Greed

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(1924, directed by Erich von Stroheim)

- inducted 2019 –

"No other film in the history of cinema fills us with such a sense of both awe and loss. Loss because of what the characters go through during the film’s duration, but even more for the loss of the director’s original intention. Greed was butchered like no other film was butchered, and unlike many such films of the modern era, there is no chance of a director’s cut ever emerging. Von Stroheim’s masterpiece was edited down from well over a hundred hours of stock footage to an original length of 8 hours, from which it was cut to exactly seven for its premiere. When Irving Thalberg insisted he cut it down to a commercial length, Von Stroheim sent it to another artist on the MGM roster, his friend Rex Ingram, whose editor Grant Whytock helped him cut it down to 3 hours. Refusing to cut any more, Ingram handed it back, but it was then further cut by June Mathis to 2, as it survives to this day. It’s amazing it still stands as a masterpiece.

“The story is made into a tragedy of human despair and greed worthy of Hugo and Zola, as we follow McTeague from his beginnings in a gold mine in 1908 to his being sent away by his mother to learn dentistry from a charlatan. Setting up in San Francisco, he comes to know Marcus, who introduces him to Trina, a delicate young girl whose teeth he fixes. Marrying her, their life is thrown into turmoil when Trina wins an illegal lottery and she hoards the money from husband and friend alike, while McTeague is slowly driven to madness and violent retribution.

“Von Stroheim always said he could never cheat the audience, and so he sent crews out to film on location in San Francisco, even shooting the interiors on location. It certainly led to a realism that was rare for this period (as in the sequence where his dentist’s office looks out over the street and we see the trolley car taking Trina away from him go past the surgery window). More impressive still is his visual command, from the contrasts of the gloomy interior of the goldmine to the green splendor of the surrounding forests and to the final immortal sequences in Death Valley. Shot on location in temperatures pushing 125 degrees, with actors and crew alike almost driven mad, Von Stroheim gave us the most savagely ironic of endings, one ingrained on the psyche of American cinema itself. Yet this is only one of many great sequences; who can forget the incredibly dark, forbidding and almost funereal wedding ceremony, or the dissolves into glorious richness as Pitts dreams of her golden gains?

“Much of the credit here must go to his crew, particularly the photography of Daniels and Reynolds, but the performances are equally grand in stature. Gibson Gowland’s Mac is one of the great silent performances, full of a repressed anger and horrific in the way he is slowly driven to domestic violence and murder, and Jean Hersholt, too, was never better than as the ultimately treacherous and doomed friend Marcus. But topping all in the memory is ZaSu Pitts’ Trina, refusing her husband sexual favours, hair rolled up like a turban, rolling her eyes and rubbing her hands with avaricious glee at her hoarded wealth, literally stripping off into bed to roll around naked, to feel the cold touch of the coins on her skin. As one caption says, ‘gold was her master’, and as long as such monetary lust exists in the world, Greed will continue to astound and amaze. A four-hour version with two hours of still footage was released in the late nineties, and it only serves to whet our appetite for the lost masterpiece, the greatest film probably ever made and lost, slithered away like gold dust through a prospector’s sieve.” ~ Sam Juliano

Principal cast: ZaSu Pitts, Gibson Gowland, Jean Hersholt, Dale Fuller, Tempe Pigott, Silvia Ashton, Chester Conklin, Joan Standing, with an uncredited appearance by Erich von Stroheim
Screen adaptation and scenario by June Mathis and Erich von Stroheim
Based on the novel McTeague by Frank Norris
Director of photography: William H. Daniels, Ben F. Reynolds
Settings by Cedric Gibbons
Film editing by Jos. W. Farnham
Produced by Irving Thalberg (uncredited)
Original music by William Axt, Leo Kempinski (both uncredited)
Titles by Joseph Farnham (uncredited)
Additional photography by Ernest B. Schoedsack (uncredited)
Presented by Louis B. Mayer

1999 reconstruction credits:
Produced by Kevin Brownlow, David Gill
Film editing by Glenn Morgan
Editorial consultant: Carol Littleton
Score by Carl Davis and Robert Israel

USA
Duration: 140 minutes (1924 cut) / 239 minutes (1999 reconstruction)
Languages: Silent with English Titles
Filmed in black and white, color (Handschiegel Color)
Sound mix: silent
Cinematographic process: Spherical
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Printed film format: 35mm

Produced and released in USA by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Premiered in New York City on December 4, 1924

Awards and honors:
- National Film Registry selection, 1991
- Selected as one of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies”

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