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Stroheim's Slaughtered Masterpiece
on August 31, 2004
Erich von Stroheim (the aristocratic 'von' tacked on by Stroheim himself) was a demanding director with a passion for perfection and an unforgiving eye for detail. His scripts typically included precise notes for camera angles and intricate descriptions of even the most minute of actions. Stroheim's persona reflected his attention to appearance and detail. He favored close military haircuts, precise military manners, a stiff Viennese accent, and affected for himself a privileged background. In truth, his father, a Prussian Silesian, was listed on Stroheim's birth certificate as a maker and seller of hats, and his mother, of Czech origin born in Prague, was neither a lady-in-waiting to the Empress nor a baroness as Stroheim preferred to pretend she was.
Aristocratic or not, von Stroheim favored BIG pictures and spent BIG producing them. He worked very hard at them too, invariably toiling late into the night to ascertain every of his exactly-plotted details came off perfectly. All told, Stroheim's output numbered just nine films, all but the last silent, and he served as a director for a rather brief span of time ~ between 1919 and 1932 ~ before returning to Europe to resume an acting career (monocle-wearing Nazis and other heavies). Of Stroheim's films, one was never released, two were finished by others, one was stopped during production and released incomplete, two were taken from him during post-production and slaughtered (von Stroheim referred to the released version of GREED as 'the skeleton of my dead child'), two others received rather more minor cuts ordered by the studio, and one was released intact.
GREED was von Stroheim's tour-de-force. It's said that he was so enamored of the book McTEAGUE by Frank Norris (of the American naturalist-realist school) he became determined to film every last word of it, including commas and periods. Certainly he went way overboard in budget, shooting forty-seven reels ~ more than 8 hours of viewing time ~ in the making of it. However, the forty-seven reels were never intended to be seen by a paying audience; these were pre-director's cuts.
When the shooting was completed in December 1923, Stroheim invited a hand-picked few to a private showing of forty-five reels of his masterpiece ~ a showing that lasted from 10:30 in the morning until 8:00 that night. Stroheim then presented to the Goldwyn Company 42 reels of his work, and was promptly requested to cut it to a more reasonable length, wherein he obliged by further reducing it to 24 reels. Still too long, so with the help of his friend Rex Ingram, Stroheim produced an 18-reel version he planned to release in two parts, 18 reels being the minimum length in which he felt justice for McTEAGUE could be done. The studio, unconvinced, turned the material over to June Mathis, story editor at Goldwyn, who trimmed Stroheim's final cut of 24 reels to 10 reels and gave it the title GREED. In December 1924, following the merger, MGM released the Mathis version. None too pleased, Stroheim argued for months with producer Irving Thalberg and MGM head Louis B. Mayer about the removed footage, raging '[June Mathis] had read neither the book nor my script, yet was ordered to cut it'.
In his quest for ultra-realism in GREED, Stroheim bought out entire blocks of property in downslidden neighborhoods, forcing his actors to live on these blocks so that they might gain insight into such a lifestyle. Stroheim insisted on filming a murder scene in GREED at a place where a murder actually occurred (and who watching the scene would know this unless it was pointed out?) The climactic final scenes were shot in Death Valley during the hottest part of the summer of 1923, forcing more than a few crew members into outright mutiny, and almost destroying the equipment in the process (in order to function the cameras had to be wrapped in icewater-soaked cloths). Wildly outrageous stories circulated about von Stroheim, including that he once insisted on waiting for chimney smoke to blow in a certain direction before continuing with a scene (untrue). However, this brand of fanaticism earned him the title 'The Man You Love To Hate'.
Despite the massive cuts, GREED remains a HUGE story. Powerful, startlingly honest, brutal, unrelentingly bleak, tragic ~ the characters in this story are rawboned and real. McTeague (Gibson Gowland) is a man ruled by his passions, his wife Trina (Zasu Pitts) is driven frighteningly insane through her obsession with money, McTeague's friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt) is a miserable scheming villain. In the 'reconstructed' version we are introduced to a Mexican housekeeper Maria (Dale Fuller), whose cherished childhood dream ultimately costs her life, and a greedy junk dealer (Cesare Gravina), and a subplot involving a quietly amorous older couple. GREED retains several searing scenes of violence and depravity, and builds to an unforgettable climax. Several websites are devoted to discussions of the plot and subplots and symbolisms within GREED ~ the pre-cut complete version, the Brownlow version, and the 75th anniversary 'reconstructed' version; a simple search should get you started. It's fascinating information, well worth the effort of anyone interested in the history of this legendary film.
From forty-seven reels down to 10 ... and still for sheer size and scope, no silent film rivals GREED. You might well ask, what happened to all that sliced stock? According to Stroheim, the film was melted down for its silver content. Although ~ and who can fault them? ~ several film enthusiasts and experts still hold out hope for the discovery of yet a few more reels of what remains 'The Holy Grail' of lost film footage.