented the movie’s budget with his own personal funds. To get the money, he took out a second mortgage on his house and sold his car. To further lower costs, he took a pay cut. Although contracted to write, direct, and edit the picture, he accepted only a small fee for editing -two week’s scale salary.


Have you ever watched the movie version of a novel you read, and found yourself disappointed because too much had been left out? That’s pretty much a necessity- a book contains far more material than can be included in a two-hour film. Von Stroheim didn’t want that to be the case with Greed. He wanted to include everything -every subplot, every line of dialogue, every piece of furniture and physical trait present in the novel. That would be an extremely ambitious concept today, but this was 1923- color film, special effects, and even sound were not yet available.

So in striving for realism and staying absolutely faithful to the book, von Stroheim had to innovate: He filmed on location, which was seldom done in 1923. (Greed was the first feature film ever made without any sets or sound stages.) The bulk of the action takes place in and around McTeague’s apartment in San Francisco, so von Stroheim rented a dilapidated house there and furnished it with run-down furniture exactly as Norris’ book described. To get a better sense of their characters, von Stroheim even made his actors live in the house. He also insisted that scenes that took place in Death Valley, the hottest place in North America, be shot there. During filming, the temperature reached a blazing 142 degrees. Jean Hersholt, who portrayed Marcus, was hospitalized for internal bleeding triggered by dehydration.


It took von Stroheim nine months and $500,000 to make Greed- 18 times longer and five times more expensive than most movies of the time. But it was worth it to von Stroheim: Every minuscule detail of all 496 pages of McTeague was present in Greed. As a final touch, to emphasize the recurring themes of wealth and greed, von Stroheim hand-painted the actual film, using gold paint to color every gold object in the movie.

The director had made his masterpiece, but there was one big problem: It was more than nine hours long. No movie studio in Hollywood would release a movie that long, not even one that let directors do what they wanted. Von Stroheim realized he’d have to abandon his original vision of McTeague… and chop it down to a more manageable length.

But first he held a private screening of the complete, “true” Greed for his friends, family, and a few reporters. Exactly 12 people saw the nine-hour film in its first showing. It was also the only screening ever made of the full film. Those 12 people are the only ones who ever saw von Stroheim’s masterpiece the way he intended it to be seen. And they loved it.


But in April 1924, there were big changes at Metro-Goldwyn Studios. Lowe’s Theaters bought the company. They also bought Mayer-Schulberg Studios, and merged them into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Former Mayer-Schulberg chief Louis B. Mayer was appointed head of production, and he did not share Metro-Goldwyn’s “the director rules” approach. He shared Thalberg’s philosophy: Make a movie fast and cheap with a producer overseeing expenses. In fact, Mayer hired Thalberg -von Stroheim’s nemesis at Universal- to enforce these new rules.

Von Stroheim, meanwhile, still had a movie to finish. He carefully edited Greed, somehow getting the running time down to four hours with most of the plot, subplots, and themes intact. He sent the four-hour cut to his friend, editor Rex Ingram, asking if he could recommend anything else to delete. Ingram removed an hour, then sent the film back to von Stroheim with a note reading, “If you cut one more foot I shall never speak to you again.”


Von Stroheim presented the three-hour version to Mayer… who didn’t even watch it. Instead, he passed it off to a staff editor with instruction to cut it down to an even 120 minutes. The two-hour Greed was a completely different movie from the nine-hour, the four-hour, or even the three-hour Greed. According to Film Monthly magazine, it “turned a tragedy rich with telling detail into a bare outline.”

The two-hour Greed concentrates exclusively on McTeague (Gibson Gowland), Trina (Zasu Pitts), and Marcus. Most of the many subplots and characters were eliminated. Here’s a taste of some elements that were in Norris’ novel and filmed by von Stroheim, but completely removed from the final film:

* McTeague’s backstory, showing his early life, growing up in mining towns, and how he learned dentistry.

* Two old people who live in an apartment near McTeague’s. They fall in love over the course of the film- a counterpoint to the slow destruction of McTeague and Trina’s relationship.

* A subplot concerning Maria, a greedy junk collector who sells Trina the fateful lottery ticket. Her boyfriend, Zerkow, marries her because he believes she has a secret stash of gold dishes worth a fortune. When Zerkow discovers they are made of tin, he kills Maria and then kills himself by jumping into San Francisco Bay. (The actor playing Zerkow actually jumped into the San Francisco Bay during filming and contracted pneumonia.)


Contractually obligated to screen it somewhere, Mayer debuted the film in a single New York theater during the Christmas season of 1924. A blunt tragedy about the dark side of humanity is not the kind of movie people want to see at Christmas and, predictably, Greed bombed at the box office. For tax purposes, MGM wrote off the production costs -$500,000- as a total loss.

But was the full nine-hour Greed ever smuggled out of MGM? Later in his life, von Stroheim claimed he’d screened it personally in Argentina during World War II, and that he’d given a print to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. And there’s a rumor that David Shepherd of the American Film Institute supposedly found it in a garage several decades later, but it’s untrue- the uncut Greed is on AFI’s list of most wanted lost films.

As for von Stroheim, he made an interesting comeback. In the 1930s, after the Greed debacle and a few more box office bombs, he moved to France, where he starred in Jean Renoir’s 1937 classic, La Grande Illusion. Then, in 1950, director Billy Wilder cast him in Sunset Boulevard, which reflects on the broken careers of giants of the silent film era. Von Stroheim portrayed Max von Mayerling, one of the “three great silent film directors” next to Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith, now reduced to working as the butler for his ex-wife, silent film star Norma Desmond. He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Sunset Boulevard, and appeared in seven more films before he died in 1957 at the age of 72.


As far as anyone knows, the nine-hour Greed -more specifically, the seven hours of cut footage- really is gone. Irving Thalberg later told reporters that the missing footage was melted down for its valuable silver content (photographic film contains tiny silver salt crystals). There probably was only one print of the full version- von Stroheim’s working copy. MGM certainly wouldn’t have paid for duplicates if Mayer had no intention of ever using them.

Von Stroheim’s masterpiece did eventually see the light of day… sort of. In 1999 film preservationist Rick Schmidlin set out to restore and recreate Greed as much as possible. Taking the existing footage and 650 surviving production stills, with von Stroheim’s screenplay as a guide, Schmidlin reconstructed a four-hour version believed to be, based on von Stroheim’s production and editing notes, very close to the director’s four-hour cut. It aired on Turner Classic Movies in December 1999. If you didn’t see it then, you may never see it. Just as the nine-hour and four-hour versions are lost forever, Schmidlin’s take is not available on DVD.

(YouTube link)


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Endlessly Engrossing Bathroom Reader.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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