Silents are golden: A closer look – greed (1924)
With its deep, realistic story and large, almost operatic themes, Frank is Norris’ novel from 1899 McTeague is one of the great American books of the late 19th century. While many critics disliked it at the time because it was too “vulgar”, “depressing” or even “loathsome”, its powerful story left an impact on generations of readers.
One of these readers was the film director Erich von Stroheim. Born in Austria to a subordinate family, he came to America because he insisted on being descended from Prussian nobles and stuck to history like glue. He specialized in playing villainous “Huns” on screen during the propaganda-steeped era of World War I, and began directing in the late 1910s. Obsessed with military life and uniforms, he is said to sometimes even wear a Prussian uniform off-screen.
Von Stroheim’s films dealt cultivated with the topics of sex and seduction – often with himself in the role of a vicious seducer – and always liked to push the limits. He also pushed his studio budget to extremes and insisted on elaborate replicas of Monte Carlo or imperial Vienna. But when he decided to adapt McTeague To bring to the big screen, it was the idea of bringing his macabre story to life with humble, real-world settings that excited him.
The story is about the dentist McTeague, a tall, gentle, slow man who runs his small business from his San Francisco apartment. His friend Marcus, a self-confident cuddly guy, is engaged to Trina Sieppe, a sensitive, fluttering young woman. McTeague is very attracted to Trina and Marcus decides to “sacrifice” end things with her. Over time, McTeague and Trina marry, and through a strange stroke of luck, Trina discovers that she has won $ 5,000 in a lottery. For Marcus, who gets very jealous, this is not welcome news.
Despite their sudden fortune, the McTeagues live modestly and Trina becomes more and more obsessed with hoarding their winnings. She becomes a curmudgeon and a frustrated McTeague turns to drinking. Marcus takes revenge by telling the authorities that McTeague does not have a dentist license. And from then on it goes further downhill.
This dark plot naturally fascinated von Stroheim. His casting decisions were probably perfect: the husky Gibson Gowland, who played a mountain guide in von Stroheim’s hit Blind husbands (1919), was chosen to play McTeague. The Danish actor Jean Hersholt would play the sleazy Marcus Schouler. The fragile-looking ZaSu Pitts, who was known for comedy roles, would make an ideal Trina. And various other comedians have been selected for other roles, such as Dale Fuller, Chester Conklin and Frank Hayes. Von Stroheim had argued – correctly – that their comedic skills would help them excel in more dramatic roles.
He wanted to shoot his film in the same Polk Street neighborhood that Norris described, but found that it had been largely destroyed by the 1906 earthquake. But he searched hard until he found the perfect building with a large bay window to serve as McTeagues dental office on the corner of Hayes and Laguna. The waterfront and Shell Mount Park, the site of some memorable scenes, luckily remained unchanged, and other buildings around Hayes and Laguna were perfect for the shops, saloon, and junk shop described in the novel.
Von Stroheim threw himself body and soul into the shooting greed (he found the title a better fit with the operatic themes of the story) and became obsessed with capturing the novel as perfectly and realistically as possible. He could even recite passages from it McTeague from memory. His enthusiasm delighted his performers and also the audience who came to see the filming – the writer Eleanor Ross wrote an essay describing what it was like in the Hayes and Laguna building:
“It was strange how these people were talking about all of the characters in McTeague as if they really lived and breathed. In fact, they live and breathe, perhaps thanks to von Stroheim’s realism. “Knock again,” someone called. ‘Again! Again!’ The door opens; Marcus appears; they talk for a while; the door closes. But it has to be shot again. ‘Von Stroheim shot a scene twenty-six times,’ I was told, ‘because he didn’t like it.’ “
Sometimes the realism was even extended beyond the sets. In a scene where Trina discovers that a character has been murdered, Pitts took to the streets and hysterically informed innocent passers-by what had “happened” while the cameras were secretly rolling, causing several people to call the police. In a scene where McTeague and Marcus wrestle, Stroheim encourages Hershoult to bite Gowland’s ear so hard it bleeds to Gowland’s anger. Gowland managed to successfully fight back a knife being thrown at him in a key scene, even though the thrower was a seasoned professional.
But the most realistic were the Death Valley scenes, recorded – yes – Death Valley itself when the temperature rose above 120 degrees. The grueling shoot, during which crew members often suffered from exhaustion and heat stroke, was so miserable that von Stroheim allegedly had a pistol with him around the clock. Gowland and Hersholt actually had to crawl and fight on the blinding salt flats, clearly drenched in sweat and miserable on the screen. She is said to have yelled from Stroheim: “Fight! Struggle! Try to hate each other as you hate me! ”When filming finally ended, it took several weeks for Hersholt to regain health.
The result of the memorable production was an astonishing 42 rolls of film that were approximately nine hours long. It was apparently shown once to friends and reporters at MGM studios on January 12, 1924. Critic Idwal Jones described von Stroheim as “sitting motionless on a straight chair, stick in hand and staring straight ahead, as if drilling through the screen … fully developed, every comma in the book, so to speak.” Von Stroheim then added this mega-image shortened approx. 4 1/2 hours. Apparently von Stroheim had originally hoped it would be shown on two consecutive evenings or a longer session, but studio managers disagreed and his precious film was cut increasingly short until it ran around 10 reels.
did well, its reputation grew over the decades and today it is considered to be one of the best mufflers ever made. Fans often mourn the loss of the 42-reel version, which was almost certainly destroyed. Fortunately, the 4 ½ version was reconstructed today, with still preserved still images added to the film, so that we can at least get a good idea of Stroheim’s obsessive, manic-authentic vision.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of the articles on Leas Silents are Golden here.
Lea Stans is a born and raised Minnesota woman with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely attributes to Buster Keaton). Not only does she blog about her passion on her Silent-ology page, but she is also a columnist for them Quarterly silent film and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.