Greed: a film by Erich von Stroheim

Greed: a film by Erich von Stroheim is from the Classic Film Scripts series and was published in 1972. It contains the full shooting script of the original unedited movie, reviews and commentaries by the actors and cameramen involved with the picture, as well as a candid article by von Stroheim himself. As I had just watched the 239-minute partially restored version of the film the day before I started to read this book, and then watched the 133-minute general release that same evening, I was able to recall everything in the movie as I spent two weeks with this hefty script. At 352 pages this was also a weighty book as the paper was thick. 

I am glad I watched the longer version of the movie first, as I now feel that the shorter version (albeit the version that was released to the public) would have been harder to follow because of continuity issues. I say this in retrospect after having read the script for the original 8½-hour movie. With the 239-minute or four-hour version still fresh in my mind I was able to fill in the backstories with the script. The entire film made so much more sense with the added scenes in the script, such as the McTeagues’ deterioration from happy newlyweds to a miserly quibbling couple. This transformation was a slow evolution over the 8½ hours instead of the Jekyll and Hyde switch as depicted in the released print. Another detail found in the full script which was entirely cut out and not even included in the partially restored version depicted the reason Trina Sieppe needed to see the (impostor) dentist McTeague. She had been injured in an accident after she fell off a swing which her fiancé Marcus had been pushing. In both versions of the film I saw, she and Marcus simply showed up at McTeague’s dental office. The two subplots, one excised completely and the other almost entirely from the released print were fleshed out in the script. Only hints of each subplot were included in the partial 239-minute restoration. One unfortunate character, that of Zerkow the junkman, was cut out entirely in the released print, so the subplot involving him never even existed.

Von Stroheim had the propensity to refer to McTeague in stage directions using the words “stupid” or “stupidly”. Although I usually take notes to include passages of the text within my reviews, I knew that I could pick up the script and open it anywhere and without any great effort find such references, such as “The cashier roars and McTeague moves away, gazing stupidly at the blue pasteboard.” and “McTeague looks up and nods stupidly as Marcus and Trina walk over towards the door.”. The reader or movie viewer knows that despite being an unlicenced dentist McTeague is not the brightest of men and rather slow on the uptake. That said, the overuse of “stupid” made it seem as if von Stroheim wanted to portray him as an imbecile.

No matter what sources I have checked since seeing both versions of the film and reading the script, I could not find out how long the von Stroheim original was. Was it ten hours? The very first line about the shooting script states that it was ten hours. Or was it less than eight? Most sources claim 8½ hours. I recalled this inconsistency as I read the commentaries about shooting on location in Death Valley. Actor Jean Hersholt claimed that the temperature soared to 161°F, which is an exaggeration to say the least. Cameraman William Daniels wrote that it was 132°F in the shade and von Stroheim himself recalled that it was “142 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, and no shade.”. Only the Daniels claim seems plausible. 

Von Stroheim was a filmmaker schooled in realism; he shot “Greed” entirely on location in San Francisco and used no studio sets. The final scenes were set in Death Valley, which, in 1924, was not yet developed as a tourist destination. I myself have driven through Death Valley and even with roads and park offices it is still a desolate place that lives up to its name. The commentaries by those involved in the movie are most riveting when reading about these Death Valley scenes. Now that I have seen the movie I have to wonder if the horses, mules and canary actually died or were deliberately killed during the filming. The movie makes it seem as if the animals are genuinely suffering and I cannot imagine that in 1924 there were regulations in place to ensure humane treatment. 

The experience of reading the full script was an eye-opener, as I was given access to the editing room where I managed to “see” the entire film before bits of it were cut out and left on the floor. I want to watch the four-hour restoration again, now able to fill in the blanks with what I gleaned from the script.  

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